I was fortunate to stay with a team of passionate wildlife conservationists at the Malayan Rainforest Station (MRS) during my first few days in Malaysia. I arrived Kuala Lumpur on July 2 mid-morning and hopped on a bus towards Gua Musang. Around dusk I got off at Merapoh where my friend Angus Hamilton and the rest of his team stayed. I was shocked by the humidity that hit my face and fogged up my glasses as I emerged from the heavily air-conditioned bus. Between the climate and blood-thirsty mosquitoes it reminded me of days exploring natural areas in south Florida and documenting breeding behavior of Malayan tigers at the Palm Beach Zoo.
The Malayan Rainforest Station is a research and eco-tourism facility located between the Titwangsa range in the west and Taman Negara National Park to the east. It’s an important corridor for the critically endangered Malayan tiger (only 200 in the wild), and other charismatic and endangered fauna such as Asian elephants, sun bears, gibbons, siamangs, tapirs, clouded leopards, pangolins, and much more. Although hard to spot, there are hundreds of species of birds. Surprisingly little research has been done in this area. Angus is here to survey and create a checklist of local reptiles and amphibians while making more wildlife videos for his project called Life Gone Wild.
My first full day was spent with the eco-tourism team, assisting the locals guides manage an international group of high school students on a trekking challenge into the National Park. I accompanied them on what turned out to be a 16k roundtrip hike to the Elephant Caves. The day was unbelievably hot and humid. We saw signs of tiger, sunbear, and lots of elephant tracks (and dung) along the trails as we trekked deeper into the forest. It was fun to step in the tracks of giant pachyderms and imagine how they might live day to day in this jungle. We also saw signs of sun bear claw marks in trees and some disturbance made by either a tiger or clouded leopard. The coolest animal encounter that day might have been discovering the world’s largest ant species. We could hear gibbons and siamangs calling in the distance. We stopped and had lunch at the base of the towering limestone caves. Large honeycomb bee nests hung from the cliff tops over us. Desperate little bees swarmed to lick up our salty sweat. After lunch we followed more elephant tracks into the cave. There were hundreds of bats squeaking and flying through the cavernous corridors. I was told that elephants and tigers sleep in these caves.
The next morning Angus, Charlotte, and I explored a nearby river in search of snakes. No luck during the day, but Angus will probably return at night after a good rain. Despite the area being highly biodiverse, the animals are harder to spot than expected.
I was able to talk with Izereen, MRS’s project manager, about his work and passion. He recently caught camera trap footage of a clouded leopard in one of his study sites. He gets hired to evaluate the sustainability on different palm oil plantations in Malaysia, and is an arbitrator for international Bird Races held locally every year. Honestly, he was so busy writing grants and meeting with community partners during my stay that I felt I didn’t get enough time with him.
Luckily, I did get to go out with him and his team to set up a camera trap at a rhinoceros hornbill nest site. This is the only project of its kind studying rhinoceros hornbill nesting behavior via camera traps on the entire Malayan peninsula. We entered the local indigenous village and worked with a local to set up a new camera trap. After driving through a palm oil plantation we got out of the car and walked to a nearby forested area. The nest was in a tree near the forest edge, and was about ten meters high. We needed to figure out how to strap the camera trap onto the neighboring tree same height as the nest. Mosquitoes were out at full force, and it made the whole experience almost unbearable. None of us had bug spray. After about a hundred mosquito bites the only thing to do was to accept the situation.
We needed to make a ladder. We already had a pair of thick bamboo shoots and some branches, but needed rope and nails. Izereen and Ariff drove off to get supplies. I stayed on site with a researcher and the guide. Soon the sound of large graceful wings flapping through the air became louder and louder until the male hornbill flew right over us like a dragon towards his mate in the nest. He fed her some fruit and was off again.
When Izereen and Ariff returned with all the necessary materials they quickly constructed the ladder and carried it to the nest site. It was heavy and required all of us to hoist the ladder into position on the neighboring tree. Ariff climbed to the top of the ladder, a few branches cracking under his weight as he crawled up. Once at the top, he bear hugged his way up the rest of the tree to get level with the nest. His strength and endurance was nothing less than impressive. Minutes seemed to crawl by as I watched him set up the camera trap.
As he finished positioning the camera trap high up the trees, we set up a net at the base of the tree to catch the leftovers mama hornbill tosses from the nest regularly. Izereen is particularly interested in collecting data on their diet. Once that was set up and camouflaged, we started to wrap things up and head back. It was now golden hour, and just as we were leaving we heard the sound of large majestic wings once again. The male had returned. He flew to a dead tree in the clearing. He jumped around branch to branch. He tossed something in his mouth at one point. I was able to snap a few photos before he flew off again.
Later that night Angus, myself, and a couple Eco-teers drove to Gua Musang to experience the night market together. We had mango shakes, fried food, and I even tried durian for the first time. It was indeed stinky and strange tasting. I can see why some people love it and others hate it.
We spent the majority of my last day laying on the tile floor under the fans in the research station’s common area to beat the heat. That night we celebrated with the Eco-teer trekking group. Afterwards, we went on an exciting night survey looking from the back of a pick up truck for animals along the road in a nearby palm oil plantation. We saw a frog, owl, civets, and a leopard cat!
I want to say a special thank you to Angus, Izereen, and the entire Malayan Rainforest Station for inviting me to stay for a couple days. Keep up all the great work you do for the local wildlife in Malaysia. I hope to come back some day and collaborate.
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