After such a long time, I finally got the chance to step foot into the green shade of the rainforest once again. The past 2 years have been difficult for many, including myself, but then, the call of the wild is still strong as ever. To once more inhale the familiar scent of the forest, and hike the paths underneath the stately trees, invokes feelings of déjà vu that only a kaki hutan (jungle lover) would understand.
This time, the location was the Jerantut Tambahan forest reserve near to Jerantut, a forest area long threatened by various greedy parties. Specifically, this place I went to has been named the SomSet Wildlife area/ecopark, a remnant patch of forest that (so far) miraculously escaped the chainsaws and takes its name after the nearby Som Forest Reserve. In times past, the whole area would be forested, while wildlife roamed about freely without the shackles of man-made roads and boundaries. Currently, the area planned as SomSet Wildlife area or ecopark is about 161 hectares within the greater Jerantut Tambahan Forest Reserve, a crucial part of the Central Forest Spine of Malaysia.
A project of the people from the nearby village of Som, the SomSet Wildlife area or ecopark is the culmination of a long standing battle to preserve the forest reserve near the village from being logged to bits, a struggle that still continues till today – The last stands of virgin forest are still being eyed by the timber towkays. To be clear, there are not many such areas left in the whole of Malaysia. Presently, the remaining forest sits astride a range of low hills while the surrounding lowland plains have all been totally cleared and planted with oil palm. It’s a really sad picture.
It was this relatively small patch of forest that we arrived at, to the calls of argus pheasants echoing from the hills beyond; a little surreal to be honest, simply because the Great Argus Pheasant is now rare, having been largely extirpated throughout Malaysia due to widespread logging activities. Known as Kuang Raya in Malay, this bird has been adopted as the mascot of SomSet Wildlife area. Often heard but rarely seen, this bird is notoriously elusive to photograph in the wild (unless using a camera trap). Its calls must rank as one of the characteristic sounds of the Malayan rainforest, alongside the lar gibbon, siamang, and hornbills.
In development are some facilities at the base of the hills (a former log landing site or matau), such as quarters, toilets, camping facilities, a bird watching tower, and perhaps some future agro-tourism projects. The tower provides a convenient lookout point to observe birds in the vicinity.
Growing in the forest near the base camp are numerous large fig trees that attract a lot of birds, which means that the place has lots of potential to become a future bird watching paradise. There is one particularly enormous old strangling fig tree within view of the bird watching tower that should provide good opportunities to view birds as they alight to feed. There are many giant fig, merbau, and tualang trees here; I can only imagine what a splendid forest this would have been before.
The trail to hike the forest starts from across the stream that marks the boundary between the cleared area and the forest. All the forest along the lower slopes has been logged before and thus a dense secondary forest, but once you ascend higher up the trail, you will enter the primary forest.
Signs of wildlife are still evident. On just my short visit alone, my guide Rafiz pointed out signs of tapir, elephant, and barking deer, which I thought was quite amazing. Maybe the animals have nowhere else to go with all the forest gone, and they are squeezed into this shrinking forest day by day, which is actually not a good sign if you think about it.
Many gigantic trees still stand tall in the primary forest. The largest I came across was one measuring over 2 m in diameter, but there were many others as well, all of them hundreds of years old. That’s why logging is cruel – it cuts down rare ancient trees mainly just to fatten someone’s bank account. In character and species composition, the forest here is likely representative of the former lowland forests in this central part of Peninsular Malaysia (but we won’t really know since they are all but gone).
The trail winds higher up till the peak of the hill, which I was told, is over 700m tall, but I did not hike all the way. There is a pretty stream here; although diminished by the past logging and slightly silted, still retains much of its former character. If there is no more logging for the next 100 years, the stream may well recover.
All in, this is still an interesting and beautiful forest to explore with secrets yet to be discovered. And it needs to be protected. Despite all the damage done by the logging, the remaining forest is worthy of conservation, harboring rich and varied flora and fauna; even the possibility of Rafflesia buds growing here (I was told). At the same time, it’s really sad that this is what the majestic rainforest of Malaysia has been reduced to. If you want to get an idea of how bad things actually are in Malaysia right now, check out this link. We should all be doing more for our natural heritage.