Recently I had an enjoyable hike at the Taman Botani Negara Shah Alam (TBNSA) on a day trip that was organized by the Malaysian Nature Society (MNS). These days, I don’t jungle trek much, so I welcome any hikes I can get. The hike was billed as a chance to see up close, the “crown shyness” phenomenon of some of the jungle trees. This sounded intriguing, so I promptly signed up.
For those who are not aware, this is a highly threatened, relic patch of lowland forest in Malaysia, which is smack in the way of “development”, because the land there is highly sought after for high-end housing projects or some development. You would be hard pressed to find any areas of lowland forest remaining in Peninsular Malaysia that are on flat, undulating terrain below 200m ASL (which is what this forest was). Outside of conserved areas, the only other sizable/comparable areas I can think of are Panti Forest Reserve in Johor, and Sungai Menyala forest in Negeri Sembilan (which is a tiny, conserved area at any rate).
Lowland forests used to be the “default” forest type in Malaysia due to the low elevation (below 200-300 meters above sea level), but alas, human development has consumed all the land, be it for agriculture, or housing, or simply just some ladang hutan (the mentality these days). So, the forest at Bukit Cerakah is a precious “gem” from a long lost bygone era of Malaysia. 100 years ago, before the era of oil palm and industrial logging, the flat lowlands of Malaysia were mostly covered in this type of forest.
So one fine morning, I and the other hikers entered TBNSA via the “backdoor” – there is a path into the forest from the nearby Persiaran Mokhtar Dahari, to begin the hike. It’s probably an old path constructed by the Forestry Department to begin with. For anyone confused by the names of the locations, TBNSA is just part of the large Bukit Cerakah Forest Reserve that itself was much larger in past decades, and includes the Tasik Subang Dam further up north – I’m using the terms interchangeably as I don’t know the exact borders of TBNSA (except that it’s part of the Bukit Cerakah Forest Reserve).
Apparently, this part of Bukit Cerakah FR was the site of some plantation efforts by the Selangor Forestry Department back in the 1950s – 1960s, in which they planted Kapur (Dryobalanops aromatica) trees, a species of Dipterocarp that is also planted extensively in FRIM (and have come to represent FRIM over the years).
So these Kapur trees aren’t naturally growing there? Apparently not according to a FRIM research paper (Ahmad Zuhaidi Yahya, 1998). Kapur trees are just not native to the area; the fact is, in Peninsular Malaysia, Dryobalanops aromatica is confined to just parts of Terengganu and East Johor for its native range. But being a fast growing and valuable timber tree, Kapur was a favorite choice to be planted by state forestry departments. In Selangor today, you can observe mature Kapur trees planted in the past and now growing in some parts of KL, Rawang, Cheras, and Bangi.
The Kapur tree is famous for its beautiful “crown shyness” behavior, which can be observed when one looks up at a grove of Kapur trees growing side by side, from below. The tree has an umbrella shaped crown which broadens up from a cone-shaped crown when juvenile. In FRIM, there are some trails that pass underneath such Kapur groves, where you can marvel at such a phenomenon, if you look straight up. But what about “wild” Kapur stands growing “naturally” or at least giving the impression of growing naturally? Well, that’s what I came here for.
The trek itself was a normal jungle trek as treks go, but the forest was so lovely and peaceful. An old secondary forest nonetheless, but still providing glimpses of how the forest of Bukit Cerakah would have been, say 150 years ago, when this was a pristine, virgin rainforest with giant trees everywhere, and populated with abundant wildlife. Today, the biggest trees we encountered were nowhere near 1 meter in diameter for bole size. A couple of tiny streams that drained the flattish topography of the area cut across the path we took; a common feature in lowland jungle.
Today, Bukit Cerakah forest is a dying forest. I’ve been coming here consistently since the 1990s, and each time I come to TBNSA, I notice some trees dead/gone or dying, especially exposed trees on the fringes of the forest. There are alarming signs that this forest is NOT regenerating well, but on the contrary, is slowly dying, as in older trees are dying faster than young ones can replace them. Many of the original forest trees on the fringes close to human settlement have now been replaced with fast growing Tembusu and other secondary forest tree species, over the past 10-15 years, it seems.
What is causing the jungle trees to die? It’s likely that increased radiation/heat from the sun these days, is the culprit. I first climbed the lookout tower on Bukit Sapu Tangan back in 1995, and there were so many large Seraya trees on the lower slopes back then, but today, many of those trees are gone; I doubt any logging took place in TBNSA during the intervening years. Around the old Sungai Kuning dam, many of the older and large trees next to the dam have also died, leaving the once dense forest canopy somewhat “airy”. It should alarm any bona fide nature lover.
As for wildlife, gibbons are still here, and some of the smaller hornbills can still be spotted, although probably greatly reduced; we didn’t hear any hornbills flying overhead during the hike. I think argus pheasant calls were heard as recent as the 1990s, but I assume not any more. It is believed a couple of tapirs still hide in this shrinking forest to the north, but most have died over the years, after the construction of Persiaran Mokthar Dahari and many “developments” taking place which have constantly reduced the size and fragmented the forest reserve. We came across a wild pig’s wallowing pool, which is a good sign nowadays. In recent years, wild pig populations in Peninsular Malaysia have plummeted due to African Swine Fever.
The trail I and the others took goes up and down across low hillocks and finally ascends to an exposed ridge top, from which here the houses of Taman Bukit Tengku can be seen, against the backdrop of the other forested parts of TBNSA. This section of the northern fringe of TBNSA is apparently the site of the Kapur plantation (there aren’t any further south in TBNSA it seems), and there are extensive Kapur groves within this zone. On the way back descending the ridge, the mature Kapur stands can be seen in all their glory as the trail passes through these stands on the way down. Imagine these trees were planted in the period 1953-1965 (Ahmad Zuhaidi Yahya, 1998), making them about 60-70 years old today.
After a somewhat tiring hike, I finished by exiting the forest close to the starting point with a scorching sun overhead; so all in all the trek was one long loop of about 7 km in total. But it was a satisfying hike to me. How long will this forest last? That’s the big question. When I came here many years ago, there were no housing tamans anywhere beside the Taman Botani Negara Shah Alam. Then chunks of the forest reserve started getting cleared away.
I think Selangorians should treasure this patch of low lying forest because there really aren’t any other comparable places left on the West Coast of Peninsular Malaysia. With the way the forest is getting rapidly chopped away though (as the land is highly coveted), I believe the long term integrity of the Tasik Subang Dam in the north as a continued source of clean water is under serious doubt, although for now, I believe it is still supplying water to some areas in Selangor.
Hopefully, this forest will last a little longer before the sheer pull of Money consumes it up.