Travel Features > Book Review

National Parks and Other Wild of Malaysia

By WWF Malaysia, Photos by Gerald Cubbit
New Holland Publishers, London 1998

Book Review by Mike Reed

Every once in a while a coffee-table book comes along that offers more than just attractive photographs and bland captions. The National Parks and Other Wild Places of Malaysia is a splendid example of one of these rare exceptions. Put simply, Malaysia has an enormous range and diversity of wildlife habitats, and has gone to considerable lengths to preserve them through an extensive network of national parks, wildlife reserves and forest reserves.

Some of these places are world famous, like Taman Negara in Pahang (Malaysia's first national Park) and Gunung Mulu in Sarawak (probably the World's most spectacular cave system), but others are far less well known and quite infrequently visited. What the publishers have attempted to do is produce a book that covers all of these wild places in depth, and provide the visitor or armchair explorer with everything they need to know to make the most of wild Malaysia. And without a doubt they have succeeded very well.

The introduction is a refreshing change from the usual hectoring monologue on the ideals of nature conservation. It seeks to place Malaysia's natural heritage firmly in its social, cultural, political and economic contexts, giving useful information on population and other aspects of human geography, discussing conservation policy and how this is decided and implemented in different parts of the country, and illustrating the role NGO's have to play. There is also a pointed reminder of the importance of involving indigenous communities in wildlife conservation.

The book itself is broken down into three main sections: Peninsular Malaysia, Sarawak and Sabah. This makes a lot of sense, as they are each roughly similar in size, and scope, and each distinctly different in the range of species and attractions they offer, and in the system of wildlife management.

The Peninsular Malaysia section was a real eye-opener for me. It's full of new information on places I thought I already knew quite well. Langkawi, for example, is described in the tourism literature as an idyllic beach paradise, and I've enjoyed many a gin and tonic while watching the sunset from Pantai Cenang beach. But I had no idea that the crags of Gunung Machinchang behind me were some of the oldest rock formations in Malaysia, at 2.5 billion years, or that many of the butterflies found here are found nowhere else in Malaysia. The Cameron Highlands, Malaysia's best-known hill resort, is also home to clouded leopards and black panthers, a fact I'll bear in mind the next time I take a short-cut across the golf course at night. The sheer number of places where you stand a chance of seeing elephants, tigers, and tapirs are simply amazing.

Onto home territory, I approached the Sarawak section with some scepticism. This is a place I know well, and I was expecting the book to teach me very little. Certainly the descriptions of Tanjung Datu and Gunung Gading national park were very well done, and all the visitor information was accurate. I was very pleased to see a lengthy description of local community involvement in the section on Batang Ai national park, as this is probably the most important factor in successfully preserving the habitat of the wild orang-utan. The section on Similajau national park is also well done, but the writers must have made a very fleeting visit. They point out that "crocodiles have been reported from this area" when in fact many of the streams and creeks that run into the sea here are teeming with hungry beady-eyed monsters that vary in size from the length of my leg up to an enormous 5 metres. The "danger ­ crocodiles" signs around the park should be taken very seriously indeed.

Finally, however, I found it. The kind of literary gem that you only get in the most well-researched books, and something of which I knew absolutely nothing. The Niah national park chapter emphasised the importance of Niah caves as an archaeological site, and the wildlife in the caves and the surrounding forest. Then it introduced one of those stunning facts that only a true connoisseur of bizarre trivia like me can truly appreciate. A small section of the cave floor is home to the world's first and only earwig sanctuary. Apparently a particular roost of naked bats has the misfortune to harbour a parasitic earwig that feeds on the unlucky animal's flaking skin, and occasional earwigs fall off, landing with a plop on the ground below. Pure magic! One thing missing however was a description of the nightly changing of the guard, as millions of swiftlets return to their nests at sunset, and millions of bats emerge to forage for fruit or hunt for insects. The spectacular wheeling, swirling clouds these animals form represent nature at its most magnificent, and are surely worth a mention.

More good stuff is found in the Loagan Bunut national park chapter, with a nice description of the traditional fishing methods of the Berawan people, and their use of carved totems for the burial places of aristocrats. Gunung Mulu national park, with its stupendous cave system and a number of other important geological features, is dealt with briefly and succinctly. The authors know better than to attempt to fully cover this magnificent piece of our planet in a single chapter. The nicest touch of all though is the chapter on the Kelabit Highlands. It emphasises how this remote area is protected not by any kind of statutory legislation, but by the respect the Kelabit people have for their own environment, and their low-impact farming methods.

Sabah is also home to a great selection of natural habitats, and some striking man-made conservation projects, all of which are covered in some depth. What's particularly interesting about this section is that it clearly demonstrates the practical results that can be achieved with well-managed conservation projects. For example, the Turtle Islands national park has demonstrated a sizeable increase in the number or turtle eggs laid since the 1970's, and the description of Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre shows just how important such projects are. A good chapter on Danum Valley Research Centre demonstrates the value of setting aside areas for scientific research, and the closing chapter on Sipadan and the Semporna Islands, a superb marine habitat and one of the world's top ten scuba diving sites.

The book closes with a selection of useful addresses for those whose travel appetite is whetted by the contents, some good recommendations for further reading, and a comprehensive index. All in all, some very small reservations aside, a first-class publication on the text side, which brings us to the all-important visuals.

There's no doubt that most of Gerald Cubbitt's photographs are excellent, and he certainly deserves his reputation as a leading natural history photographer, but the reader should not overlook the fact that another thirty or more photographers also contributed to this book, and a lot of their work is equally impressive. There are no poor photographs in the book, and few average ones. However, I still felt there was something lacking in some of the sections.

The book seems dedicated to presenting as many attractive images as possible of each place, and sometimes the pictures do little to explain the text. For example, one of the aforementioned earwigs in the Niah section, or its unfortunate host the naked bat, would be less visually appealing than pictures of pristine rainforest, but would do far more to illustrate the text. Likewise with Loagan Bunut National Park in Sarawak, where 'the exposed mud forms a crust that cracks in geometric patterns, like paving slabs curled up at the edges,' a picture would have been very useful, if not particularly breathtaking. Also missing were Malaysia's many colourful snake species, many of which are relatively easy to photograph. One small shot of a half-hidden reticulated python does not really do justice to some of the country's most interesting animals.

The maps were generally quite good, but I was left wondering where the geological and vegetation maps and schematics were, because a few of these can say more than tens of thousands of words about the terrain and its inhabitants. Nevertheless, the overall design and layout were very well done, and the book will give hours of pleasure to anyone interested in the natural world.

Having said this, I wonder if the publishers would consider doing a "Mark II" version just for me and people like me. The recipe is easy: take the same excellent content, the best photographs and some good maps, sketches and illustrations. Condense it to A5 size or smaller by pumping up the number of pages, put in a little more information about the park trails and the best places to spot wildlife, and sell it for about 60 or 70 Ringgit Malaysia. In case you haven't guessed, I thing this is a great book, and one I will refer to time and time again. But it has one major drawback ­ I just can't squeeze it into my rucksack.

The National Parks and Other Wild Places of Malaysia is available in bookshops throughout Malaysia at around RM 140.

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