malaysian naturalist, march 2019
Of wildlife, there’s only a solitary eagle to be seen. However, MNS Partnership Manager Raffi Ismail tells the boat’s occupants – aside from myself, two MNS Kedah members and the PA to Kedah Exco member Ooi Tze Min – that there is wildlife here. “When we were here, we saw some elephants near the lake edge,” he says of a reconnaissance carried out in January.
Of course, Muda Lake is only a small part of the Ulu Muda Forest Reserve that boasts a variety of flora and fauna. Scientific studies over the years have put the number at 111 species of mammals (17 large mammals); 305 birds; 63 reptiles; over 50 amphibians; and 33 freshwater fishes.
The strength of Ulu Muda could lay in the numerous salt licks within the 162,000 hectares of large forested areas, and being part of the contiguous forest extending into southern Thailand, thus supporting the trans-boundary movement of large animals. We’re talking those magnificent beasts – tigers, leopards and tapirs, aside from the peek-a-boo pachyderms.
The forest complex also hosts the migratory plain-pouched hornbill, otherwise only found in the neighbouring Belum-Temengor Forest Complex in Perak, making Ulu Muda only one of two sites in Malaysia with 10 species of hornbills. It is also listed as one of Malaysia’s 55 Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBA) for its exceptional levels of biodiversity.
Then there’s the water. Greater Ulu Muda is the catchment for the Muda, Pedu and Ahning dams, and source of clean water for Kedah, Perlis, Langkawi and Penang for farming, domestic, tourism and industry use.
All good reasons to push for conservation, in line with the National Policy on Biological Diversity and Malaysia’s commitments under the international Convention on Biological Diversity. Leading the way is MNS Kedah, with plans to complete an exhaustive scientific survey, discuss the findings, and advocate for its protection.
The elements are many and varied, including the current planning stage that involves, MNS Kedah Vice-Chair Yani Madewnus Yunus tells me, staking out trails and locations of salt licks, and sites to set up base camps. We’re talking about long periods of study deep in the forest as well, not those lavish glamping set-ups for city slickers. It’s carry your own tents, cooking implements and food, aside from all your equipment and containers for your biological samples.
With the studies, seminars and discussions, the end product of the Ulu Muda Scientific Expedition is a recommendation for future management of Ulu Muda into a potential site to be gazetted as a state park, something the Kedah government is already leaning towards. In this, MNS has experience in two similar scientific expeditions – Endau-Rompin in the 1980s and Belum-Temengor a decade later – both successfully carried out and resulted in a level of protection both forests had not enjoyed before.
Yes, the Ulu Muda Scientific Expedition will take some time – two to three years, says MNS Kedah. Maybe even longer. A conservationist once lamented that he participated in the Belum-Temengor expedition in the 1990s, and yet the full protection of the Royal Belum State Park was only finalised in 2007. That’s some 27 years – and doesn’t include the southern part of Belum-Temengor.
It is, he said, a long game. And one for generations. Here, MNS’s focus on education, schools and children, even primary pupils, may pay dividends in the future. Teach them well, and they will grow up to be conservationists of the future. If Ulu Muda is still unprotected 10, 20 years hence, they may be the ones lugging their tents into the forests to collect samples, camera trap animals, and fight for the survival of Malaysia’s wildlife and protection of the country’s natural heritage.
As I leave Muda Lake, ready for the long drive back to the city along “country roads”, the MNS Kedah strongmen are already getting busy, planning their next move to get the Ulu Muda Scientific Expedition going full steam ahead.
Yani says I should return to see for myself the biodiversity of this precious rainforest. Umm, these forests are home to blood-sucking leeches, right? It’s okay, you go ahead. I’ll wait for the expedition results.