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Tracking the Tapir


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At night, the animals come out.

No, not the ones in Shinjuku of neon lights and drunken salarymen. It's in the heart of peninsular Malaysia, the premier National Park, named Taman Negara in Bahasa Malay.

Here as the sun sinks below the forest canopy, the daytime heat subsides a little making the temperature more bearable. The nocturnal animals wake up in search for food, using the darkness and the lush vegetation for protection from possible predators.

One popular nocturnal animal found mostly in lowland rainforests is the Malayan tapir (looking like a cross between a pig and an aardvark with a smaller proboscis). One of the largest of its species, weighing as much as 300 kg, they are commonly mistaken to belong to the pig or anteater species. They are in fact in the odd-toed family of species along with horses or rhinoceroses. The black and white coloration of their short coats and their round, yet sleek bodies make them suitable for foraging on the forest ground. Although not an endangered species, the tapir is classified as a vulnerable species with tigers and humans as its only predators. Now legally protected, the species continues to be a target for poachers for their tough and leathery hides.

I was hopeful to see a wild tapir in the jungles of Taman Negara, an animal that I heard only 1 in 4 visitors ever see. The idea of going into a jungle and trying to spot a lone tapir motivated me in a way that birdwatchers wake up early in the morning to spot that elusive Wedge-tailed pigeon or a fisherman waiting all day to catch 'the big one'. The sense of anticipation of discovering the tapir with my own eyes was overwhelming and motivated me to get to the park as soon as possible.

Like most travelers to Taman Negara, my journey starts in noisy, hectic Kuala Lumpur, a concrete jungle of towers and car-infested streets, fumes chocking the dodging pedestrians as they cross the three-, four-lanes of traffic.

At Malaya Hotel in China Town where daily shuttle buses leave for the park, I was greeted with large backpacks in the lobby equipped with the latest camping gear. As I looked at my small rucksack, barely holding enough clothes and supplies for a day trip to Disney Land let alone one of the oldest rainforest in the world, I felt a sense of being unprepared for the journey before me. Didn't the guidebooks advise me to bring leech socks? I would have to make do with a pack of cigarettes to burn off any unsuspecting hitchhikers.

After a three-hour bus ride to the town of Kuala Tembeling, the last outpost of civilization before reaching the park, I was halfway there. The rest of the journey would involve another three-hour ride on a slim wooden sampan on the Tembeling River up north to the park headquarters.

Like Alice falling down a hole, chasing after the White Rabbit, the river journey offers a portal to another world. From a place where the concept of time is mostly 9-5 and space is measured by the number of tatami mats to a world without borders or machines, and time only divided into either day or night.

On the river, the sides are densely packed with flora right up to the riverbanks. A guide told me afterwards that that the jungle does not easily open up its true grandeur for the impatient visitor. With patience and a perceptive eye, the living jungle reveals itself little by little.

Above the roar of the boat motor, in the distance I hear the cackling of a bird, probably a hornbill, one of the most common birds in lowland rainforests. Known for its highly territorial nature, the hornbill wards off competitors with their loud whooping sounds or by banging their bills against a tree. Their distinctive large horn-like protrusions at the top part of their bills, hence their appropriate names, can be seen (or at least heard) throughout the park.

The arrival at Kuala Tahan, where the Taman Negara Resort and headquarters are located, marks an end of a six-hour journey and the beginning of another as the sun sets and the jungles comes to life with activity.

I finally reach Taman Negara National Park just a few degrees north of the equator. The combination of high temperatures and moisture has made life possible with countless thousands of species spread over the 4,343km2 jungle terrain. You could fit almost six New York cities in there, crammed in with as much life and diversity.

With over 200 mammals, over 1000 butterflies, 600 birds and an estimated 10,000 plants, Taman Negara offers one of the world's last refuge from the modern world.

For the human visitors looking for refuge from the city, the resort offers a variety of accommodations from the dormitory rooms for the budget traveler to the upscale bungalow suites, equipped with air conditioner and TV.

For the adventurous travelers willing to live in the most Spartan of conditions without the luxuries of electricity, the hides or 'bumbun' in Bahasa, dotted around the park, offers the best chance to see wildlife first hand as they are situated closely to salt licks in open clearings. The rule is the further away the hide is from the headquarters, the better the chance you have of seeing animals coming up to enjoy a nice tasty salty treat, like the tapir perhaps.

As I waited patiently for my tapir at Bumbun Tapang, an hour hike from headquarters, the sun had already set and as my eyes began to adjust to the darkness, the sounds of the jungle began to resonate all around in a 3-D surround-sound mode as if all the life in the forest knew that I was there, a stranger intruding on their space.

A sound of one insect buzzing in the forest is unnoticeable but the hum of a million fluttering little wings offer an impressive steady tone that complemented well with the distant howl of an animal living up in the canopy or the closer rustling sounds of some wild ground animal, searching for food.

Unfortunately, the odds were against me and I wasn't able to spot a tapir during my sleepless night at the hide but nevertheless the experience of staying overnight out in the middle of a jungle was well worth the hike.

The park offers a variety of trails, catering to every type of trekker, from the day stroller to the 7-day jungle adventurer. For example, there is the 1 km loop trail of Bulatan Rimba, located close to the Taman Negara Resort which takes about an hour to complete. Then there's the trek up to the top of Genung Tahan (2,187 m), the largest mountain in Peninsular Malaysia.

As I completed the loop trail again on my last day, I was thinking of the tapir that I wanted to see on the night at the hide. I contented myself in imagining it was there all along, under the dense vegetation pulling at a young shrub. For my next visit, as the sun sets once again, perhaps I would be able to meet it finally face to face.

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Fact File:

How to Get There: In Kuala Lumpur, you can take buses from Istana Hotel or Malaya Hotel. The 3-4 hour bus trip (30 RM, one-way) will drop you off at Kuala Tembeling where you can take a 3-hour boat trip (20 RM) up the Tembeling River to Taman Negara National Park.

Accommodations: Reservations can be made at Taman Negara Resort, which offers a variety of accommodations from dormitory rooms to chalet suites.

Taman Negara Resort (TNR)
Kuala Tahan, 27000 Jerantut, Pahang
Telephone: 09 266 3500
Fax: 09 266 1500

More Information:

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Published on 7/27/04

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