By Denis O’Connor

Wharfedale Naturalists Society

My wildlife year had several highlights, among which a visit to Malaysia’s Taman Negara stood out. The national park protects about 1700 square miles of virgin tropical forest where the trees are among the oldest and tallest in the world.

I had planned but then had to cancel a trip to Malaysia years before and my ancient map showed no roads into the park with the traditional route being via a 40 mile boat trip. However, in the years since, a road had been constructed and the boat trip largely ruined by the replacement of the forest on both river banks by oil palm plantations.

We drove in and for the final two hours of the drive we passed through almost nothing but these plantations, now the scourge of Malaysia and neighbouring Indonesia. Palm oil is a product in worldwide demand for use in foods, soaps, cosmetics and fuels. The plantations only halted once we reached the river with the park headquarters and accommodation on the opposite bank. The habitat consisted mainly of dense lowland forest, hot and humid and a difficult place in which to locate wildlife although, with a little persistence, very rewarding.

We found many of the forest birds including the Rail-babbler, a long-legged, long-tailed bird now placed in its own family. For me the Red-bearded Bee-eater and the Crested Fireback Pheasants, as exotic as their names suggest, stood out.

The forest was frequently enlivened by the extraordinary musical calls of gibbons while other mammals were Long-tailed Macaques (pictured is one asking me to step back slightly!), leaf monkeys, squirrels, Bearded Pigs and a huge-eyed nocturnal Slow Loris. Butterflies were a constant delight and by the time we left Malaysia I had identified 40 of the more spectacular ones while conscious that, with a country list of 400, I had barely scratched the surface.

To reach Malaysia a long flight was required and, with the consequences of global heating becoming ever more evident world-wide, wildlife tourists like myself are asking whether such extravagant travels can be justified. However, many conservationists believe that wildlife havens such as Taman Negara only continue to exist because of the importance of tourism. Travellers can offset the environmental damage caused by their flights by contributing to forest conservation in tropical areas, with the Rainforest Guardian scheme organised by the RSPB an effective way to do this, but the pros and cons of ecotourism need to be debated further.