Royal Belum Rainforest ~ Perak Malaysia


NEWSFLASH ! Once again, the tussle between economics and environment is turning out that environment is losing the battle. Logging has now crept into the Temenggor area and loggers are happily at work, turning 170million year old rainforests to hardwood material for ever hungry consumers in Asia, Japan, The USA and Europe. Precious research areas are being torned down to make cheap furniture and toothpicks - all disposable, all dispensable. The rainforest wont be growing back anytime soon especially when the rain sets in and washes away the top soil. All we will have is a scar and what may be even worse - more palm oil plantations or acacia forest plantations. Monotone will be the landscape soon if we dont voice out our concerns. You can in fact do that. Have a read about the situation at Temenggor and Belum area at www.mns.org.my

Total coverage of the forest reserve is reported to be about 290,000 hectares. The Belum area is divided into lower and upper sections.The Upper Belum area covers 117,500hectares of inpenetrable jungle which stretches into the Thai-Malaysian border. This vast jungle patch acts as a natural barricade and is gazetted a security zone. Belum and Temenggor reserve parks have been left pretty much intact because the State of Perak has decided to preserve the area as a permanent nature reserve for research. The Upper Belum is of 90% virgin forest whereby the lower half is generally covered by secondary forest. That's a lot of good jungle cover to research on!!!

Much of our prescribed medicines were distilled from herbs and plants. Researchers from all over the world are racing against time to find cures for diseases and ailments such as

Cancers, Alzheimer's, Parkinsons, Meningitis etc. They believe the elixir is locked in the secrets of the rainforest plants. But rainforests are being cut down at such astonishing rates, we may one day destroy the Garden of Eden hidden within and destroy all hopes of cures for our diseases.

Belum, belum, beluuuummm! This is the sound made by a large grasshopper that makes it home in the jungle. Hence, the name. Although most of the adventure packages will take you through secondary forests, there are areas in Lower Belum that is pegged with huge Meranti, Cengal, Keruing and Merbau species. These are names of rainforest hardwoods that are becoming increasingly rare. The rainforest soil is surprisingly poor in nutrients.

Numerous streams and brooks bring fresh water from the hills into the lake

Once an area is exposed, the remaining nutrients in the soil easily leaches away and what lies underneath is clay and sand. If you have the time, try digging into the earth. The black, rich soil covers only the top thin layer, underneath is a desert of lifeless base. It is a wonder that anything can grow at all. But it does. This unfaultable ecosystem has been thriving and weathering changes for over 150million years. Many of the large hardwoods you may see around you have survived 150 to 600years of weathering. That is already a heritage worth saving.

Belum is rich beyond any comprehension. But how can it be? Many would not be able to identify with the importance of this ecosystem. Many people see the jungle as unkempt backyards that need to be tidied and cleaned up so that we can use it as another playground or work space. That is exactly what happens to many of our pockets of jungles, let's hope that life will be sustained at Belum!

Treasures

guide showing us the variety of plants and herbs collected for research

Treasures may not always be there glistening for all to see. The real treasures are always hidden and it takes a while to find. After our boat ride round the lake and the trek to the salt lick, we ended up at another Orang Jahai village, where we were introduced to the head of the village. He was happy to see our guide for he had lots of treasures for him. We were a little puzzled as to what he was to do next. The headman dragged out a bulging gunnysack from under the bamboo hut and turned the sack inside out.

‘Your loot’, he said. The guide was delighted. Tied up in neat bundles, were all sorts of vegetation harvested from the area. These plants looked pretty ordinary to us. Some lianas, several types of roots, leaves, bulbs…looked like someone had just cleared his garden of weeds. These, we were told, each contained powers of healing. The plants were medicinal herbs that have been collected and used by the orang asli for generations. All types of ailments could be ‘fixed’. Even love potions can be arranged…with a dash of ‘cenuai’ to complete the potion. Not to mention the tongkat ali and the rafflesia buds.

We were transfixed. We were awed. We were reduced to mere goggled-eyed schoolgirlies...

But what of the Rafflesia?

These are rafflesia buds, becoming extremely rare as they are harvested by the orang asli and sold to villages for a mere few ringgit. The locals boil it to remedy the womb.

The Rafflesia is a strange plant…. the fact that when it is in bloom, it stinks to high heaven, gives enough weight. Unlike other plants, there are no leaves to process carbon dioxide and sunshine into sugar and oxygen.

There are no roots to soak up water and minerals from the earth to manufacture into proteins. What is found are long strands of tissue-like filaments that penetrate the vines of the host plant. Host plant? Well, yes…. Rafflesia is a parasite which means that it doesn’t need to make its own nutrients. It just sucks the nutrient out of its host which is, another plant. The large fleshy flower is what we usually notice. This is the flower’s sexual organ, sometimes found sitting on an overhead vine or usually languishing in the damp forest floor below. The reddish brown colour of the petals, sprinkled with white freckles exudes a most unpleasant stench, similar to rotting flesh or carrion. Some believe that the stench attracts flies and other insects which help disperse its seeds. Others believe that large animals could be agents for this seed dispersal. In order for the seed to germinate, it was found that the vine of the host plant must be damaged in some way so that the filaments of the seed may infiltrate successfully. The damage to the host vines could be made by trampling hoofs of large animals. The seeds adhere to the passing animals’ hoofs and are transported to other places where they can find host plants to attach to. This cannot be disproved or proved. However, it is found that the flowers most often occur in big game areas and less in other areas.

Sir Stamford Raffles. photo courtesy of arkib negara malaysia

There is even more to tell of its ‘discovery’ and its claim to fame as the largest flower on earth. In the year 1818, Sir Stamford Raffles was posted as Governor to Bencoolen in Sumatra which was then, the administrative centre for the British East India Company for Western Sumatra. Raffles’ interest in natural sciences was insatiable. A respected and popular member of the Royal Society in London, Raffles arranged and persuaded a fellow society member - Dr.Joseph Arnold to accompany him on an expedition into the interiors of Sumatra. It was on one of these expeditions that they stumbled on a discovery which was to puzzle botanists for a long time. Unfortunately, Dr Arnold died too soon of jungle fever, before presenting the report to the society. The new found flower was given the scientific name, 'Rafflesia arnoldii',in honour of the two gentlemen.

Endangered wildlife

Indigenous people have lived in harmony with the jungle, can we?

The gene pool of our most precious wildlife remains safe in Belum. There are an estimated 60-70 tigers roaming around in Belum, the Seladangs survive here in groups of single males and their harems; and the Sumatran Rhinos are estimated at 160 individuals. Elephants live in large tight knit families, binturongs come out at night, Malayan sun bears scale trees for huge honey combs and serow hide away in the limestone hills. The wild fishing cats sit patiently for its food to swim down the streams as the wild cat crouch in thick undergrowth. The leopard cats, clouded leopards, black panthers, vipers, flying foxes, 200 species of colourful birds, otters, porcupines, armadillos, reptiles, dholes - these are only a small number of animals species that share the space.

But for how long? The danger faced in Belum is not the loss of habitat but the dangers of excessive poaching. Policing in the area is restricted because of lack of personnel to protect the vast reserve. The threat of local poachers and those from Thailand is ever present. Wildlife trafficking is becoming a serious problem and more so for the meat and exotic pet market.

A recent report in the local media highlighted an increase in the number of game meat restaurants in city suburbs. It was noted that a particular restaurant in KL had a collection of endangered species or parts of them, on their menu. Bear paws, fishing cats, a serow head, flying foxes, wild boars, monitor lizards, armadillos, snakes, civet cats are common on the menu. An illegal shipment to Vietnam, containing over 1000 frozen armadillos was exposed by a group of custom officers at the Klang docks in early April 2002. These animals are a favourite local delicacy and sold openly at markets in Vietnam. These harmless creatures are also poached for their scales which are sold as guitar picks! Snakes and tortoises have been found smuggled in lorries and trucks crossing borders for the food market. Even Slow Loris' have been found drugged, packed into small cylindrical containers and stashed in the holds bound for countries like Russia. Too many loopholes in the system will one day deplete the gene pool of many of our endangered species...and that day is not far away.

The realm of the tiger

The poor tiger, hunted down by villagers and poachers. Courtesy of Arkib Negara

In October 2001, the Sultan of Perak - Sultan Azlan Shah made an official visit to Upper Belum.. Having heard reports estimating at least 60 - 70 tigers roaming the area of Belum, Sultan Azlan Shah declared the area, ‘the land of Malayan Tigers’ in hope that their rights be preserved in these lands.

The Malayan Tiger (Panthera tigris corbetti), is our hope for a new lease of life. In India, the Indian Tigers frequently come into contact with villagers hence they are aware of the dangers that humans pose to them. However, the tigers in our jungles seldom if ever,come into contact with humans. Once you step into their territory, they assume that you are fair game to them. They attack with no qualms and do not fear firearms. Protecting territory is an instinct. We do that too, so what's so difficult to understand? But do we have the right to eliminate one of God's creation to protect another?

Although the symbol of the regal tiger is used in countless ways - as corporate logos or branding, integrated into the emblems of countries(such as in the official emblem of our nation) but this highly revered beast is also now increasingly being hunted down as pests.

In the 1920’s when Malaya was almost entirely covered in jungle, the tiger was man’s no.1 enemy. Villagers were afraid to leave their homes at night for fear that they may be ambushed along the way by a hungry tiger or worse….by a were-tiger. Stories were rife in the old days of these half human-half beasts that lived among the people. At night, when the time was right…. these humans turned into tigers terrorising villagers in their wake.

So petrified were the villagers, it began a common practice that hunters were brought in to rid territorial tigers. One such man was Colonel A. Locke. However, unlike other gamehunters, Colonel Locke never hunted for the sake of hunting nor killed for the sake of killing. As a District Officer in the rural areas of Terengganu, Colonel’s job was to rid the area of any sort of enemy to the people whether they be communist terrorists or man-eating tigers. Otherwise, he had admirable respect for the beast.

As he wrote in his book ( The Tigers of Terengganu), ‘ I sat over kills with Malays and spent hours discussing tigers with them. Eventually, I became so engrossed in these absorbing animals that the opportunity to study them assumed greater importance than the need to shoot them, although shoot them I did when I must.’ (1954)

In the early 1930's, village women were taught to handle rifles by the authorities to protect themselves and the village against communists and perhaps the tiger. Courtesy of Arkib Negara Malaysia

This was how the villagers and rangers used to rid them of tigers until recently. The Malays use spring gun, pit trap, live trap, poison and snare to kill tigers. Those tigers injured in the process but managed to escape become highly dangerous as they turn to livestock and people for food. This happens also when the tiger is a mother with cubs, too old or too sickly. The problem that the local villagers have to understand is that livestock and people are easy game to the tigers. Many villagers send their cattle out to pasture by the edge of the jungle and sometimes do not herd them back to their stables in the evenings hence exposing them to the dangers of the night. Like many of the rainforest animals, the tiger comes out to feed when it is dark. Rubber tappers have fallen victim to the tigers for they come out to tap the rubber trees just before break of dawn, the tiger’s most active hours. Until year 2001, those tigers labelled man-eater or even as a cattle thief,were usually hunted down.

With more awareness and recognition for the beasts, the wildlife department are beginning to trap these tigers to relocate them to zoos. It’s slightly better than shooting them on the spot but another problem is posed - over crowding at zoos. Because research to relocate them to other reserve parks have not been conducted, it is not certain if translocation is a good idea as encroachment into other tiger territories may create greater problems. So, their future remains uncertain.

Tigers kill and maim for two reasons only….food and territory. Which would you fall under if you find yourself face to face with a tiger? It really doesn’t matter as it doesn’t matter to the beast either. Well, I fib. There have been rare occasions when a tiger has been known to kill more than one in one hunt. It has been said that young tigers may kill several animals at one time to show off his skill and strength. However, this act is not usual.

The tiger kill with their teeth and not by slashing with their forepaws. It jumps onto the back of the animal, gripping onto the head, shoulder or neck with their sharp, sickle-shaped claws as the beast try desperately to shake off the predator. (This is only for large kills like the elephant or gaur). It then sinks its teeth into the neck close to the head and holds the animal until it fades away. Once down, the kill is moved to a sheltered eating place. The tiger prefers to dine alone although many people mistake the pawprints around the area of the kill to be of two tigers. (the front paws of the tiger are much bigger than the hind paws - hence the confusion). There have been incidents when trekkers in the Jerangau area in Pahang (a long time ago before the logging began) used to stumble on tiger dens in thick bushes along the river. Often the area would be littered with wild boar bones and bits of hide. Tigers do not eat the inerts or entrails of a kill, nor the skin. These are left to the monitor lizards to feed on.

sunset is when the hunting begins

The tiger begins its meal, buttocks first. If you happen to come across a carcass in the jungle, you may be able to tell a tiger kill from the claw marks and the method of killing. The tiger will not hesitate to eat flesh that has been left rotting. A full grown tiger may eat as much as 40lbs at a meal and even scavenge when they have to. Colonel Locke states, ‘ I have heard of a tigress making unusual blowing noises when eating from a dead buffalo of which little is left than a seething mass of maggots and have no doubt that she was blowing to clear the grubs from her nostrils.’ (Excerpt taken from ‘Tigers of Terengganu: A.Locke; MBRAS). Unlike the Indian tiger who has a vast choice of cuts from all types of hoofed wildlife, the Malayan tiger’s main diet is the wildboar. It is not unusual to find tigers chewing on frogs and even on large insects. A recent newspaper even reported that a couple of tigers were spotted by a local orchard owner feasting on durians at his orchard!!!! (The Star, 2nd July 2002) This certainly shows that the area is too small for the tigers to hunt and they are looking for alternative food source. For the Malayan Tiger to survive, it must have a healthy stock of wild boar in its territory.

The overall population of tigers in Malaysia is currently totalled between 491 -510(survey conducted by the DWNP). The threat of habitat loss has also increased tiger activities in areas. Records of livestock predation (DWNP) from 1977 to 1997 showed that 1,531 cattle, 54 buffaloes, 89 goats, 175 sheep, 2 horses and 6 dogs were killed by tigers in Pahang, Perak, Terengganu and Kelantan. Most of these attacks occurred in palm oil plantations. This is no wonder. Ever had the most unfortunate opportunity to ‘run into’ cows or sheep whilst driving through the coastal and rural roads of Malaysia? Well, most of us have, and we wonder why that happens.

The need to protect these tigers is not an obligation, it is a priority. What with the poaching and the habitat destruction, these big cats will soon be extinct and what of it if the only reminder of its existence is in the brands of products we use. What good is that?

For more on saving our tigers, click to http://www.5tigers.org.

For more pressing news on the undecided fate of tigers in Malaysia, click to http://www.wwf.org.my . What can we do?

For kids to learn and get involved in tiger conservation click to: http://tigers.panda.org/

To know more about the programme conducted in Malaysia to help save the tigers: http://www.wcsmalaysia.org/t4t.htm

The future of the Belum Valley

It is estimated that there are at least 60 salt licks scattered around the Belum area. The salt licks are important for the animals’ wellbeing and there is a potential for the operators to develop certain areas for eco-tourism. However, these plans must be researched extensively because it has been proven that introduction of people to the area will cause the animals to flee from their usual waterholes and saltpans, which has happened in Taman Negara. The animals are sensitive to new things and new things must be paced in slowly.Eco-tourism is simply not a buzzword, and it needs the cooperation of everyone including the tourists, the wildlife department and even the NGOs. And this starts with the protection of the wildlife and flora of that area. With that sort of cooperation - then there will be a better future.

best time to go

Try to avoid the rainy season as it may get a bit too challenging to trek. The wetter months are May-October, although we get rain all year round.

getting there

By car

From Kuala Lumpur, take the north-south highway and head north towards Ipoh. Passing Ipoh, take the Kuala Kangsar exit, and head towards Gerik. Take route 4, which is the east-west highway. This will take you to Pulau Banding. Journey from KL is about 5 ½ hours. Entrance to Belum Rainforest is best arranged with resort owners in the area, as arranging with State Forestry Department or the Department of Wildlife and National Parks can be a little trying.

By bus

You could catch a coach from KL to Gerik and from there take a taxi to Banding. check out the gerik coaches.