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
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.