We are walking in Penang’s water supply.
Just a minute earlier, our boat had been stuck yet again on the bed of the very shallow Ulu Muda River. “Turun, tolak (get down, push),” called out our boatman.
Conservationist Hymeir Kamarudin, our guide, explains, “The river used to be deeper. There were many rocks where different fishes could live. Now all we can see is this bed of sand. And the fish have retreated into smaller rivers.”
The culprit, as expected, is logging.
We are on an expedition into the great wilderness of eastern Kedah, organised by the World Wide Fund for Nature Malaysia (WWFM).
Many people may feel that deep forests like these are just for a few “crazy” adventurers or hikers. But they are also very relevant to urban hipsters too: The Greater Ulu Muda Forest Complex (or Ulu Muda for short) actually provides 96% of Kedah’s and 80% of Penang’s water supply.
It is northern Peninsular Malaysia’s largest remaining chunk of rainforest (160,000ha) and functions as a crucial water catchment area for the country’s iconic “rice bowl” (Kedah’s padi fields) as well as the industries in Penang and the Kulim Hi-Tech Park in Kedah.
The term “water catchment” is often heard, but exactly what does it mean?
WWFM staffer Carell Cheong, who drove us up to Kedah from Kuala Lumpur, clarifies: All the roots and leaves of the forest act together like a giant “sponge” that, during the wet season, absorbs excess rain water. During droughts (which hit Kedah in the first few months of 2016), the sponge gradually releases water into rivers.
Without this absorbent sponge, our torrential tropical rains just rush over exposed ground, eroding soil and silting up rivers, and the overwhelming flow of water hits us as devastating floods.
Despite the forest’s crucial role in water supply and flood control, widespread logging is still going on, as reported in The Star (Ulu Muda no longer a paradise).
Nur Fazrina Mohd Ani, the WWFM Ulu Muda programme officer says, “Many of us only care about water from our kitchen taps and may not be aware of how forests provide us with good clean water.”
“It’s sad that despite its huge size and significance to our water supply, Ulu Muda is still unknown to most Malaysians, even to people in Kedah and Penang.”
Hence our trip, to take in journalists, an artist, and photographers, to increase awareness of this precious oasis.
The artist, Christine Das, asks, “How can water supply to people not be of national importance?”
There is good news: most recent logging has been on the fringes of the core forest area and much beauty remains intact (and can be saved). Indeed, as our boat winds its way in, we glimpse wild elephants, white-bellied sea eagles and egrets.
Our boats dock at Earth Lodge, the ecotourism retreat here run by Hymeir.
Fazrina says, “Ulu Muda is an exclusive ecotourism spot. Not because you get luxurious hotel rooms but because it’s rare to see other tourists. And that makes it easier to spot animals.”
An Iranian-German tourist, Fariman Salahshour, who has been staying here for over a week, agrees that it’s a great place for wildlife spotting.
He rattles off a list of his sightings, which includes elephants, gibbons, a tapir and wild boars plus birds such as hornbills, bat-hawks, woodpeckers and bee-eaters. But being less touristy has a downside.
“Ulu Muda is not as well known as Taman Negara,” laments Hymeir. “And so its importance and problems don’t get so much attention.”
One of the main activities here is relaxing boat rides to various salt licks, which are called sira in Malay.
“This is where herbivores come to get their minerals,” explains Hymeir.
“In KL, people go bar hopping between Bangsar, Hartamas and Changkat. Here, the animals do salt lick hopping between places like Sira Gajah and Sira Jawa!” he says with a mischievous smile.
We visit a salt lick called Sira Keladi, which is peppered with clumps of elephant dung and footprints of deer and tapir. Even more fascinating is a salt lick combined with a hot spring called Sira Air Panas. We have to tread carefully to avoid sinking into and scalding ourselves in patches of superheated mud.
On another boat ride I spot otters playfully swimming in the river. However, it is usually difficult to see large (and usually shy and nocturnal) animals in the rainforest due to the dense foliage.
So what conservationists do is to set up “camera traps” that are triggered off by motion sensors.
That night, Hymeir shows us photos of the various animals recorded by a camera set up on a ridge near Earth Lodge. There are pangolins, elephants, tapirs, deers, wild boars and civet cats. A resident sun bear is caught repeatedly lumbering about as if the place belongs to it.
There are amazing shots of big cats: clouded leopards, golden jungle cats and marbled cats – but tigers have not been recorded by cameras set up in various locations over the past three years.
Perhaps this is due to what is captured in other photos showing unique upright apes – also known as Homo sapiens.
“These are probably poachers who sneak in from the nearby Thai border,” notes Hymeir.
However, the story of forest exploitation here is far more complicated than that.
As previous media reports show, in 2003, the Federal Government agreed to pay Kedah RM100mil annually in exchange for the state NOT logging its forests. This was after a proposal for large-scale “low impact heli-logging” in Ulu Muda was found to have negative effects in an Environmental Impact Assessment.
That was the last year of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s tenure as Prime Minister and, subsequently, the money was never paid (Pay us to stop logging, Kedah tells Federal Govt). When PAS took over the Kedah State Government in 2008, logging accelerated as its Menteri Besar then, the late Tan Sri Azizan Abdul Razak, claimed that the state lacked other sources of income.
In the 2013 election, Datuk Paduka Mukhriz Mahathir and Barisan Nasional attacked the PAS administration for the logging and made an election pledge to halt it. Mukhriz famously said then: “To me, a tree is worth more standing than felled.”
But two years after winning the state and becoming Menteri Besar, Mukhriz told the Kedah state assembly in 2015 that the State Government had to issue logging licences as this had been approved by the previous PAS administration.
Mukhriz himself had to step down as Menteri Besar in February this year after a political crisis.
And while the political games continue, the fate of Ulu Muda hangs in the balance.
“Half of the 160,000ha here has been logged,” Hymier states.
Since 2009, there have been plans to gazette the area as a state park. But that will cover only 16% of Ulu Muda, mainly near the rivers and not the upper forest slopes that are crucial for water catchment.
Next morning, I am greeted by the most amazing parade. Thousands upon thousands of flying mayflies, forming a long, wispy, grey “cloud”, are gliding over the river – and they keep going for over 30 minutes!
Today, we are going on a relaxed three-hour trek to the Gua Labua limestone cave. As we trek further in, the trees became grander. The sights grow in diversity.
Lantern bugs (so-called because they seem to be “carrying” “lanterns” in front of them), sit calmly upon a tree trunk. Weird mushrooms sprout from decaying wood. A slender orange snake slithers across our path. A lizard poses for our cameras.
Then we encounter a “bird disco arena”, an unusual clearing in the forest.
“This is where the male Argus pheasant does his dance to attract the female,” smiles Hymeir.
“This is one of the 306 species of birds sighted in Ulu Muda. We also have all 10 species of Malaysian hornbills here and in the nearby Belum-Temenggor area. In comparison, Sarawak, which is called the Land of the Hornbill, only has seven of the 10 species,” he adds.
We end the trip with some relaxing tubing, ie floating down Ulu Muda River in tyre tubes. The vista of tall trees along the banks soothes us as we drift downstream, and we splash ourselves with more of Penang’s (and Kedah’s) water supply.
Will the forest still be able to bequeath its bountiful blessings on future generations?