Secrets of the forest revealed

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 31 August, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 31 August, 2008, 12:00am

Bats have few endearing features. They may be superbly adapted to their environment, but their leathery wings, prominent ears, pointed fangs and nocturnal habits mean they will forever be excluded from the 'cute and cuddly' group of mammals.

But when listening to Ku Ismadi Ku Ishak, a tour guide on the island of Langkawi, you quickly come to realise just how remarkable bats are. Those mythical tales of Dracula, graveyards and screams in the night are entirely forgotten as you marvel instead at a highly evolved creature that plays an indispensable part in the cycles and rhythms of the natural world. They pollinate flowers, disperse seeds and keep mosquitoes under control. And with their sophisticated 'radar' (echolocation) system and acute sense of smell, bats continue to fascinate the scientific community.

For 'Madi', the son of a fisherman, who grew up in the waterways of the Langkawi mangroves, the feeling of wonder has never diminished. Now a guide with Natural History Tours, he has a genuine love for the plants and animals he has known since he was a boy. A one-day eco-trip through the mangroves in his company creates a set of memories that will last a lifetime.

Under his tutelage, a whole new side to nature is revealed to the observant eye, leaving a deeper impression in just a few hours than any number of years in biology classes would. One discovers how every plant, insect and animal has its own place and purpose in the world.

Take the mangrove for example. This unassuming plant, as many have realised too late, acts as a first line of defence against a tsunami along tropical coastlines.

In Southeast Asia, 80 per cent of the mangroves have been destroyed in the past 30 years. Replanting is as difficult as regenerating the rainforest. The elongated seeds of the plant drop from the branches, falling like arrows into the mud at low tide. This allows only a day to establish roots and for a few leaves to open before the possibility that the next tide washes it away.

The mangrove has adapted to the heat of the sun, the salinity of sea water and the power of the tides. It can cling to the shifting, muddy soil thanks to its flexible, elevated stilt roots; and the whole plant breathes through its leaves, bark and specially adapted 'snorkelling' roots which poke out above sea level even at high tide. Sea water rises up through the plant and is filtered, leaving behind tiny salt crystals which are washed off the leaves by the next shower or downpour.

In Langkawi, close to 80 other plants naturally co-exist in the mangrove areas. Madi knows the characteristics of each. He explained how the leaves of a certain plant can be pounded and dropped in the water to blind fish which, sufficiently disorientated, can then be caught by hand and eaten.

As his boat skirted the coastline, we watched troops of monkeys playing along the shores and saw monitor lizards chasing their prey. But it took Madi's trained eyes to spot the snakes camouflaged in the tree branches.

On a two-hour nature walk in the vicinity of the Datai Hotel, Irshad Mobarak, the rugby player turned banker turned naturalist, introduced us to the sights, sounds and richness of Langkawi's bird population.

With his experienced ears he deciphered the noises that brought the rainforest alive and, moving from tree to tree, he picked out the dollar bird's loud, repeated 'did-he-do-it' cry and the bulbul's nasal call. His eagle eyes also spotted the tiniest flowerpecker and tailorbird hiding in the dense foliage, the soaring Brahminy kite and Jerdon's baza, which are just a few of the 226 bird species recorded on the island.

Though essentially self-taught as a naturalist, Mr Mobarak has gained a reputation in Southeast Asia as the 'jungle wallah' for his conservation work. He has been in this neck of the woods for more than 16 years and some of the birds almost seem to have become his personal friends. He is a regular visitor to the nest of the white-bellied sea eagle and was once treated to a rare sighting of their beautiful mating dance. He described how, after a long and exhausting courtship, they hooked their claws together and twirled and fell from a great height, only letting each other go the moment they hit the top of the trees.

Unusually for rainforests, there is a clearly defined dry season from the second or third week of November to March, which makes it the best time to visit. By mid-June, there are regular thunderstorms and torrential rains and October is usually the wettest month of the year.

Development has come late to Langkawi. Electric power only arrived 17 years ago, but this relative isolation has helped to keep much of the island's pristine rainforests and mangroves intact.

Langkawi is taking its environmental resources seriously. Three areas of the island, including the mangroves, were given the status of a Unesco Geopark in June last year. This is the first Geopark in Southeast Asia and the designation comes with many restrictions on development.