Sunday, 1 March 2009

Langkawi rain forest - a five star natural luxury

Ready for a natural history lesson - of sorts?

I'll try to keep it short, although I'm not making any promises as it's not exactly easy to condense such a vast and vital subject into a couple of hundred words.

But here goes.

It comes off the back of a recent trip to the Malaysian island of Langkawi, which bills itself as "brimming with culture, mysteries, legends and an abundance of natural scenery".

It was, the travel agent promised us when we booked last-minute, the "perfect getaway with guaranteed sunshine at this time of the year and wonderful beaches."

And as plans to search for some winter sun in the French Caribbean had fallen through after a series of strikes and protests in both Guadeloupe and Martinique, it seemed the perfect alternative - with the added bonus that we might actually "learn" something rather than sloth it out all day on the beach.

Langkawi, the Jewel of Kedah is in reality an archipelago of 99 islands (plus five other temporary ones) with the largest being Pulau Langkawi with Kuah as the capital.

It's where all the "action" takes place.

Actually there's not really a great deal of that in the sense that might be understood in Bali or Phuket, the main competitors in the region in terms of tourist destinations.

Unique treasure

"While the others have the nightlife, surfing and culture," explains tour guide and conservationist Irshad Mobarak, "Here we have something quite unique which has to be treasured and preserved."

And that "something quite unique" comes in the form of one of the world's oldest rain forests and the mangrove swamps.

In 2007 the whole of the island was designated a World Geopark status by UNESCO and that has played an increasingly important role in maintaining the delicate balance between the influx of tourists, which began in the late 1980s, and protecting the environment from our intrusive wanderings.

The government has encouraged a more eco-friendly type of tourism, and although there are more than 70 hotels on the island, a programme has been put in place to make both locals and visitors aware of the need to protect and preserve the treasures the place has to offer.

Mobarak and his colleagues are probably at the forefront of that effort being made to "protect and preserve".

A former banker, he has spent the best part of the past two decades heading up a team of guides aiming to show visitors around while "trying to educate and get across the beauty of the rain forest in a way that helps people understand."

This gently spoken but clearly impassioned spokesman for wildlife naturalism quickly draws the listener in and reveals some of the rain forest's marvels while at the same time drumming home the need for preservation.

"It's the gift of the gab," he freely admits to one morning session of walkers on hearing they're from Ireland. "I have Hogan blood in me too and can tell a good tale."

It's not true though, he can't just "tell" a good tale. He casts a magical spell over the listener as he makes the place come alive in a setting which offers five-star luxury in terms of appreciating what nature has to offer.

Neighbours from hell

One moment he has us all with our necks craned towards the sky as he explains how a pair of kites became the "neighbours from hell" for nesting eagles when they moved in to their territory a couple of years ago.

"The kites have moved on now," he tells us. "And hopefully this year the eagles will be able to raise their young without being constantly pestered. They didn't breed last year."

The next moment he's going into raptures to explain the extraordinary measures undertaken by the tailorbird to build its nest using spiders web to bind together a leaf to provide a suitable "home".

And then he's mimicking the cry of the mighty hornbill, describing its majestic flight and explaining how at the moment we'll only see the males as the females (they're monogamous) are quite literally holed-up within the nest rearing the young.

During a night walk led by Peter, one of Moborak's colleagues, I innocently ask what the constant racket I've been hearing all day is.

"It sounds as though there's some building work going on in the neighbourhood," I say. "It can't possibly be 'nature'."

"Cicades," comes the answer. "Whose song is being sung by the males rubbing parts of their abdomens together (I'm paraphrasing)."

Breeding by (prime) numbers

And then comes Peter's magical explanation of the insect's life and breeding cycles.

"They stay buried in the ground in their immature form for a number of years," he tells us.

"It can be one, three, five, seven, eleven or thirteen years - depending on which group an individual belongs to - always a prime number thereby confusing some likely predators whose lifecycles simply won't be able to cope with such complexity."

He goes on to explain that when they emerge from the ground, it's for one to two weeks of what has to be the noisiest "love song" ranging from "classical" in the morning, "pop" at lunchtime to "heavy rock" in the evening, as every male goes about attracting a bevy of appropriate beauties.

Once the act is done, the female will lay her eggs before dying.

The male will continue his reproductive "warblings" for just a few days longer, before he too dies. Adults mate and reproduce ensuring the existence of a future generation they'll never get to see - a cycle that is repeated and has been honoured by cultures throughout the centuries as a symbol of everlasting life.

Phew - and I had always thought that cicadas were just noisy tropical grasshoppers.

Taking flight

We quickly learn that the rain forest is not just a place where birds take to the wing.

In Langkawi it's also home to flying foxes (apparently a kind of bat - I didn't get to see any) squirrels and even snakes.

And that's all topped off by the flying monkey or otherwise called flying lemur - the colugo.

Although they're not true lemurs of course, which are native to Madegascar - the colugo has recently been confirmed as a "missing link" between two different types of species Peter explains excitedly.

"What had previously been thought of as a rodent has in fact been reclassified only last year as a primate."

Learning from mistakes

A good reputable guide will not take you tramping through the inner heart of the rain forest, destroying and disturbing nature as you go.

Instead they'll stick to the very edge, which will still give the curious more than enough to hear, see and smell.

The same is true of the mangrove swamps. The previously common practice of throwing food for eagles or monkeys is not just discouraged, it's banned. But the mistakes of the 80s and 90s are proving difficult to reverse.

The omnivorous macaque monkeys for example now expect to be fed and line up on the rocks as boats pass by. During a stop at the bat cave, visitors are warned that if the macaques appear they could become aggressive and intrusive as they search for titbits.

"It's an uphill battle," admits another guide. "There's now official certification for those accompanying tourists, and those working illegally are encouraged by others to get the appropriate training," he adds.

"But even though there are regular patrols to ensure that animals aren't being fed, the old habit of getting animals up close to keep the tourists happy and enable them to get some great 'snaps' for the full on experience, is an all-too-tempting one, especially if the guide wants some extra tips at the end."


Tourism has not only arrived in Langkawi, it's very much part of island life now.

It has boosted the local economy and brought with it a degree of development to what was before a small agricultural community - a fact that Mobarak and his colleagues fully acknowledge.

Their job and the responsibility of the government is a delicate juggling act and there's little doubts that they have their work cut out to overturn past bad practices.

"The mangrove swamps are a vital element of the environment," Peter explains at the end of our four-hour tour.

"They're the breeding ground for sea food and we need to protect them," he adds.

The hope as far as Mobarak is concerned is through conservation work and carefully organised tours, there'll be increased awareness of just how precious the rain forest and mangrove swamps are.

"I like to consider myself a conservationist first and foremost, and it's great to see the reaction people get from understanding nature", says Mobarak.

Oh dear. That wasn't very short was it? Apologies.

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