A break from oil palm

This blog was written by Jake Stone, a 3rd-year PhD student in the Insect Ecology Group.

On our most recent ESSTA (Ecological and Social studies in Smallholder Tropical Agriculture) research trip to Malaysia we had the opportunity to visit Rimba, an NGO that carries out important ecological and conservation work throughout Malaysia. We stayed with them at their research station in the state of Terengganu for a couple of days, which not only gave us a chance to meet the team and learn more about their projects, but to also experience ancient rainforest first-hand.

Our trip began by taking a flight across the breadth of Peninsula Malaysia. Leaving behind the oil palm dominated landscape of our study sites on the Malacca Strait in the south-west, we headed to the city of Kuala Terengganu on the South China Sea in the north-east. From here we travelled back inland by car to the research station. After being given a tour of the site the Rimba research team gave a series of presentations, giving us an insight into the huge breadth of projects being carried out. This included work on mapping rare molluscs in Malaysia’s limestone karsts, conservation solutions for endangered fruit bats, the economics of policy making, and frontline research into big cat protection.

After hearing about the work at Rimba, it was time to get out into the field. The remainder of the day would be spent exploring the Taman Negara, one of the world’s oldest deciduous rainforests. Estimated to be over 130 million years old, it spans a total area of 4,343 km2 and is home to a host of endangered flora and fauna, including the Asian Elephant, Malayan Tiger, and Sumatran Rhinoceros. Our gateway to the Taman Negara was to be by motor-boat over Lake Kenyir. Originally created in 1985 by the damming of the Kenyir River to provide water to the Sultan Mahmud Power Station, the lake now covers 260,000 hectares and is the largest man-made body of water in mainland South East Asia.

After a couple of hours aboard the boat admiring the spectacular scenery, we reached our first stop-off point to see the forest by foot. As the boat neared land, we were amazed to spot a large lone bull Asian elephant swimming about 50m away. We watched as it made its way ashore, climbing the steep banks of the lake to disappear back into the forest. As only the second elephant sighting that the team members on board had seen over the previous four years, we were extremely privileged to have had such a close experience with this incredible animal. Although from the boat we could appreciate the vastness of the surrounding rainforest, it was not until stepping ashore that its deafening noise really hit. Being off the boat also gave us a chance to have a closer look at some of the amazing and unique floral life contained within the forest.

After our forest excursion, we were back aboard the boat and heading to our next destination, the Bewah Cave, a large limestone cave at the foot of Bewah Hill. After climbing the many steps up to the cave entrance, we donned our head torches and headed into the darkness. It very quickly became apparent that the cave was home to thousands of bats, both through the extremely loud chatter coming from the cave celling and from the stench of guano (bat droppings), which covered the entirety of the cave floor. In fact, despite the harsh conditions and total absence of light, the whole cave system was seemingly teeming with life. Wherever we shone our headtorches there were large mottled cave crickets of the family Rhaphidophoridae, huge brightly coloured Lichen huntsmen or Malaysian green huntsman spiders, andcockroaches with luminous blue rear abdominal segments and cerci (which were totally unique to that particular cave system).

We spent the next day heading a trail through an area of local forest. A large part of the route took us along a river valley and had us wading knee deep in the river at several points. Although we didn’t see any macro fauna, there were plenty of interesting invertebrates, a particular highlight for me was seeing a trail of giant forest ants. It was another great day in the forest, not even marred by the excruciating experience I had of getting stung on the face by a wasp. In the evening we had fun picking out some ingredients for dinner from the village shops and talking to the locals.

The following morning, we were up bright and early in order to spend some time in Kuala Terengganu before our flight back. After a delicious breakfast from a café in the Chinese area, and exploring the city for a few hours, it was time to say goodbye to the Rimba team and head to the airport.

We are extremely grateful for our collaborator Claire Barnes for organising this trip and to everyone at Rimba for hosting us. It was an incredible trip, not just because we got to experience some amazing scenery and wildlife, but also because it was really important to get out of the oil palm plantations and see first-hand what the landscape was like pre-agricultural conversion.  


Photo descriptions –

1 Kenyir Lake and surrounding Taman Negara rainforest

2 On boat perspective of our approach into the rainforest

3 (Left) Bewah Hill and Bewah Cave from lake level. (Right) Heteopoda boiei, the Lichen Huntsman or Malaysian Green Huntsman, with a 25cm leg span

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