Merapoh is one of the gateways to Malaysia’s greatest national park: Taman Negara, the second oldest tropical rainforest in the world. Today is March 21st, the International Day of Forests, making it the perfect opportunity to celebrate this tree-haven and all its extraordinary natural beauty.
Author: Hugo Bennetts
For those who don’t know, Merapoh is a small town in the centre of Peninsular Malaysia, lying close to the state of Pahang’s northern border with Kelantan. It has sprung up beside Laluan Persekutuan 8, the 402.7 km federal highway that cuts through the heart of Peninsular Malaysia, connecting Kuala Lumpur in the southwest to Kota Bharu in the northeast. The township lies in the Merapoh Forest Complex, CFS-PL1, that connects Taman Negara to the Titiwangsa Range and is thus a hugely important location for Malaysian wildlife. The life here is peaceful, locals tending to their orchards, children busy at school and the roosters crowing the town’s alarm clock. Not far from the Malay community of Merapoh is a rare Bateq settlement, where the indigenous people of Malaysia’s rainforests live out their semi-nomadic lives.
Turn off the highway, cross a little stream, avoiding any particularly adventurous macaques, and nestled in one of Merapoh’s quaint backstreets, you will find the Malayan Rainforest Station (MRS). From the outside, the station appears just like any of the rural Malay houses, the only tell-tale sign being the huge MRS posters you find in the living room. Here, the bookshelves are lined with detailed field guides, the walls are hiding behind whiteboards and their various scribblings, and there is a steady coming-and-going of conservationists, teachers, researchers and volunteers.
So what is it that brings this community of eco-scientists and nature-lovers to a rural Malay house in Merapoh?
Established in 1938, the lowland dipterocarp forest, which is thought to be over 130 million years old, spans a colossal area of 4343 km2. It is home to some of the planet’s most precious wildlife: the critically endangered Malayan tiger, Asian elephants, the Malayan gaur, tapirs, sun bears, gibbons and an explosion of tropical birdlife. Visitors can go on guided or unguided jungle treks through the virgin rainforest, with trails tending to head along the Tahan River or to viewpoints such as Gunung Tahan.
Merapoh lies 7 km from Sungai Relau, Taman Negara’s western entrance, and so is the perfect location for those eager to experience the ancient, immense jungle. There is a network of trails starting at Sungai Relau of varying lengths and difficulties. For those more dedicated hikers, a 4/5-day return trek from Merapoh will take you to Gunung Tahan, the highest point of the Malay Peninsula. If you are to volunteer with the MRS, you also get the unique opportunity to be led on a trek by members of the indigenous Bateq tribe, a community who have inhabited the forest for generations and know all of its secrets.
Note that every visitor to Taman Negara needs to acquire a permit from the Department of Wildlife and National Parks: RM1 for each person and RM5 for each camera.
Agroforestry is a land-use management system that incorporates trees and shrubs into agriculture, be that cropland or pasture. The extra vegetation creates additional habitats for wildlife whilst also making the landscape more natural. Many people see agroforestry as the answer to deforestation and biodiversity loss caused by agriculture.
The areas surrounding Merapoh contain many agroforests and they provide a good opportunity to experience the more sustainable land-use system. In some parts of the semi-forests, as you struggle through the unwelcoming thickets of vegetation, you wouldn’t believe that the land was used for anything. To study their impact, final year students from the Universiti Malaysia Kelantan were recently staying at the MRS to research the small mammal biodiversity of agroforests in Merapoh. Their results will join an ever-growing mountain of research that evidences and fights for the application of agroforestry throughout the world.
Setting forestry aside for a moment, you cannot discuss nature in Merapoh without highlighting its limestone caves. The town is known in Malaysia as ‘caving paradise’ and with over 100 caves and openings ready to be explored, it is a fair claim. Some of them are vast, containing rivers and waterfalls, including Gua Peningat (Elephant Cave), the tallest limestone massif in Peninsular Malaysia. In these subterranean worlds that have taken unfathomable amounts of time to form, you can completely forget of the existence of the modern world and its artificial creations. The caves are home to a variety of animals too, including thousands of swifts that bunch together at sunset to perform an aerial dance just for us.
At the MRS, they are concerned about the increasing number of modern developments that threaten to destroy the caves, so they make sure to maintain a presence in the caves in order that their importance as an ecotourist resource be realised.
I was lucky enough to spend two weeks at the Malayan Rainforest Station in February and as I settled down to one last evening beside the ever-enduring rainforest, feeling the power of its eternal presence, I felt my very self melting into the natural world. I remember thinking: “Where is nature if not here?”