The Ayer Hitam forest reserve in Puchong is one of the most precious tracts of remaining lowland dipterocarp forest in highly urbanized Selangor state. Originally covering 4270 hectares and gazetted as a forest reserve way back in 1906, it has suffered from a series of de-gazettements throughout the years, until it is now only some 1200 hectares. Even this is being reduced as I speak, as developers continue to quietly eat away at the borders of the reserve. The forest is now totally surrounded by “concrete jungle”.
The reserve is leased out to a nearby local university, University Putra Malaysia (UPM) since the 1990s, for 80 years, as a living “laboratory” for students to conduct research, but as I see it, its future is far from assured. Another tract of forest towards the north, the Bukit Cherakah forest reserve, has already suffered greatly from surrounding housing development despite being the nation’s Agro-Forestry Park, and is rapidly being whittled down to a few hundred hectares from its original 1300 hectares; the Ayer Hitam forest reserve will likely end up the same way as well.
I have in fact, posted an article about this forest quite some time ago here, although I never mentioned the place by name. However, I now feel it’s better to highlight the unique and fragile beauty of this last green jewel, as hopefully by creating more awareness and appreciation for this place, it may have a better chance of longer term survival, even if just slightly.
A typical scenario in Malaysia:
Obviously, Ayer Hitam forest reserve sits on prime real estate land. Developer A will stake his claim on a piece of land bordering the forest and will clear a bit “over” into the border hoping for lax enforcement and no penalties; likewise developer B, C, and so on will do the same, until eventually there will be NO more forest, and no more “forest view” left! In Malaysia, forest reserves can be considered simply as “land reserved for future development/exploitation”. That’s why many forest reserves get completely de-gazetted and chopped down. Others get logged by “modern” logging methods which are almost similar to clear felling (almost all the trees are chopped down). And I am very sure lots of greedy “vultures” are constantly circling above this prime piece of real estate!
Ayer Hitam forest reserve is classified as a lowland dipterocarp forest of the Kelat-Kedondong type, with a lesser number of dipterocarps per hectare, and more individuals of the Kelat (Eugenia species) and Kedondong (Canarium species) in contrast to other dipterocarp forests elsewhere in Malaysia. This forest used to cover much of Cyberjaya and Putrajaya as well, but as you know, all of it has been turned into oil palm plantations or built-up land, since.
The forest’s character and the underlying geology appear to be quite unique relatively, but you will have to be a seasoned jungle explorer to understand why I say this. Although the forest has been logged in the past, it still manages to retain a great deal of its original rainforest character within this small area.
Surprisingly, Ayer Hitam forest reserve still contains an untouched river basin as the remaining water catchment area is somewhat enclosed by the surrounding hills and have not (yet) suffered great disturbance. These streams are perhaps the strongest testament to the conservation value of the Ayer Hitam forest. They are crystal clear, and teeming with aquatic life like fishes, shrimp, crabs, algae, and specialized flora.
The riparian flora is unique, quite unlike most other rivers and waterfalls throughout Selangor. In fact, they remind me more of the streams and rivers in Johor (Endau Rompin being an example) and Borneo. The rocks are not the typical granite boulders, but seem to be sandstone, forming slow moving streams with deep pools, white sand banks, and small delightful (terraced) waterfalls throughout their length. Where else in the whole of Selangor can you find such streams and waterfalls?
The riverine flora is dominated by the elegant Dipteris lobbiana, and a grass-like rheophyte. Three main rivers drain the reserve – The Rasau, Biring, and Nasih rivers. However, the Nasih and Biring river have been severely compromised by land development. What remains of the remaining streams in the Ayer Hitam forest reserve will disappear forever, if greed has its way and their catchments are destroyed by further development.
A highlight of the forest is the “Blue Lagoon”, a pool along the Rasau river with a small waterfall feeding into it. The pool may be small and seemingly shallow; however, it is 13 meters deep at the end below the waterfall and is filled with tree trunks! Its color also changes according to the weather. During rainy seasons the water will turn a bluish-turquoise color, while during the dry season, the water is yellowish-emerald in color. NB: You will need permission by UPM to enter this area.
The Temuan orang asli who have lived in the area for the past 400 years have a tale to tell of this waterfall – They say that there was once a man who dived into the deep end of the pool, but he did not come out alive. What floated to the surface instead were just his intestines; hence they named the waterfall after this morbid episode (I can’t recall what name it was exactly).
The highest peak in the reserve is a hill with twin peaks at an altitude of 233 m a.s.l. Most of the reserve sits on hilly terrain, but the best part of the forest reserve is on an upland plateau that can be quite flat in many places. This is also where the best quality forest in the reserve remains.
There are a few trees over 60-70 cm in diameter, but next to no trees over 1 meter in diameter. This is normal for logged-over forests. There are a few trees that still stand around 40 meters in height, left-overs from past logging, but most of the tallest trees are no more than 35 meters tall or less.
In terms of tree diversity, Ayer Hitam forest reserve has one of the lowest figures for any tropical rainforest in Malaysia (less than a third of normal tree diversity). The plant life is much more interesting though, with some very rare species of small plants and herbs found here. The palm undergrowth is beautiful and diverse, with Eugeisonna, Oncosperma and Licuala species being fairly abundant.
Wildlife is also rare in the forest, and it is strangely quiet most of the time. There used to be tapirs and panthers living in the forest according to the aborigines (orang asli), but I’m not sure if this is still the case anymore. Hunting pressure from the nearby residential areas would have wiped out most of the wildlife a long time ago. Small mammals that still survive in the forest include leaf monkeys, macaques, a few gibbons, slow loris, wild boar, and various rodents. The birdlife also has declined in conjunction with the surrounding development, according to UPM staff. There used to be Argus pheasants in the forest even as recent as the 1990s, but not anymore. Meanwhile, the herpetofauna (reptiles/amphibians) and insect life is still rich and diverse.
Ayer Hitam forest today
These days, nearby residents throng the forest reserve every day, especially on weekends, simply to do their exercise. This “traffic load” has been increasing in recent years. The heavy traffic has resulted in very eroded and wide jungle paths, which of course, will negatively impact the immediate environment alongside the trails to some extent. Trash and litter are also being left behind as a “side effect” of human traffic.
UPM has understandably been alarmed by the adverse impact of visitors and in recent years, has had episodes of closing off the forest to the general public, only to relent after some noise from the public. Currently, they have restricted access to the waterfall/stream area; only a certain portion of the main trail loop is open to hikers. This situation can still change though.
In my opinion, the best way to ensure this forest remains for the generations to come is to come up with a concrete long-term management plan, and perhaps turn this entire forest reserve into a state park/research-educational park of Selangor with managed zones of differing priority. UPM may not have the resources to police the borders of the forest reserve, and each time a housing development happens next to the border of the reserve, at least a few hectares of forest will get destroyed (and it’s likely some developers conveniently dump their construction trash inside the forest, out of sight).
Also, development dramatically increases the mortality rate of all the trees at the fringe while frequently silting up nearby ephemeral streams, resulting in small ponds with dying trees. You can see this effect at all forest areas that are located next to housing areas (e.g. Bukit Cherakah and Kota Damansara). Many forest trees at the fringe are not adapted to live in a changed environment and will die, over time.
The surrounding “creeping” encroachment from all sides (as clearly seen from Google Maps) is likely the biggest threat to the integrity of the Ayer Hitam forest. In the past, there have been proposals to turn part of the place into a cemetery, and a part of it was once used as a waste/garbage dump. The biggest threat is the housing/apartment projects that have already been carving up ALL the forest areas fringing the Klang Valley. People take for granted the forest will be around forever. Unfortunately, it won’t!
Without concrete and determined conservation plans, the fragile environment of this forest will continue to be degraded continuously, until there is nothing of value left, one day. I do not sound optimistic because as long as human civilization continuously values money and materialism over everything else, they will eventually end up destroying this very home they live on.
Larger photos and other photos can be viewed at my Flickr gallery.