Rare tiger fossil in cave at Gopeng, Perak, must be preserved

A tiger painting can be seen near the fossil with joss sticks and prayer items around, indicating the presence of worshipping.

THE PERAK state government is keen to preserve Gua Naga Mas in Gopeng because of a unique complete fossil of a mammal embedded in the limestone cave wall.

State Tourism, Arts and Culture Committee chairman Tan Kar Hing said researchers believe the fossil is unique.

“When a group of researchers made the discovery, they compiled a report with officials, confirming it was a carnivore fossil.

“The thing is, during my recent visit to the site and also meetings with several agencies, we did not have much scientific report on it.

“Some claimed that it was a striped tiger, a black panther, a bear and even a leopard. We need to preserve this heritage site,” he said in an interview.

For now, Tan noted that the cave, located in a Siamese temple, was still open to the public .

“The fossil was actually being worshipped in the temple. A tiger painting can be seen next to it with joss sticks and prayer items.

“There was even words in Chinese labelling it a ‘tiger fossil’,” he said, adding that it was important to engage with the local community on the state’s plans to preserve the site and prevent its deterioration.

Stressing that it was important to get more details on the fossil, Tan said he had also received positive feedback from researchers, after he shared about his visit to the site on his Facebook page.

“So far I have sought help from the Museums Department for archaeological assistance.

“I will also call for a meeting in the near future involving all relevant departments, agencies, and researchers to discuss what we can do with this fossil,” he added.

In was reported in 2009 that an animal fossil found in Gua Naga Mas was that of a tiger, during a visit to the site by Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) members in 1992.

The opinion that the fossil is a tiger came from expert conservationist Dr Geoffrey Davison, and further confirmed by Dr Gathorne Gathorne-Hardy, the fifth Earl of Cranbrook with a team of researchers from Universiti Malaysia (UM).

Tan (left) sharing a conversation with government department representatives during his site visit to Gua Naga Mas.
Tan (left) sharing a conversation with government department representatives during his site visit to Gua Naga Mas.

Lord Cranbrook, as he is popularly known, was a senior lecturer in zoology between 1961 and 1970 at UM and the author of several books on wildlife in South East Asia.

Vertebrate palaeontologist Lim Tze Tshen, who was part of the UM research team looking at the fossil with Lord Cranbrook back in 2009, said that he had never seen a fossil as complete as the one in Gua Naga Mas.

“I have been doing fossil hunting and research in peninsular Malaysia since 2004 and I have never seen a fossil as complete as this, except for archaeological human skeletons.

“The Naga Mas fossil is about 80% complete. It is very rare that such a complete carnivore fossil can be found in South-East Asia, and it is definitely the one and only in the country,” he said in an interview.

Lim, who is a former research associate with UM’s Museum of Zoology said that Dr Davison did a very detailed examination of the fossil and came to the conclusion that it was a tiger.

“Unfortunately, his conclusion did not reach a much wider audience, and much confusion arose even to this day with people claiming it was a bear, dog, leopard or serow.

“In 2009, a team of researchers together with the Earl of Cranbrook decided to re-investigate the fossil and we reassessed the preservation condition of the fossil,” he said, adding that their research confirmed Dr Davison’s identification that the fossil was indeed of a small-sized tiger.

Lim, who is now doing his post-graduate study in the University of Cambridge and will be taking a research fellowship in Sarawak Museum in the subject of zoo archaeology, also noted that certain sections of the fossil showed signs of deterioration.

“I got in touch with Dr Davison following the confirmation of the research and we compared pictures of the fossil taken in 1992 and 2009.

“I do not know exactly what caused such deterioration, it could be natural, artificial, or both.

“In fact, a veteran caving expert in Malaysia, Liz Price, raised serious and valid concerns about the sad condition of the fossil and the surrounding areas several years ago,” he said.

“In a sense, Malaysia is unique – we have living tigers in the peninsular; the majestic animals are featured in our national coat of arms; and now we have a complete fossil of a tiger in Gopeng. But are we doing enough to protect it?

“Who knows that one day the hill site together with the fossil might be gone owing to the mining activities, without the knowledge of how important the fossil is to Malaysia and the people, scientifically, educationally, and, perhaps, culturally?” he added.

When asked, Lim said that it was important for the state government to find out which government agencies were responsible for the protection of the fossil and site, as well as the legal protection status of the fossil now.

“It is also necessary to organise an on site reinvestigation of the current status of the fossil, with inputs from all relevant stakeholders, including the temple manager, nature lovers and scientists,” he added.

Meanwhile, Perak’s Malaysian Nature Society chairman Ooi Beng Yean has called for the cave to be gazetted following the fossil discovery by MNS’ Perak caving group more than 20 years ago.

“It is the only place in Perak where this complete animal fossil has been found.

“With its rarity and uniqueness, it should be protected for historical preservation and also controlled eco-tourism to prevent further deterioration in the future,” he said.

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