Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Search For Port Dickson's Coral Reefs

Ask any Malaysian diver or beach goer whether Port Dickson's worth a trip and they'll surely laugh at you. Some said the waters there are like "teh tarik" (milk tea), others claimed that they saw more plastic bags than fishes and some even liken the seawater there to those of a sewerage tank.

Yet, if you ask locals of the older generation, you will be surprised at the different picture they paint about Port Dickson (a.k.a. PD). Several decades ago, it was common to see fishes darting amongst coral reefs in clear turquoise waters. Even my trip to the beaches in the 1990s revealed plenty of reef life. I could still recall those days I could easily find colourful flatworms, reef shells, porites corals, brain corals (Lobophylla sp.), carnation corals (Pectmia sp.), Acropora sp. corals and mushroom corals. And the water's visiblility is slightly above 2m. (That's considered rather good in the Straits of Malacca!)

Old shells and corals found during a beach survey in PD. These are proof of Port Dickson's reefs were once a lively ecosystem.

Port Dickson is indeed a unique ecosystem in the Straits of Malacca as it is one of the few places in the straits where corals are able to establish themselves close to the mainland. In fact, this is arguably the only place in the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia with fringing corals. This is due to the fact that there are but two major river confluences with silty water flowing into PD's waters: The Sungai Linggi River in the South end and Kuala Lukut in the North. Conversely, the majority of the straits' coasts are sandy or muddy with mangroves for hundreds of miles. This is why PD is the place to go for Kuala Lumpur urbanites for a relaxing short trip for decades.

A typical scene in PD - fields of coral rubble stretching for miles along some beaches.

However, it's common sense to many that years of rapid and uncontrolled development and land reclamation works along the coast have all but reduced the corals to rubble. Silty waters covered most of the reefs and prevented life-giving sunlight from reaching the algae in the coral polyps, which they depend on to produce food to survive. With the daily onslaught of waves and rubbish scrapping on the reefs at high tide, there is little room for development of new coral colonies.

But after a diving trip at Lembeh Straits of North Sulawesi, Indonesia and exploring the reefs of Johore and Singapore Straits, I became aware that even environmentally degraded sites hold a surprisingly diverse ecosystem. With that in mind, I turned my attention to Port Dickson's corals. These few areas share plenty of similarities. They are busy ports, experiences rapid development and industrialisation and all have plenty of coral reefs in the vicinity. The only thing that sets them apart is that all of them are fed constantly by strong, nutrient rich currents while PD is pounded by silty, chemical laden concoction of seawater.

A general view of PD.

Nevertheless, an aerial survey of the coast reveals some surprising findings. PD's corals aren't all that lifeless after all:

There are little corals left in the vicinity of the city centre at northern PD.

Some corals can still be seen on the islands and headlands off Kampung Si Rusa although they are either dead or almost destroyed by shoreline development activities.

The corals of Teluk Kemang are one of the more well-researched areas in Port Dickson.

Another well-developed fringing reef at Tanjung Tanah Merah.

Further south, fringing reefs can be seen stretching for several kilometres off Kampung Siginting and Guoman Hotel.

Tanjung Tuan or Cape Rachado is the most well preserved of all of PD's corals because it is gazeeted as a Permeanant Forest Reserve and therefore limits destruction of the marine denizens. However, lack of adequate patrols made it possible for some to encroach and exploit the fishes and corals for aquarium trade.

The patch reefs off Eagle Ranch Resort could be an interesting study area as they are located rather near to the silty mangrove shoreline on the mainland.

A few years ago, a friend of mine stumbled across a vast field of staghorn corals (Acropora sp.) several miles of Port Dickson on an exploratory dive trip; much like in Pulau Pangkor, Perak. So, there are corals that still survive in PD, divable or otherwise. But once again, the construction works on land will soon pull the plug for these poor creatures if nothing is done. More research and explorations has to be done immediately to better understand and manage the reefs.

Hopefully, some sort of protection will be given to these corals soon to avert the already growing danger of the collapse of the marine-related tourism industry and fisheries of the coast. Steps such as diverting sewerage waters from the sea to proper treatment plants and installing proper garbage disposal system should be considered. It is not too late to regain back what Port Dickson was once famous for - The Coral Reefs.

Some related links of interests:
1. New Strait Times-There's Still Hope For Port Dickson
2. Wild Singapore-Uniquely Singapore: City Reefs!
3. Wild Singapore- Sentosa: a shore doomed to reclaimation
4. Executive Summary EIA of a rest house in Pasir Panjang
5. The Star- Illegally Harvested Corals Seized

Reference and Further Readings:
1.Lau, C.M., and Affendi Y. A., and Chong, V.C. , (2009) Effect of Jetty Pillar Orientation on Scleractinian Corals. Malaysian Journal of Science, 28 (2). pp. 161-170. ISSN 13943065 (click here)

2.Sorokin, Y. I. (1993). Coral Reef Ecology. Berlin: Springer-Verlag.

3.Titlyanov, E. A. (1981). Adaptation of reefbuilding corals to low light intensity. Proceedings of the Fourth International Coral Reef Symposium, 2, pp. 39-43. Manila.

4.Bhagooli, R., & Hidaka, M. (2004). Photoinhibition, bleaching susceptibility and mortality in two scleractinian corals, Platygyra ryukyuensis and Stylophora pistillata, in response to thermal and light stresses. Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology Part A, 137, pp. 547-555.

5.Obura, D. O. (1995). Environmental stress and life history strategies, a case study of corals and river sediment from Malindi, Kenya. PhD thesis, University of Miami,Miami.

6.Glynn, P. W. (1997). Bioerosion and Coral-Reef Growth: A Dynamic Balance. In C. Birkeland (Ed.), Life and Death of Coral Reefs (pp. 68-95). New York: Chapman and Hall. (click here)

7.Anthony, K. R., & Hoegh-Gulberg, O. (2003). Variation in coral photosynthesis, respiration and growth characteristics in contrasting light micro habitats:an analogue to plants in forest gaps and understoreys? Functional Ecology ,17, 246-159.

8.Lee, D. M. (2007). A comparative ecological study of the scleractinian corals (Porites rus) in Pulau Tioman and Port Dickson. Undergraduate Thesis, University of Malaya,Institute of Biological Sciences, Kuala Lumpur.

9.Brown, B. E. (1997). Disturbances to Reefs in Recent Times. In C. Birkeland (Ed.), Life and Death of Coral Reefs (pp. 354-379). New York: Chapman and Hall.

10.Yong, A. L. (2002). An ecological study of scleractinian coral in Tanjung Tuan, Port Dickson with regards to different light regimes. Undergraduate Thesis, University of Malaya, Institute of Biological Sciences, Kuala Lumpur.

11.. Hoegh-Guldberg, O. and Smith, G. J. (1989). The effect of sudden changes in temperature, light and salinity on the population density and export of zooxanthellae from the reef corals Stylophora pistillata (Esper) and Seriatopora hystrix (Dana). Journal of Experimental Marine Biology & Ecology (J.Exp. Mar. Biol. Ecol.) 129: 279-303.

12.Westmacott S.K., K. Teleki, S. Wells, J. West. (2000). Management of bleached and
severely damaged coral reefs. IUCN, Gland Switzerland 37 pp.

13.Charles L Angell (2004) Review of critical habitats-mangroves and coral reefs. Final Report. BOBLME. (click here)

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Discovering Kinta Valley's Natural Treasures: Gua Anak Tempurung

"The water in the river is very cold but clear as crystal. Gunong Gaja (sic. Gunung Gajah) comes close down to the river and overhangs. It comes down about 100 feet sheer. It is very striking with caves and stalactites. It must be photographed."
-J.W. Birch, First British Resident of Perak.

Gunung Tempurung as seen from the North-South Highway.

For centuries, Gunung Gajah-Gunung Tempurung complex has fascinated travellers and locals alike. Early Sumatran settlers believed caves in these huge mountains are adobes of genies while western explorers noted and surveyed the karsts' geology, archaeology and biodiversity in awe and wonder. Today, tourists flock to the most well-known of the caves, Gua Tempurung, to get a glimpse of the wonderful stalactites and stalagmites it has to offer. However, little is known about the other dozens of caves that lie off the beaten path. I am about to step into one of them.

The rolling green hills of Gunung Gajah.

Being 6km long, the G. Gajah-Tempurung massif is the largest and southernmost karst in Kinta Valley. Gunung Gajah's summit is 372m high while G.Tempurung's southern and northern peaks are 612m and 497m respectively. This makes G.Tempurung one of the tallest karst in Peninsular Malaysia. To the west, the flat alluvial plains stretch over the valley while the 1234m high granitic Gunung Bujang Melaka dominates the southern landscape. The dome shaped granite mountains facing the eastern flank is Gunung Chantik.

Entering the serene valley of Sungai Siput (South) village, one could imagine how much of Kinta Valley was like centuries ago. There was the characteristic twin-humped Gunung Gajah towering over the western horizon and then there's the sheer dolomite cliff of Gunung Tempurung soaring hundreds of metres above the thick emerald forests which overshadows the valley below. In between these giants stood minuscule wooden shops and houses with reflective pools of water surrounding them, the remains of tin mining in the alluvial flat lands in the heydays. It is here that I met up with the Malaysian Karst Society (MKS) members to gear up before heading into the hills.

Pinnacles on the southern peak of Gunung Tempurung.

We followed the dirt road winding between G. Tempurung and G. Chantik. The vegetation here are mostly of anandara belukar (regenerating bushland). I found some common pitcher plants (Nepenthes gracilis) climbing on trees.

A common pitcher plant Nephentes gracilis growing in regenerating bushland.

A fruit bearing fig tree Ficus fistulosa.

After crossing several kilometres of muddy road with landslides in between, we finally arrived at the entrance of Gua Anak Tempurung, literally translates as the Tempurung Child Cave. There were man made rock barriers on the banks of the stream flowing into the cave, signs of human disturbance. I tried locating landsnails around the thickly vegetated banks. Strangely enough, little was found in this location apart from some broken Dyakia lahatensis (De Morgan 1885) and Cyclophorus malayanus (Benson 1852) shells. After a quick briefing, we entered the cave through the upper dry entrance (there's another wet entrance nearby).

The chamber at the entrance of the cave.

A Cyclophorus malayanus (Benson1852) shell midden. Predatory birds probably used the rocks here to break the shells to extract the animal inside.

The entire cave passage is wet as a stream runs its course across the length of the cave.

Being a river cave, Gua Anak Tempurung is wet throughout its passage although some dry areas can be found in larger chambers. Spanning 1100m, this cave houses myriad of interesting subterranean organisms such as cave crickets, long-legged cave centipedes, the endemic primitive trapdoor spider (Liphistius tempurung), blind cat fishes, bats and possibly freshwater crabs too. Most of these organisms concentrates on the dry guano-sand banks of the cave stream.

A cave huntsman spider Sparassidae species probably feeds on cave insects.

A tailless whip scorpion Sarax brachydactylus (Simon 1892) scurrying for cover. This creature is often associated with wet caves and are fairly widespread across the world.

Silk strands betrays the presence of rare glowing cave worms Arachnocampa species(?) . It is famous in Australia and New Zealand due to them glowing in the dark by their thousands, much like a starry sky.

Another species of tailess whip scorpion? or perhaps a molting form of the same species?

Fungi growing on a rock covered with tiny particles of organic matter.

A common cave cricket Diestrammena sp. .

Surprisingly, there are even cave catfish Clarias sp. here. This fish has evolved its eye to blind or semi-blind conditions due to the absence of light in the cave.

Besides that, the cave's historical significance can also be viewed along its walls and dry stream banks.

A tin bearing vein in limestone fissures. These used to be mined extensively by the Chinese in the early 20th century until it was banned by the British administrators who found them too dangerous to be worked on. The veins here are fondly called Jehoshaphat veins by geologists.

Rocks are piled up to form a bunker as a barrier for the communist insurgents against the government forces back in the days of Malayan Emergency in the mid-20th century.

The highlights of the cave is of course the impressive limestone formations including stalactites, stalagmites, cave straws (thin, young stalactites), cave "teeth" and many more.

A large stalactite in one of the chambers.

The tall but narrow chamber along the cave passage.

Brown stains on the speleoterms are the products of iron oxide mixing with calcium rich water.

This chamber is easily 30m high.

A miniature "cascading" flow stone. This is a rare sight.

The scenery inside the largest chamber in Gua Anak Tempurung.

Black and white wave lines of marble polished by millions of years of flowing stream water.

An exceptionally tall stalactite stretching all the way to the ceiling of the chamber.
These serrated teeth-like stalactites are rather rare in Malaysia. According to our guide, the only other location with several structures like these is in Kedah, northern Peninsular Malaysia.

After two hours in the pitch black with only torchlights guiding our way through the cave, dim sunlight finally breaks from a cave opening. We have reached the end of the cave.

We stumbled out into the sunlit forest beside the white cliffs. There is a swamp near the cave entrance with broken shells of Pollicaria elephas (De Morgan 1885) and Cyclophorus malayanus (Benson 1852) fallen from above. Scanning the algae covered bluish-green limestone wall in the shades of the forest canopy, I could spot some endemic Monophyllaea elongata plants growing in clusters. While far above them, another iconic Kinta limestone endemic flora Paraboea verticillata displays its silver rosettes under the sun.

The scene outside the cave exit is filled with vegetation-typical of the Kinta Karst area.

The endemic Monophyllaea elongata growing on wet limestone.

Finally, we emerged from the bushes and into the logging road and made our way back to civilisation.

The Tempurung-Gajah complex indeed holds lots of fascinating secrets awaiting discovery. The ecological, geological, historical and tourism value of these massifs far outweights the value of cement, marble and other limestone materials extracted from them. Hopefully, they will remain as they are- rugged and majestic, yet serene and beautiful for generations to come.

1.Liz Price, 2001 Caves and Karsts of Peninsular Malaysia. Gua Publications, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

2.K. Dittmar, M.L. Porter, L. Price, G. Svenson, M.F. Whiting, 2003. A Brief Survey of Invertebrates in Caves of Peninsular Malaysia. Malaysian Nature Journal, September, 57(2)221-233. (click here)

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Discovering Kinta Valley's Natural Treasures: Gopeng Rainforest Resort

Nestled in the mighty Kampar River watershed, surrounded by fruit orchards, rubber estates, oil palm plantations and undulating, thickly forested hills with the 2032m high Gunung Brinchang as the backdrop, Kampung Ulu Geruntum is the perfect place to begin my exploration into Kinta Valley's natural wonders.

The kampung (village) is home to a small Semai Orang Asli (aborigines) community. For generations, they have been practicing a conservation-centered lifestyle towards their forest resources and always pay high respects to the rainforest's denizens. As Sumatrans started setting a sultanate in Kinta, these villagers became involved with the settlers by exchanging forest products with rice from the alluvial plains. Fast forward to present day, ecotourism became the newest activity in the village. So far, only three resorts exists in the valley. Therefore, the serenity of the valley is still maintained. I've picked Gopeng Rainforest Resort as my base to jump start my adventure.

This resort is a collection of several types of kampung houses with architectural influences from the Malay stilt houses, the Minangkabau's distinctive "bull horn" roofed houses, Orang Asli Bamboo Huts and Borneo's longhouses. All these houses are scattered across a large, neatly kept durian orchard with two meandering streams. So, I was a bit surprised with what I could find in this highly-disturbed location.

I've followed the larger of the two streams along its banks. Being a moisture-loving creature, landsnails are sure to live around this water body. My search brings me to a leaf-littered area where I came face to face with my first find.

A large operculate, Cyclophorus malayanus (Benson 1852) is named after Malaya, the former name of Peninsula Malaysia.

Excitement abound, I prodded around trying to locate more of these elusive creatures. However, a whiff of tangy, ethanol-infused smell floating in the air attracted my attention. It was a bunch of ripened wild bananas hanging on the tree above me. I picked one and peeled to reveal the cream-coloured flesh with large black seeds.

Wild bananas, Musa sp. does smell and look good but it's likely not going to taste good with those large seeds and little flesh.

I've also came across some interesting local herbs.

Costus speciosus (J.G. Koenig), known locally as Setawar Hutan is closely related to ginger.

An unusual wild ginger, Kaempferia pulchra sheds its leaves during dry spells. Its roots are used as a traditional medicine.

Molineria latifolia (Dryand.) or Lumbah Rimba is a natural sweetener used by the Orang Asli. It is common in lowland and hill forests. It's white fruits when eaten, will produce a mild-sour tinge before mellowing into an extremely sweet aftertaste.

The brilliantly red flower of Etlingera megalocheilos (Griff.) A. D. Poulsen, found in the bushes upstream.

The Blue fruits of Pandanus sp(?) commonly found in disturbed areas near forests.

The strange flower of White Spider lily Tacca integrifolia (Ker Gawl.) found in forests behind the resort.

There are plenty of fungi and mushrooms on the rotting leaves and logs too.

A common orange mushroom on leaf litter.

Fungus on a log.

The unopened Cyathus striatus Bird's Nest Fungi. When fully matured, it will produce a cup with brown egg-like peridioles in it, resembling a bird's nest, hence its name.

Calocera viscosa sprout out from wood surfaces.

The Dictyophora duplicata Maiden's veil Fungus, an uncommon bizarre fungus.

The common Lepiola sp. found in the forests behind the resort.

Cup fungus Cookeina tricholoma are sought after both by photographers and naturalists.

As I reached the narrow strip of vegetation between the stream and an asphalt road (which is the only road winding across the valley), I was in for a surprise. I flipped some decomposing twigs and leaves and there they are. Among the grits of sand and saprophyte roots are microsnails of all kinds.

Geotrochus sp. is a rather common microsnail that can also occasionally be found in home gardens.

Macrochlamys sp. grazing on algae on limestone rock. This is a semi-slug (half snail, half slug).

Cyclotus rostellatus (Pfeiffer 1851) lives around the bases of trees, amongst roots and leaf litter.

The Star of the Day- Diplommatina ventriculus (Mollendorff 1891), an uncommon and beautiful find.

Along with these are some molluscan behavoiur that are equally interesting.

Microsnails on a dead twig, its typical habitat.

The pesky Achantina fulica (Bowdich 1822) involved in a fight for the best mate.

Yellow eggs capsules of the species above deposited in loose soil.

Juvenile snails eating up a dead snail's shell for calcium needed for building its shell. This process is known as "Shell Recycling".

The world's only bio-luminescence snail, Quantula striata (Gray 1834), displaying an elaborate defense technique of blowing slime bubbles to keep the predatory tractor millipede at bay.

This location is indeed loaded with a surprising variety of molluscan species. But, what about other wildlife?

Wild Boar Sus scrofa mud puddles can be seen in the forests. This could be their foraging grounds for food.

I'm fortunate to get a glimpse of the rare Forest Monitor Lizard Varanus rudicollis. This is a juvenile.

A flying lizard Draco sp. ready to spread its "wings" , which are actually highly modified ribs, when confronted by predators.

A Tree-hole Frog Metaphrynella sp. found hiding in a hole near the stream.

A juvenile Oriental Garden Lizard Calotes versicolor sunbathing.

According to the owner of the resort, nocturnal mammals such as Samba deer, Gaur or Kambing Gurun and even Slow Loris do emerge from the forests to look for food in the vicinity after sundown. Luck wasn't on my side though, but I did found plenty of interesting insects.

Mating pair of Tiger Moth Amata huebneri under a leaf. This is a wasp-mimicking, day-flying moth.

An unidentified beetle with metallic blue and white banded elytra (outer shell).

A hairy caterpillar.

The amazing plumose (feathery) antennae of a moth.

A katydid with red spots.

A praying mantis waiting for it's quarry prey near an insect attracting light source.

The famous Rajah Brooke Birdwing Trogonoptera brookiana feeding on mineral salts.

A swallowtail Papilio demolion joined the feast too.

The majestic Atlas moth Attacus atlas, one of the largest moth in the world. I'm truly fortunate to find one!

An egg laying moth.

A green cicada are the producers of omnipresent forest "music".

An unusual moth with spiky tail that will surely give a painful punch to any unfortunate person laying their hand on it.

An unidentified insect covered in lichen to conceal it's identity to potential predators. It's habitat is on tree trunks with lichen.

A weevil beetle on the leaves of an forest understorey plant.

So, that's all for now. The next post will take you to the heart of Kinta Valley's famed limestone hills. Adventures and discoveries aplenty and of course, snails to look for. Stay tuned!

For more information on Gopeng Rainforest Resort, visit their official website:

Khoo Salma Nasution & Abdur-Razzaq Lubis Kinta Valley: Pioneering Malaysia's Modern Development. Perak Academy, 2005