This Malaysian bird sanctuary is full of plants that aren't supposed to be there


A trail camera captured this image of a juvenile white-handed gibbon running across a path in the Panti Forest Reserve during a Malaysian Nature Society scientific expedition into the Panti Bird Sanctuary. — VINCENT CHOW

Scientists have long known that the Panti Forest Reserve in Johor is rich in biodiversity but a recent expedition is also throwing up an interesting question.

A team studying flora during a 21-month expedition made an unusual find: a high diversity of montane (or mountain) species even though the sanctuary is only at an elevation of 484m – montane species are usually found at much higher elevations.

Among others, the Panti peak is home to the slipper orchid (Paphiopedilum barbatum), usually found in mountain forests and endemic to Peninsular Malaysia and Sumatra. Classified as endangered under the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List of Threatened Species, the orchid’s striped purplish blooms are highly prized among flower enthusiasts.

Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) vice-president Vincent Chow says Panti is one of three sites in Johor that houses this montane orchid species.

“Normally, it’s found at between 650m and 700m. It is strange why it is found at Gunung Panti at a lower height of 484m, ” he says during a recent interview.

Into the unknown: A view of the path into Panti Bird Sanctuary in the Panti Forest Reserve in Kota Tinggi, Johor. — VINCENT CHOWInto the unknown: A view of the path into Panti Bird Sanctuary in the Panti Forest Reserve in Kota Tinggi, Johor. — VINCENT CHOW

Peak biodiversity

More bizarrely, early geological reports have indicated that the Panti forest was an emergent structure which arose from the sea, as evident from the fossils of sea gastropods and bivalves found high up the peak.

“Does this mean that the peak was previously higher and has sunk by at least 50m over time? Otherwise, the montane species that are present do challenge scientific logic!” Chow says, sounding quite enthused by the puzzle.

The MNS expedition, which was mooted by former Johor Forestry director Datuk Jeffri Abd Rasip, was flagged off in March 2019 but, much like everything else, it was disrupted in June 2020 by the Covid-19 pandemic. Nevertheless, small groups continued with their work until September.

Made up of 125 retired and working professionals, the expedition actually covered only the Panti Bird Sanctuary, about 1,800ha of the almost 11,000-ha forest reserve. Despite this, the richness of the area’s biodiversity is dazzling: The team recorded 426 species of plants from 112 families, including the vulnerable Kopsia singapurensis, commonly known as the Singapore kopsia, which is only found in Johor and Singapore.

In addition, 234 bird species were noted in 60 surveys, and out of the 221 mammal species in Peninsular Malaysia, 29 were recorded on trail cameras set up by the expedition, including the bearded pig, the pig-tailed macaque, the barking deer, the elephant and the tapir.

The habitats that comprise the reserve include a lowland dipterocarp forest, freshwater swamp forest, seasonal ponds and ditches, as well as disturbed areas along edges of roads, paths and plantations.

“The results have indicated that the Panti Bird Sanctuary is very rich in fauna and flora and it may need more input of time and effort to fully record its natural heritage, as much time was lost to the restrictions caused by the Covid-19 problem, ” says Chow, expressing MNS’ hope to conduct long-term studies of the forest reserve.

Members of the Malaysian Nature Society's scientific expedition to the Panti Bird Sanctuary in the Panti forest reserve. — ABBOTT CHONGMembers of the Malaysian Nature Society's scientific expedition to the Panti Bird Sanctuary in the Panti forest reserve. — ABBOTT CHONG

Jewel of the south

Located in the Kota Tinggi district in north-eastern Johor, the Panti Forest Reserve is often dwarfed by the neighbouring Endau-Rompin National Park in both size and fame.

The 87,000ha Endau-Rompin forms part of the southern forest landscape of Peninsular Malaysia and is one of the homes of that increasingly rare animal, the wild Malayan tiger.

Unlike some forest reserves in Peninsular Malaysia, the Panti Forest Reserve is not surrounded by dense development – the historic Kota Tinggi town where the Sultanate of Johor was established is some 16km away. However, it also does not have any links to any existing forest complexes or the Central Forest Spine so it cannot function as a wildlife corridor, which is important for the migration and gene flow of species.

Chow argues, though, that wildlife is capable of adapting to changing size and Panti’s size is ample for resident wildlife, which move according to flowering, fruiting and flooding seasons.

“Local migration of mammals like the bearded pig and elephant have been noted during the 2019-2020 period when the camera-trapping crew discovered visuals captured at different times of the study, ” he says, adding that there could be possible continuous inter-forest reserve migration linkages, namely from the Kahang, Lenggor, Labis and Kluang Forest Reserves to Panti.

And this southernmost forest on Peninsular Malaysia, according to Chow, is sizeable enough to allow for sufficient foraging and living of many large mammals, including elephants and tigers.

Panti’s rich flora and fauna due to its varied habitats can support a very rich and complex food base that will guarantee the survival of thousands of species, he adds.

“It is also an important stopover for migrating forest bird species from the northern hemisphere to rest, feed and recuperate after their long journey, ” he points out.

On top of that, the Panti Forest Reserve acts as a very crucial water catchment area for the river basins of Sungai Johor, which supplies raw water to both the state and Singapore across the Causeway, as well as Sungai Sedili.

A leopard cat caught on camera among foliage at the Panti Forest Reserve. — NICK BAKERA leopard cat caught on camera among foliage at the Panti Forest Reserve. — NICK BAKER

Of pirates and poachers

In a triumph for conservation, the Johor government recently gazetted Panti as a permanent forest reserve, with all logging to cease. Instead, it is now targeted for conservation, ecotourism and research.

On Dec 28, the Johor Forestry Department announced that it detained eight people for illegally entering the Panti Forest Reserve via the Sungai Pelepah Kiri waterfall and hiking without a permit.

This is an offence under Section 47 of the National Forestry Act and punishable with a fine of up to RM10,000 or up to three years jail or both. While such a move may seem extreme, nature lovers and conservationists have often complained in the past of intrusions into the Panti forest reserve for illegal logging and poaching.

Describing the Malaysian forest as a “truly well-stocked supermarket of knowledge” serving many international birders, Chow says the protection of Panti is vital.

And with biopiracy becoming another area of concern, it’s not just illegal loggers and poachers that authorities have to contend with.

“There are many threats to its unique biodiversity present as biopiracy has never ceased.

“Wild orchids and plants known for their medicinal value have been over-collected and the popular kacip Fatimah (Labisia pumila) is difficult to find.

“Poachers have been targeting the popular songbird, the white rumped shama (or murai batu) and consequently, its presence has dropped drastically, ” laments Chow.

The murai batu is caught by poachers and usually smuggled into Indonesia, particularly Java, for the lucrative songbird market.

Even trees harbouring hives of the stingless bee, which produces the kelulut honey that can fetch up to RM260 per kilo, are being cut down to harvest both the hives and the nectar.

“Another targeted species is the karas tree (Aquilaria malaccensis) that produces the expensive resin, gaharu, ” he says.

“If logging were to continue, flooding and loss of biodiversity would be of untold proportions, which could spell the rapid loss and extinction of species unique to the forest system here.”

Moving on, MNS is looking forward to conducting more studies.

The society’s Johor branch presented the new Johor state Forestry director Datuk Salim Aman with the first of its two-part report on the expedition and it has been invited to sign a memorandum of understanding on continuing its scientific study into the entirety of the Panti Forest Reserve.

“This is an honour for an NGO and this is proof of MNS’s long history of assisting the state forest and Wildlife Departments achieve their goals in conservation of sites and species, ” says Chow.

Part one of the PBS Scientific Report is now available from MNS headquarters (03-2287 9422) at RM20. Part two is due out in March.

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