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Malaysia Once Upon A Time

Malaysia Once Upon A Time

Despite a chequered past and an unstable present, biodiverse parks such as Mulu still provide hope in Malaysia, discovers C. Gangadharan Menon.

In the centre of Malaysian Borneo, the Gunung Mulu National Park is an old-growth forest that is world-renowned for its extensive cave-systems.
Photo:  C. Gangadharan Menon.

Nothing had prepared us for this spectacular sight. At precisely 5.30 in the evening, we saw wave after endless wave of wrinkle-lipped bats zipping out of the cave, and flying to their feeding site 25 km. away. There were, hold your breath, three million of them, give or take a few! They streamed out of the cave as they did every evening in a non-stop flow that lasts for all of three hours, only to return at the break of dawn the next day. It is said to be the largest exodus of bats witnessed anywhere in the world, and perhaps one of the most awesome wildlife spectacles you can ever hope to see.

We were in Mulu National Park in Malaysia. Earlier in the afternoon, we had set out on an outstanding trek to Deer Cave. Part of the humungous network of caves that criss-cross the mystical mountains of Mulu, Deer Cave has the largest cave opening in the whole wide world. The mouth gapes open at a height of 100 m. and a width of 90 m. Inside, an unmistakable stench pervades the moist darkness, on account of the millions of bats that reside here. Geologists say the caves possibly have an evolutionary history dating back 1.5 million years.

To reach the next set of breathtaking caves, we had to take a lingering boat ride along the long-winding Melinau river. For all practical purposes it felt like we were cruising down the mystic Amazon, with enchanting rainforests on either side of the prehistoric river. As we hiked to the Cave of the Winds, we saw an entire rock face lined with unique vegetation: the one-leaf plant Monophyllaea sp.

This cave resembled a series of cathedrals, one leading to the other. The impact of a gigantic river that once flowed through this cave was evident from the sudden twists and turns of the passage. This flow and the subsequent erosion have created a veritable art gallery of natural sculptures. These were tastefully illuminated, using footlights that were concealed behind rock forms on the ground. One of the chambers, aptly named Queen’s Chamber, had limestone forms that looked like Corinthian pillars, thrones, ornate chairs, and chandeliers. Another interesting cave in the mountains of Mulu is the Sarawak Chamber. It is so massive that London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral would easily fit into it… with space to spare! The nearby Clearwater Cave was even larger. This cave runs for 180 km. before you get to the ‘light at the end of the tunnel’. And for most of the stretch, 107 km. to be precise, a subterranean river keeps it company.

To date, no human has ever traversed the entire length of this planetary miracle.

One of the many caves that are open to tourists to explore, the Lagang cave is embellished with stunning stalactites and stalagmites. Photo: Bernard Dupont/Public Domain.


When the plane descends into Sarawak, the largest state in Malaysia, you see a sea of green. On closer inspection though, you realise the green cover isn’t quite a forest. It’s a series of palm oil plantations that are wreaking havoc in Malaysia’s rainforests. Acres and acres of primary forests were cleared to make way for these palm oil plantations, whose end product is exported the world over on a mammoth scale. Corporations thus ‘kill two trees with one axe’ by first selling the priceless, centuries-old timber, and then minting money from the oil palms that replace them. It’s precisely this mindless destruction that Bruno Manser, the well-known and pioneering rainforest activist, was fighting against in the 1990s.

Bruno, known as the Swiss Tarzan, lived with the nomadic Penan tribe for years, documenting their life. He discovered that the Penan tribe prefers to stay deep in the bosom of the forest, with which they and their ancestors share a bond that spans some 40,000 years. Here, they extract sago, their staple food, from the abundant wild sago trees and feast on the luscious durian fruit, a delicacy that they will not trade for all the fruits of ‘civilisation’. When these food sources start depleting, they move on, only to return to the patch after a decade by which time the forest ends up replenishing itself. To suit this nomadic lifestyle, their abodes are makeshift huts, as they are meant to last just a few months. They hunt and are extremely skilled at crafting, using blowpipes and poison darts. The poison is extracted from the upas tree Antiaris toxicaria and the dosage is meticulously administered based on the body weight and nature of their target prey!

The dense forests that they dwelt in for centuries began to be seriously invaded by timber mafias in the 1980s. These mercenaries wantonly felled hundreds of thousands of ancient trees including the termite-resistant ironwood tree, endemic to Borneo. The durian tree, whose seeds take three years to germinate, also fell victim to their greed.

Bruno adopted their language and their customs, and lived like a Penan among them. They called him Lakei Penan or the Penan Man and trusted him completely. When the timber mafia began making further inroads into their homeland, Bruno mobilised hundreds of Penans to construct roadblocks along the mafia’s path, stopping them in their rapacious tracks.

Much before Greenpeace activists thought of dramatic methods to get the world’s attention, Bruno parachuted into the G7 Summit in 1992. He even hang-glided into the residence of the Chief Minister of Sarawak to seek his direct intervention. But the government saw him as a rebel, and arrested him twice. The consummate survivor escaped both times, and re-entered the forests of Mulu through the Indonesian border. Bruno was last heard of in the year 2000, after which he mysteriously disappeared. It is widely presumed that the thugs of the timber mafia eventually killed him. He was barely 46 years old then, and had a bounty of 40,000 USD on his head.

But Bruno Manser’s death did not go in vain. It woke the government of Malaysia to the smells and sights of their pristine rainforests; and in the last two decades they declared much of the country’s remaining rainforests protected.  Today, there are 27 national parks, five nature reserves, five wildlife sanctuaries and 32 protected forests in Malaysia.

The Bako Jetty looks out over the South China Sea that surrounds the biodiverse island of Borneo. Photo:  C. Gangadharan Menon.


When you reach Mulu, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the plane lands right in the middle of a rainforest. On all sides, for kilometres on end, there is an endless expanse of dense, primary forests. Once upon a time, all of Malaysia must have looked like this. What are left now are small sanctuaries with an average size of just 3,000 hectares, and two large ones that average around 35,000 hectares. Completely cut off from each other, these look like floating green islands amidst degraded landscapes.

Still, Mulu contains as many as 15 different types of forest, harbouring 170 species of wild orchids, 10 species of carnivorous pitcher plants, 450 ferns, 4,000 fungi, 2,000 flowering plants and 20,000 insects, with so many more yet to be discovered and named!

The last morning before our departure, we saw another strange happening: an entire grove of plantain trees with its flowers and fruits growing upwards! Our guide didn’t know the reason, so befuddled, we moved on. Little did we know that at the end of the two-kilometre walk we would be seeing another breathtaking sight.

Pedro, our guide, suddenly stopped at an innocuous wooden stairway in the middle of nowhere. It was the stairway to a green heaven. At a height of around 21 m. from the forest floor was a ropeway that extended for about half a kilometre into the forest, giving us a hornbill’s view of this mysterious land. This secure, perfectly-engineered marvel stretched between mammoth trees that were at least a few centuries old. And as we looked up from the skywalk, we realised that almost two-thirds of the tree was still growing into the blue sky, which meant that each of these trees was at least 60 m. tall! Close by, Pedro showed us a few belian, betang, tapang and kasai trees that were estimated to be 800 years old.

The beautiful off-white blossoms of an orchid Coelogyne swaniana, grace the headquarters of the Gunung Mulu National Park.
Photo: Bernard Dupont/Public Domain.

Standing atop the skywalk, I peered into the towering branches of the gigantic trees. I wasn’t looking for any of the 270-odd species of small birds or the 35 species of bats that are found here. I was looking for the most majestic bird of them all – the hornbill. There was a reason for this eager search. Sarawak is called Bumi Kenyalang or the Land of the Hornbills, and I would have been thrilled to spot any one of the eight species found here.

I wasn’t greedy and asking for the White-crowned Hornbill or the Helmeted Hornbill or the Rhinoceros Hornbill; even the most common among them would have sufficed. But neither here, nor anywhere else in the state of Sarawak, in the eight days of exploring the forests, did we even get a glimpse of this imposing bird. We did spot one… but that was the graphic bird on the emblem of the Sarawak Tourism logo! Was I plain unlucky, or had the numbers drastically dwindled at the hands of forest fragmentation, habitat loss, or perhaps on account of the ritualistic obsession of local tribes to collect the feathers and the beaks of hornbills to adorn their exotic headgear?

Endemic to Borneo, the proboscis monkey or the long-nosed monkey derives its name from the enormous, pendulous nose of the mature male.  Its historic range once included the whole of coastal Borneo, as well as the satellite islands of Berhala, Sebatik and Pulau Laut. Photo: Bernard Dupont/Public Domain.

Leaving my disappointment behind, I continued my walk in that arboreal paradise. And that walk seemed like a walk in eternity. But then I realised, like Robert Frost much before me, that though the woods are lovely, dark and deep, I had promises to keep. And miles to go before I returned to reality.

Author: C. Gangadharan Menon, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXV No. 12, April 2016.


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