Even though I had hiked in the Malaysian jungles many times before, this time it was different.
Before, I often walked too fast to notice the vegetation. This was the first time I actually observed the unique textures and shape of each plant and wondered if each had any greater purpose.
I was also curious: would I see the same plant again if I returned to the jungle? Would that jungle still be there in a few years’ time?
“This pink flower, the dissochaeta annulata, is a climber that uses a host plant to reach the sunlight. However, it’s not a parasite because it doesn’t take nutrients from the host and it doesn’t kill the host,” Dr Rahmad Zakaria said.
This botanist and lecturer with Universiti Sains Malaysia’s School of Biological Sciences, has identified over 500 species of lianas out of 2,000 in the whole of Malaysia.
“An example of a liana that is useful is the grape plant because it produces fruit that can be eaten,” he added. “An epifid, on the other hand, is a parasite that grows on trees and sucks the nutrients from the host tree, often killing them.”
Next up were some aphrodisiacs. Dr Rahmad held up several leaves. “These are the cosinium blumeanum or mengkunyit and the ansistrocladus tectorius. Both are ‘tonics’ for men,” he described.
We were in northern Perak in the Belum-Temengor Rainforest Complex and these were just some of the interesting facts that we learnt during the media familiarisation trip. Seven members of the media followed 20 Malaysian scientists into the forest on their exploration of several newly cleared trails at Pulau Banding.
Early in the morning, we were picked up from the Belum Rainforest Resort where we had spent the night, and taken by four-wheel-drive vehicles into the forest. When we saw how steep the route to the trails was, we were thankful to be inside the four-wheel-drive vehicle and not on foot!
Banding is a regenerating rainforest (secondary or second-growth forest after being cleared by natural or man-made causes). The island is suitable for research and education, general ecotourism and sports/adventure activities.
It is a base for ecotourism into deeper forests due to its central position as a gateway. The East-West highway divides Belum-Temengor in two. To the north of the highway is Belum, and to the south is Temengor. The Royal Belum (“royal” because it was declared a state park by the Perak State by royal assent) stretches to the Thai border and connects to the Hala Bala National Park on the Thai side.
Land before time
At a pre-expedition briefing the night before, Pulau Banding Foundation chief executive officer Datuk Dr Abdul Rashid Ab Malik explained that the Belum-Temengor Forest Complex comprises an area of 300,000ha across four forests: Belum, Temengor, Gerik and Amanjaya. That’s almost four times the size of Singapore.
“Belum-Temengor, which is the second largest rainforest in Malaysia, is believed to be one of the world’s oldest rainforests, having been in existence for over 130 million years, making it even older than the Amazon and the Congo,” he said.
“Belum means ‘land before time’ in the national language. And the mini expedition gives us a foretaste of what can be discovered for scientific research and also what is interesting for ecotourism,” Abdul Rashid added.
According to him, the Belum-Temengor is home to over 3,000 flowering plant species, including three species of the Rafflesia, the largest flower in the world. It is also the natural habitat of 64 species of ferns, 62 species of mosses, and has a lake (Lake Temengor) that is home to 23 species of freshwater fish such as the kelah, toman, sebarau, tenggalan and baung, and five species of turtles.
It is also the perfect habitat for 14 of the world’s most threatened mammals, including the Asiatic elephant, sun bear, Malayan tiger, tapir, Sumatran rhinoceros and white-handed gibbon, as well as numerous insects.
This is also the only forest where all 10 species of hornbill that inhabit Malaysia are found. The endangered plain-pouched hornbill, which is the rarest of all hornbill species in Malaysia, is only found here, as is the great hornbill. In fact, there are more hornbills here than in Sarawak, the Land of the Hornbills. All this makes this forest an ideal ecotourism destination for activities like wildlife/bird watching, nature photography, adventure-based recreation, and research initiatives that support conservation efforts in the area.
Pulau Banding Foundation (PBF) is a non-profit foundation whose purpose is to maintain the sustainability of Belum-Temengor’s landscape, environment and communities through research and ecotourism. It runs the Pulau Banding Rainforest Research Centre.
We walked further along the forest trail which was mostly covered by thick undergrowth.
“While the Belum Forest is conserved as a state park, the Temengor Forest is a productive forest where harvesting (logging) happens along with ecotourism, research and education, and sports activities,” said Chandra Arumu-gam, Rainwalker Ecosystems’ environment and expedition services chief executive officer.
“An ecosystem is elastic but you can only disturb it to a certain point; after that, it can’t recover,” he said. “It’s important that development be sustainable. It has to allow the forest to be conserved and remain as a healthy ecosystem, especially in biodiversity hotspots with a great variety of plant and animal life.”
“There needs to be (some) development for economic growth in order to support the local kampungs and orang asli population. But conservation should track migration paths of large mammals which usually follow water and food sources. There is no purpose in conserving boundary areas which are not frequented by animals. Moreover, animals do not recognise boundaries set by men,” Chandra explained.
“Low impact and creative development should cause the least damage to the environment and ecosystem. Build to the form of the landscape, namely, around it, and avoid areas with high levels of wildlife to minimise damage to the environment and ecosystem,” he added.
We proceeded further on the forest trail and the next person we spoke to really surprised us – Dr Shamsul Khamis, a lecturer with Universiti Pertanian’s Architectural and Design Faculty. What does architecture have to do with environmental science? We soon found out.
“We search for plants for medicinal as well as landscape purposes,” he explained. He went on to explain that certain trees are suitable for use in landscape architecture when designing a building, due to their shape, structure, smell, colour, flower and other factors.
Dr Shamsul is also particularly interested in aromatic herb plants. He crushed some leaves and held it up to us to smell. “This is wild cinnamon which is suitable for use at spas. It is different from the regular cinnamon or kayu manis,” he said.
“Aromatic medicinal plants can also be used for a herb garden at a hospital,” someone chipped in.
Dr Shamsul held up another leaf. “This is the cempaka hutan or magnolia. It smells like mango.”
Abu Husin Harun, a freelance botanist with Universiti Sains Malaysia, held up some tiny green leaves. “This is the embelia canescens. It can be eaten. The young leaves are used to make ulam with sambal belacan. Here, try some.”
Hesitantly, we chewed on some. The innocent-looking foliage exuded a mild fragrant and pleasant taste.
Further up, Mohd Sukor Harun, a research officer with Universiti Sains Malaysia’s School of Biological Sciences, was using a galah or pole cutter to collect leaf specimens from a tall tree.
Behind us, a few scientists were gathered around a plant. We hurried back to where they were and saw what the excitement was about. “This is the greenea corimbosa. It’s an aromatic plant that attracts caterpillars,” Dr Shamsul said.
“The plants are tagged for records and also with the GPS coordinates so that it can be located again,” he added.
A piece of black cloth was spread out on the floor of the forest. Plant specimens were placed on it with a ruler next to it. Ummul Nazrah and Norzielawati Salleh, both research officers with the Forest Reserve Institute Malaysia, were taking photos and measurements of the specimens. “This is buah berangan or chestnut. We’re cataloguing the specimens which involves identifying, measuring, photographing and tagging them,” Ummul said. “And this is an acorn. Yes, it comes from the mighty oak tree,” Norzielawati said, while pointing upwards at a tall tree.
Each specimen was carefully measured, tagged, photographed, catalogued and collected by the scientists for research purposes and also as a lead-up to the Belum Rainforest Summit 2016 (BRainS2016) next month.
The summit, organised by the Pulau Banding Foundation, will highlight and tackle issues on rainforest conversation and sustainable use. Experts from a multitude of disciplines will come together to share their knowledge and provide insights on how to resolve issues such as biodiversity conservation, climate change, and sustainable resource management, that affect not just Belum-Temengor but rainforests globally.