Last summer I spent six weeks in Peninsular Malaysia as part of the Perhentian Ecology team (www.facebook.com/PerhentianEcology). We worked on a preliminary study of the terrestrial wildlife of the Perhentian Islands, which is currently relatively understudied. Our research was in partnership with Ecoteer, a responsible travel organisation with various conservation and community projects set up around South-East Asia.
During our stay in 2014 we also had a bit of time at some of Ecoteer's other projects around Malaysia. One of these was based in the village of Merapoh, just outside the largest National Park in the country, the Taman Negara. The project works both on wildlife conservation areas and community work primarily with the Batek, an indigenous tribe, whose culture and way of life is under threat.
This summer I was lucky enough to be asked to return to Malaysia to work as a photographer/videographer with Ecoteer at their project in Merapoh. This is a very brief account of some of the highlights of my 8 weeks in the jungle.
The Malaysian wild is home to a variety of large mammals such as the Malayan tiger, Asian elephant, sun bear and the Sumatran rhinoceros that is thought by some to be extinct. The numbers of these animals in Malaysia has taken a serious hit due primarily to the loss of habitat from deforestation and from illegal poaching. Although some areas of jungle are protected in Malaysia there are still crucial areas that are extremely vulnerable. The two main areas of protected jungle in Peninsular Malaysia are separated by a thin stretch of unprotected forest that is vital for the migration of animals such as the Malayan tapir, gaur and sambar deer as they search for food and mates. These animals are the prey of the Malayan tiger, a sub-species of tiger that is unique to Peninsular Malaysia and is critically endangered. Numbers of Malayan tiger in the wild are disputed, but recent estimates put numbers as low as 250 individuals.
Ecoteer's project in Merapoh conducts regular jungle treks in this area to the north-west of the National Park. The purpose of these walks is to not only record any signs of tigers and their prey, such as pugmarks and scat, but also to hopefully deter poachers through our sheer presence. I cannot say what we found regarding tigers as this is sensitive information that could put the animal at risk, but we were quite successful in finding signs of other animals like leopards, sun bear and multiple deer species. These are promising signs and show the importance of these locations.
The landscape of Malaysia is covered in limestone hills that are often targets of the mining industry. Limestone is a big business in Malaysia but the destruction of these hills can result in disastrous ecological impacts. The hills are full of cave networks that are home to thousands of bats that are vital for pollination and pest control. The underground river systems found in these caves also help regulate the flow of water to the main rivers. We would visit caves at least once a week to demonstrate that their value as a tourist site, as a long-term alternative to destructive mining viability. The fauna we found whilst caving was pretty amazing, but it's possibly not everyone's cup of tea...
One of my highlights of the trip was working with the the Batek community. This Orang Asli (original peoples) tribe used to live nomadically in the jungle, foraging for food and sustainably using natural material to make shelters. Around thirty years ago they were put into a concrete village by the Malay government who didn't want them in the protected national parks and as a lot of the rest of the jungle was destined to be turned into palm oil plantations.
The Batek still rely heavily on the jungle, but are slowly integrating elements of the culture, technology, food and language of the surrounding Malay population. It is quite evident that if this continues at the rate it is, a lot of their unrivalled jungle knowledge could be lost. The unique language they speak is also under threat, spending time with them I learnt that the children often can't even understand the elders because the kids are learning elements of both Batek and Malay. To try and promote the value of their culture and knowledge Ecoteer employs some of the men as jungle guides and hires the women to lead foraging and camping trips for volunteers. Their knowledge of the environment is truly amazing and you can see how potentially beneficial it could be to fields like medicine.
We also worked with the village's children regularly, teaching English classes three times a week. At first they were very shy but over the course of our stay they became very comfortable around us and it was very sad when we had to leave them. As we left one of the ladies asked if we would remember them, needless to say they were unforgettable.
So, at the end of my trip I am left with a few thousand images and lots of memories. Be sure to check back here and on my 500px page (500px.com/joshuagray) where I will be gradually uploading images and in the near future I will be creating my first book containing more stories from my time in Malaysia and drawing attention to the issues facing the country's environment and people.
A big terima kasih to everyone who made this trip possible and made it a brilliant experience (you know who you are).
Ecoteer are always looking for more volunteers to help with their projects and I cannot speak highly enough of their staff in Merapoh, so have a look if you're interested: www.ecoteer.com