“Off to look for Tigers in the jungle!” That’s what I told my family and friends when I learned I was going to go on “The Realm of the Tiger” with MYCAT – the Malaysian Conservation Alliance for Tigers, a program that involved spending six days in Taman Negara, Malaysia.
My Night Safari colleague Sesth and I, both being tiger keepers, were chosen for this trip. We left for KL where we met our wonderful hosts Lavania and Ashleigh from MYCAT. From there it was a 6 hour drive in the trusty Hilux to Merapoh, a small town with the basic amenities, a police station, a hospital, vet clinic, shop houses, gas station and eateries which open on the owners’ whims. What struck me was that they had no waste disposal. All trash was literally placed in plastic bags and dumped into a landfill. We stayed at these newly built houses which were simple and neat. The 4 of us stayed in 1 house which was more like our base camp as we spent time there pretty much only to sleep at night.
Our 1st day was spent accompanying Ash to pay a visit to the Batek encampment to check on their well-being and also to make arrangements for our trip into the jungle. Batek are the local aborigines or Orang Asli, as they are commonly known in these parts, and they have different dialects. Their village is situated far in and there was a couple of guidelines that we were briefed on before we met them:
- Any food offered by them, even if it was a gibbon or squirrel, was to be taken as refusing to do so is believed to bring bad fortune to both the party offering the food and the party who was offered the food.
- They do not like food to be wasted as they are hunter gatherers who venture into their local forest to hunt and collect food.
Some of these were serious, others were a bit quirky. They are a tight community but we could see the effects of modernization molding their young generation. Some do not like to go into the jungle or camp for days. Others are scared of the jungle. One of the things that really bothered me was the rubbish that was strewn around the village. Plastic was everywhere. Yet it did not bother them. They were born Pacifists never opting to settle any arguments with violence, they just seem to shrug it off, accepting their fate as it is.
2nd day was a wonderful walk along a river and into Taman Negara. We didn’t see any animals but heard lots of calls and movement close to us. The walk was tiring with the jungle being hilly. Washing our feet in the river after hours of walking was refreshing and cool. Part of where we walked was a mature secondary forest. The ‘real deal’ was many kilometers inside.
As we walked Ash told us what MYCAT is doing and has done in this part of Malaysia. They conduct regular patrols with volunteers from various agencies to deter poaching. In their early forays they used to find hundreds of snares, some meant for birds or small mammals but these snares are indiscriminate as to who gets caught. Not ropes but steel wires are used so even a bear or deer getting caught, spells an agonizing death. On some such ‘CAT walks’, as they call them, they have bumped into poachers. Best thing to do in these situations was to give a polite nod and walk on, not before taking note of their details e.g. locals or foreigners, language used, attire and such as the information would be passed to the relevant authorities. Some poachers carry shotguns and MYCAT volunteers are unarmed so it is best not to confront the poachers.
MYCAT has also set camera traps around the park and Ash showed us some of the pictures that night. They captured photos of elephants, tigers, leopards, sun bears which were the usual suspects, but also the dholes, gaur, civets, crested firebacks, bantengs, sambar, barking deer, porcupines, wild boars etc. Those forests are teeming with wildlife just that you don’t really get to see them because most of the time we unintentionally announce our arrival to them and they run away to avoid us.
The main purpose of the CAT Walks that MYCAT organises is to protect the Sungai Yu corridor. This is a very important link that connects Taman Negara to the Central Forest Spine, without it the tigers from the Main Range and Taman Negara would be completely isolated leading to no genetic exchange and could eventually lead to a big problem for the tigers in Malaysia. The tigers’ prey species also use this corridor to travel in search of food. Realizing this, the Malaysian government built viaducts to allow all animals to cross the long stretch of highway that is there. This area was known to have high poaching incidences till MYCAT intervened.
The 3rd day was the most tiring and difficult during the entire trip. We had a Batek guide, Akoi, who trekked with us. He was light on foot and carried a small back pack with 2 rolls of glutinous rice wrapped in banana leaves and a 75ml water bottle. He was wearing a t-shirt, berms with ‘kampong adidas’ shoes. I felt silly with our large backpacks with 2 1.5l water bottles and SAF issued boots.
Nevertheless contrary to what people think the rainforest is never hot under the canopy because the sunlight can’t penetrate much. We were sweating more because of our exertions of climbing up three or four ridges that were 200 to 300m high with a gradient between 50 to 80 degrees. We had to cross a fallen tree trunk which we had to comically straddle and slide across because it was slippery.
Elephants and tapir feces were pretty common. Hoof prints of elephants and pigs were widespread. Calls of gibbons or siamangs, hornbills, wild pigs and barking deer were heard. We even visited an old poachers’ camp. These poachers from neighboring countries come in illegally and stay in the jungles for close to 2 to 3 months. They have ‘towkays’ who supply them with provisions every now and then.
They poached for animals and also plants like Agarwood which produces a resin when it is infected with a particular fungus. The poachers hack the tree without felling it and only return days later to cut down the tree if resin is found in it. The cameras traps set up for the animals have also caught images of these poachers hauling huge bags of Agarwood chips. The chips produce a fragrant smell when burnt and is very highly prized. Unfortunately, one of the main reasons for this high cost is the depletion of some of the Agarwood-producing populations due to overharvesting and habitat loss. The concern has become so great that these species have been listed in Appendix II by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), meaning they are now potentially threatened species.
Our 4th day was spent trekking to Gua Gajah. A large limestone outcrop filled with caves and a lot of bats. Along the way we saw countless elephant dung and even got scared by a wild pig that made a loud alarm call at us when we got too close without realizing it. The call sounded so much like a ‘roar’. I was in front of Sesth and Ash and I really thought we had stumbled upon a tiger and backed off half expecting a charge from somewhere in front!
The path was winding and the terrain was pretty level. My biggest worry was coming across an elephant after a bend as the forest was pretty dense at certain locations. One could see that some elephants skirted around the logs while others walked across. When we reached the cave it was a steep climb up to the entrance and along the way up, were elephant dung. Apparently the elephants and other animals used these caves to take shelter. I was pretty surprised to also see elephant dung in the cave. After exploring the cave a bit we proceeded to cook lunch using the dry dung as our tinder along with dry branches.
Our last day was spent trekking in the corridor along the Taman Negara Border and camping overnight in a hammock next to Sungai Tanum.
Only on our last day did we see a river that was crystal clear and that was Sungai Tanum which comes directly from Gunung Tahan, the highest point in Peninsular Malaysia. Since some of the rivers run through some oil palm plantation areas they experience heavy run offs. The rainforest is like a giant sponge and is able to hold a lot of water and release it slowly. Run offs from this are relatively clean unlike oil palm plantations where the roots do not go deep. Another plus point to having more rainforests intact is to prevent any major floods like the one last year.
The Batek accompanied us on our overnight stay. They cooked rice and chicken in bamboo over a fire while we set up our hammocks. After which we proceeded to the river for a really cool bath where Sesth lost his slipper! This happened while we were looking at some footprints that looked like Tapir’s footprints. The river was a beautiful sight with huge trees acting as jump off points along the banks. Dinner was followed by hot tea brewed over a camp fire.
After tea was done we decided to talk to the Batek and ask them about their knowledge of animals. We had to be discreet about our jobs as the Batek did not like the idea of a Zoo. But funnily enough they had no qualms about trading their own goats or chickens they grew to the local community knowing fully well they were for consumption. We showed photos of animals found in the region and asked them to share stories that they had. Eventually the Batek grew tired of seeing pictures and so we decided to call it a night.
This was a night I would never forget as it was so cold that I practically didn’t sleep. I wasn’t prepared and did not expect the night to be so cold. Here I was shivering and trying to sleep, and yet my colleague was snoring loudly. I wasn’t surprised that no animals came close to us with that loud rumbling going at night. I also heard loud calls by birds, other animals ringing out together with the frogs chorusing along the river bank.
The following day we had some coffee and proceeded to make our way back. MYCAT has done a really fantastic job of helping to protect their rainforest and the tigers. The numbers are dwindling but not as rapidly due to the efforts of MYCAT and its partners. I strongly believe we should also play our part to secure the future of the Malayan Tiger by supporting MYCAT in their efforts, be it financially, socially (helping the Batek) or providing logistics.
WRS is supporting the Citizen Action for Tigers work being carried out by MYCAT in the Yu River wildlife corridor in Pahang, Malaysia. The support ensures that poaching activity and encroachment into Taman Negara is deterred; reliable information on crimes against wildlife in the region is provided to the enforcement officials; and wildlife stewardship is cultivated amongst a larger community.