I just got back from a weekend excursion to Taman Negara Merapoh (also called Taman Negara Sungai Relau) and the surrounding forest reserves, as part of a volunteer effort to assist PERHILITAN in monitoring the status of the wildlife population there. Once again, the call of the wild never fails to reward me with new and interesting encounters, sightings, and experiences, of which I can only (partially) convey here.
Being only such a short trip, things were hectic, but basically what we did was survey the forest reserves and land adjacent or near to the western border of Taman Negara. Most of these forest reserves are secondary forest, but still form a very important component of the natural wild landscape of central Peninsular Malaysia. It is crucial that the forests of the Main Range (Titiwangsa Range) and the Greater Taman Negara region be connected in perpetuity so as to enable wildlife migration between both regions to continue.
The Merapoh landscape
A characteristic feature of the Merapoh landscape are the numerous limestone karst outcrops found here. These range from little outcrops to massive ones like Gua Peningat, in the heart of Taman Negara itself. Most of these limestone outcrops contain caves; potentially a great ecotourist draw. In fact, the Merapoh region may have a greater concentration of limestone outcrops compared to the Ipoh region, which has long been famous because of it. And most of these limestone outcrops have not been properly surveyed or explored at all.
My excursion involved surveying the forest reserves that comprise the buffer zone alongside Taman Negara’s borders, as well as a little known limestone outcrop called Batu Baoh (in the local Negrito/Bateq dialect) or Gua Runtuh (“Runtuh” Cave or “Fallen” Cave).
As is usual, I had some time off to chill at the ever beautiful Sungai (River) Relau, which was devoid of humans and litter. Being the fasting month of Ramadan, there was next to no one at the river, and consequently, no trash. The Neram (Dipterocarpus oblongifolius) trees were also fruiting; these provided a good meal for the fishes in the river.
The hike on the second day was done outside Taman Negara, which saw me pass an elephant graveyard, albeit one that tragically came about, as I was told the elephant was killed by villagers after it trespassed into the orchards or plantations nearby. The bones of the elephant lay in a small clearing and it appears that the relatives of the elephant still pay regular homage to their fallen relative. Elephants have long memories and are much more intelligent than we realize, so you can perhaps imagine what they feel each time they visit the bones of one of their own killed by those evil humans….
This further underscores the wildlife-human conflict that always happens when WE trespass into THEIR habitant. This region is an ecologically sensitive region but knowing human nature and the inherent greed in human beings, will it be a matter of time before such conflicts increase here and result in more such deaths?
Other signs of wildlife we encountered were sun bear claw marks on some trees. Sun bears are regarded as one of the more aggressive denizens of the Sundaland rainforest largely due to their poor eyesight, which means if startled, they will tend to behave aggressively. Fortunately, we did not encounter any sun bears or (worse) any mother sun bears with cubs.
The highlight of the trip (for me) was a visit to a cave that involved a slightly unpleasant walk through semi-abandoned orchards/secondary forest/belukar. Belukar denotes a highly degraded secondary forest, more like a dense tangle of weeds, climbers, bushes, and small trees.
Further on, this turned into a distinctive lowland dipterocarp forest, one that grows on limestone-rich soil and is common here in Merapoh. This forest sub-type is well developed in Gunung Mulu National Park in Sarawak, where there is also a vast limestone dominated landscape.
We had to literally scramble up a steep hill and peering into the horizon ahead, what appeared as the white sky was actually the sheer rock face of a limestone cliff, towering some 40 or 50 meters tall. We also had to scramble through a small narrow gorge or chasm that was likely once a cave whose roof had collapsed, hence the Malay name – Gua Runtuh.
NB: Treading through such terrain was dangerous as the thick ground cover mat of fallen leaves simply concealed plenty of deep crevices and holes, which one could easily fall into and suffer injuries as a result. Nevertheless, I have to admit – it was exciting (as long as you watch your step carefully). Leeches and stinging ants are the other two natural “hazards” one will have to contend with practically everywhere.
Merapoh’s conservation value
Regrettably, a planned visit to one of the caves there did not pan out due to lack of time, but looking on the bright side, this only gives me another reason to visit Merapoh again. In my opinion, the entire Merapoh area is still a relatively wild and unexplored green getaway for those seeking to be closer to the wilderness. However, a proposed cement production project may destroy all that. Quarrying will destroy those limestone hills just like what has happened to many limestone hills around Ipoh.
Interestingly, a Pahang state tourism minister recently proposed that a Merapoh state park be created to protect the limestone karst landscape, a proposal that I too hope will be taken much more seriously by the Federal Government. The creation of a state park adjacent to Taman Negara which covers most of the limestone hills around Merapoh would definitely go a long way towards conserving Malaysia’s unique floristic and faunal heritage.