Notes from the Malaysian Rainforest

We had queued up to clear the immigration at the Woodlands Checkpoint in Singapore at 5 AM in the morning. We had planned to reach the Panti rain forest in Malaysia for a nature walk. The Panti forest is located in Peninsular Malaysia which is a two hour drive from Singapore. Mr.Saravanan, a bird photographer from Malaysia, got permission from the forest department for the three of us. 

It rained, but rain in the morning hours is not unusual in Singapore, and it happenned while travelling to Panti. We did not want to cancel the trip as the weather forecast was good. It was very dark until 6 am and rain had continued but by 7 am the sun rose and we had enough time to reach the spot. Around halfway into our journey there was sufficient light to see the silhouette of the crows perched on the power lines, and on the palm trees on both sides of the road. Signboards displaying the Malayan Tapir adorned both sides of the road, recommending drivers to watch out.

The Malayan Tapir is an endangered mammal that lives in Southeast Asia. This is the only native Tapir species in Asia. Due to deforestation in Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia, the Malayan Tapir population is declining. The entire landscape on both sides of the road was completely transformed by the oil palm; Southeast Asian countries are the major producers and exporters of palm oil. Unfortunately, this huge transformation of forests either forces wildlife to stay on the remaining patches of rainforests, with human-animal conflicts, or pushes them out of the forests. 

Singapore lost its last Malayan Tapir in 1986, in Pulau Ubin. However, it was sighted again in 2016, and then disappeared. Surprisingly, it was sighted again on 22nd July 2023 in Singapore, near Coney island, where I live. It was 1 AM in the morning and spotted by some cyclists; one of them shot a video that was good enough to confirm the species. According to wildlife experts in Singapore, the Malayan Tapir left Johor state in Peninsular Malaysia, swam through the straits of Johor, and reached Singapore. The Tapir swam across the sea in search of a suitable habitat, indicating the pressure they have faced due to habitat loss in Malaysia.

Yellow-breasted Flowerpecker

We reached the Panti forest and the rain continued. We found a shelter near the entrance, waiting for the rain to stop. I heard a well-known melodic voice from the nearby shrubbery. I recalled the voice and guessed what it could be, and the bird appeared and clarified my guess. It was the White-rumped Shama, which I have often seen in the Palani Hills. There was a Muntingia tree, commonly known as  Singapore Cherry, next to our shelter. As the rain continued, we were looked for tiny birds in that tree. A beautiful Orange-bellied Flowerpecker was foraging in the branches. My very first sighting of the flowerpecker species was the Pale-billed Flowerpecker in Bangalore many years ago, on the same tree. Remarkably, this Central American tree is suitable for many bird species in Asia.

A perfectly camouflaged Greater Green Leafbird perching on Muntingia Tree

Cream-vented Bulbul

After waiting for an hour, we started our walk on the muddy Bunker Trail, inside the Panti rain forest. Sunbirds, Spiderhunters, and Flowerpeckers were quite common on both sides of the trail. The forest was filled with bird songs and the sound of gurgling streams. A group of Long-tailed Macaque was on the trail. These macaques are native to south-east Asia. Though they are endangered due to habitat loss, this species is very well adapted to the urban areas of Singapore. I encounter them almost every day during my morning walk. We walked further on the trail and heard the echoes of the call of the White-handed Gibbon. This endangered ape lost its habitat due to deforestation. They are usually found on the canopy of the trees. We were unable to see the arboreal apes but we heard the loud calls from the deep forest for a long time. A few Slender Squirrels scurried away after spotting us.

Slender Squirrel

Lesser Green Leafbird

During the walk we observed 26 bird species and 9 of them were bulbul's. These fruit-eating birds probably prefer bushes to feed, perhaps why we saw so many of them. There were more birds in the canopy but we couldn't identify them. But we did observe a few species like the Asian Emerald Dove, the Greater Rocket Tailed Drongo, and the Bronze Drongo, all also found in the Western Ghats. The trail was wide enough for vehicles to operate. Due to this reason, the canopy bridge is fragmented, as also the forest. This fragmentation makes the arboreal creatures like the squirrels and the gibbons come down, even though it is not their natural behavior. While leaving the forest, a huge truck drove inside the forest, probably to collect the fruit bunches from the palm oil plantations. The sound of the vehicle suppressed the call of gibbons.

Gray-bellied Bulbul

Article Published in Leaf Litter Magazine September 2023. ©Satheesh Muthu Gopal

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  1. Wow 😮 Excellent article and too much of patience from you. Wherever you go, please continue the same.. keep exploring and keep writing 💯👏🏼👏🏼 Thanks for sharing this write up with us!