By EMILY CHAN
Could Bukit Kiara, a forested hill in Kuala Lumpur surrounded by housing areas, be the home of the world’s largest firefly? That was what had been circulating around social media prior to the first-ever “firefly walk” there in July.
Due to the online buzz, some 500 people turned up for the event, organised by the Malaysian Nature Society (MNS). Lim Koon Hup, a MNS flora group volunteer, said he was taken aback by the large turnout. He explained that night walks were conducted quite often at Bukit Kiara, but not to see fireflies.
The discovery of the world’s largest firefly from the Lamprigera genus in Bukit Kiara had been confirmed by MNS officers a few months earlier. When word got out on social media, the place garnered ever more interest.
MNS president Henry Goh said that the walk was held in cooperation with local community group Friends Of Bukit Kiara (FOBK) to highlight the importance of conserving the hill, which is one of the last green lungs in the city.
“The firefly is a good indicator of a healthy ecosystem,” he explained. “It uses biologically produced light to communicate with other fireflies (of the same species). There are over 2,000 firefly species worldwide but we’re not sure of the numbers in Malaysia as there are very few firefly researchers here. So many of the fireflies may be new to science.”
As fireflies are easier to spot in the dark, the walk began after the sun went down. Street lights lining the Bukit Kiara tarmac trail were specially turned off for the event. Due to the unexpectedly large number of visitors and the lack of a speaker system, participants were divided into smaller, more manageable groups.
Several different types of fireflies, as well as other bioluminescent insects like the star-worms, were spotted throughout the walk. “We intend to do these walks more regularly,” said Lim, who is also a FOBK member.
“When we do these group walks, eco-conscious members would often help pick up rubbish scattered along the way. What we hope is for people to be aware and not litter in the first place. We want the environment to be conducive for the flora and fauna – where people can go to appreciate nature.”
MNS wetlands programme manager Sonny Wong, a firefly expert who helped facilitate the walk, gave insights to the night’s star attraction.
“The larvae of the Lamprigera firefly has four light organs. Whereas, the adult female has a gold-yellowish colour and only two light organs, is huge and does not fly. Specimens of the larva from Indonesia can reach 13-14cm long,” he explained.
In contrast, the adult male Lamprigera is smaller in size and is able to fly. Wong said that judging by its life cycle of around a year, which is quite long for a firefly, the population of Lamprigera is likely to be low.
“The Lamprigera is not extremely rare, but it is uncommon,” he said. “We are quite lucky to have it in the city itself. To see it in Bukit Kiara, which is a secondary forest which used to be a rubber estate, is quite amazing.”
He added that, so far, based on the insects’ flash patterns, six types of fireflies are estimated to be in Bukit Kiara. “A daytime firefly was also spotted there. This firefly comes out during the day, uses smell or pheromones, and have remnant light spots.”
Wong also noted that countries like Taiwan have created a successful eco-tourism industry in fireflies. “They have created firefly parks in urban districts. The parks’ environment were created to mimic the habitat conducive for the fireflies. I’m hoping we can do the same for Bukit Kiara.”
Wong said that the public are encouraged to observe these fireflies. However, they are advised not to touch them.
“By touching them, we may be transferring fungus or bacteria that can kill them,” he cautioned. “There have been known cases of fireflies dying this way. Also, avoid shining bright torchlights at the firefly and refrain from taking photos using flash. Use red light as it least affects them.”
He is hopeful that more people will support the protection of Bukit Kiara. “The public voice,” underlined Wong, “plays a big role in conversation efforts.”