Life in the jungle

WHEN lawyer Tai Lai Choy first went to Belum-Temengor to count birds, he was not expecting the entire experience, including staying with the Jahai orang asli, to leave such a big impact on him.

A birdwatching member of the Malaysian Nature Society, he was happy to rough it out for the chance to see the birds during the annual hornbill counting project.

He knew what he was in for. “You must go with the mindset that you are going to live simply,” says Tai, 51. The volunteers cooked and lived in a simple hut consisting of a bamboo-strip platform and thatched roof.

“Open plan,” says Tai. “Very cool, because air can come in through the floor. It was very comfortable.”

The structure of the hut was an introduction into the simple life lived by the Jahai, one of the 19 orang asli groups living in Malaysia. Classified under the Semang (Negrito) subgroup, they are traditionally semi-nomadic, but the Jahai of Temengor was to an extent, forced to settle down after the Temengor Dam flooded most of the forest in the 1970s.

In between three hours of hornbill counting in the morning and evening, the volunteers have time to get to know more about the lives and cultures of the Jahai, who Tai says are great teachers when it comes to living off the land.

“On the rakit (bamboo raft), they paddled us across the lake to gather food for dinner. They took us into the jungle, and taught us how to identify ferns that are edible, and then demonstrated how they cook it. They would just stuff the fern into a bamboo together with some ginger and spices, and cook it over a fire.”

Tai says it was fascinating to see how easy it was to make a tasty meal using fresh, natural ingredients from the forest. In between counting birds, the Jahai, who served as forest guides, showed excited volunteers a budding rafflesia, took them to a waterfall, and showed them how to plant tapioca.

Tai, who has volunteered with the project twice and has been to Temengor on recreational trips previously, observes changes in the landscape.

“There is a lot of logging now. You see tractors, and behind the hills ... you don’t know what’s happening there.”

The hornbill conservation project, in Tai’s eyes, serves an important purpose. “MNS is doing this is to create awareness. The more people are aware, the more they can rally and try to save this pristine forest. But it also helps you understand not just the importance of preserving the forest, but also the importance of preserving the rich, traditional lifestyle of the orang asli. If you experience it (the forest) first-hand, it’s beautiful and it’s eye-opening,” says Tai.

■ This year’s hornbill count starts from August and runs until September, with group rotations of four or five days. Costs to participate in the project range from RM270 to RM400, with all proceeds going back into research work. For more information, go to or, or contact Mabel at

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