The Krau Widlife Reserve in the center of Peninsular Malaysia, near the town of Temerloh, is one of the least known but most important conservation areas within Malaysia’s network of protected areas. Ask the average Malaysian on the street if they know where or what the Krau Wildlife Reserve is and chances are, they would have never even heard of it. Yet today at about 63,395 hectares, Krau is one of the last remaining areas of lowland tropical rainforest left untouched in Peninsular Malaysia – and therefore one of the most important.
The reason why Krau is so poorly known is because most of the reserve is strictly off-limits to the public with the exception of researchers who already have prior approval – it has been this way for decades. All this despite being apparently the oldest conservation area in Malaysia, having been gazetted in 1923.
The only place in Krau where tourism is allowed and promoted is the entry point at Kuala Gandah, an elephant rehabilitation sanctuary located at the southern border that can get really busy on certain days, seeing that the main draw here are the tame elephants that people get to feed and bathe. There is also a seladang (gaur) breeding center at another entry point where the public can visit, at Jenderak Selatan, but this is hardly known.
Despite the closed off status to the public, I was fortunate to be able to visit Krau Wildlife Reserve at Bukit Rengit quite recently, with the Malaysian Nature Society; it was a short herping/birding trip. Although the visit was very brief, Krau still impressed me greatly with its beautiful, untouched rainforest, and rich biodiversity.
Ecosystems and biodiversity at Krau Wildlife Reserve
Krau is large enough to contain 3 relatively small river systems (Krau, Lompat, and Teris rivers), as well as conserve the montane ecosystem of part of the Mount Benom (or Benum) massif, one of the tallest peaks in Malaysia at 2,107 m. The most important habitat in Krau though, is the lowland zone which comprises over 50% of the reserve and has an incredible amount of biodiversity.
Conservation-wise, Krau Wildlife Reserve is a crucial last refuge for many of Malaysia’s endangered flora and fauna, but being an island of virgin forest surrounded on all sides by plantations, roads, settlements, and production forest where heavy logging is being conducted, the future of Krau is a bit questionable.
Being cut off from other larger forest reserve blocks, Krau has seen its large mammal population dwindle to near zero. The wildlife reserve sits within a larger forest block of some 150,000 hectares which is already fragmented by itself. Today, there are only very few (or none) large mammals like tigers, and gaur in Krau, largely because there is not enough forest to provide viable habitat for them while the rest may have been hunted out. Sumatran rhinos were actually present in the park in the 1960s but of course, they are all gone today, while elephants no longer exist in Krau (despite having an elephant rehabilitation center at Kuala Gandah) because the last few elephants were captured and translocated elsewhere, back in the 1990s. The smaller fauna still exist in reasonable numbers though, and in the past, Krau has been a site for key studies on bats and gibbons.
There are several entry sites for the reserve with their own functions, namely at:
- Kuala Lompat (field studies center)
- Bukit Rengit (Wildlife department personnel training center/field studies center/Krau HQ)
- Kuala Gandah (Elephant rehabilitant center)
- Jenderak Selatan (Gaur breeding center)
The Kuala Lompat field studies station at the confluence of the Lompat and Krau rivers in particular, has been the site of important wildlife studies. The area around the Kuala Lompat station is one of the last examples of freshwater alluvial swamp forest mixed with lowland forest in Peninsular Malaysia, and used to have seladang (gaur) herds roaming the area, of which Krau was originally known for. Meanwhile, Bukit Rengit has a different character, and is an area of classic lowland dipterocarp forest on well-drained soil, framed by beautiful hills covered in hill dipterocarp forest, as the backdrop.
Studies done at Krau have so far found 60 species of amphibians and 60 species of reptiles, representing 56% and about 22% of the total number of species found in Peninsular Malaysia, respectively. The bat biodiversity is also good, with at least 70 species of bats found, the highest from any locality in the Old World (Kingston et al, 2003). There are also at least 298 species of birds recorded in Krau, which is similar to the total found at Taman Negara. This is a very high number of bird species, and indeed the road leading to Bukit Rengit is a popular spot for birders.
Below are some of the frogs encountered during my trip.
In the upper montane forest of Mount Benom, very large purple colored earthworms have been discovered in recent years, which is believed to be the longest earthworm specimens ever found in Malaysia, the longest being 86 cm long and 2.3 cm in diameter. These earthworms are believed to be Phretima spp, based on similar ones found at Mount Kinabalu in Sabah.
Differences between Krau and Taman Negara forest
Since Taman Negara and Krau are the last few examples of primary lowland forest left in Peninsular Malaysia, you might think they are both the same, but it is not the case.
The canopy at Krau appears to have a higher percentage of large dipterocarps, as well as being more uniform in character, while at Taman Negara (at least around Kuala Tahan), the canopy is more broken/irregular, and often dominated by large tualang (Koompassia excelsa). The riverine forest at Krau does not appear to have any neram gallery forest, but further up in Taman Negara, they line the rivers. Taman Negara has areas of heath-like stunted forest, even on low hills, but there are none at Krau. These are just subtle differences, but it goes to show that the jungle is not the same from place to place, and it’s crucial to protect as much of these habitats as possible.
Ongoing Challenges to the Integrity of Krau as a Wildlife Reserve
The boundaries of Krau have not been finalized for decades, and have undergone many iterations, with the last one apparently being in the late 1990s. This is perhaps a reflection on the low status of conservation in Malaysia where nature is always the last priority (maybe that’s why many animals and plants are facing extinction today). Large areas of lowland forest near the edge have been simply degazetted in the past, like 437 hectares in 1996 at Perlok (in the northern area), to make way for an aquaculture development/fisheries center. Altogether, hundreds of hectares have been cleared for settlements by the local communities.
A road now cuts through the reserve (Route C141) at the area of this aquaculture center, and unfortunately, roads expose forests to human intrusions. Periodic cases of illegal logging in Krau (some serious) are still being reported, while logging in the production buffer zone forest reserves that surround Krau is still ongoing, posing a risk should any timber theft occur. The Gunung Benom massif is only partially protected by Krau, while much of the forested slopes are and have been logged or cleared.
Krau as a National Park?
In the past, there were calls to turn Krau into a national park, called the “Gunung Benom National Park” but these were shot down in favor of promoting Taman Negara. It must be said that many of the wildlife reserves in Peninsular Malaysia that were set up by the British before Independence have been logged in the past and/or some have had land taken away from them simply because the status of “wildlife reserve” carries little weight.
Perhaps “responsible ecotourism” patrols like what is being done by MYCAT at the Sungai Yu forest reserve could be considered for the Krau area, especially on the fringes of the reserve, while leaving the interior an off-limits zone. One model conservation area that is quite similar to Krau in some aspects is the Danum Valley Conservation Area in Sabah, which despite allowing tourism, has not affected its role and function as a protected area nor the operations of its internationally renowned field studies center.
Seeing the current predicament of Malaysia’s environment, where forests and wildlife are disappearing faster than ever before, conservation probably only stands a chance of working long term if the nature-loving general public can be somehow engaged and invested in their protection, because it is inevitable that “modern development” will sooner or later reach right up to the doorsteps of the last wild places left on the map of Peninsular Malaysia.
Even at Taman Negara, there is massive clearing outside the border on the opposite side of the Tembeling, where extensive primary jungle once stood a mere 20 years ago. Keeping places sealed up may seem like an attractive option, but may give greater space for illegal loggers and hunters, because logically, eco-tourism (of the right type) should already indirectly serve as a deterrent against such activities.
Let’s hope Krau Wildlife Reserve continues being the sanctuary for flora and fauna that it was meant to be for many more years to come.