“There’s a valuable black market for tigers. Tibetans wear tiger-skin robes; wealthy collectors display their heads; exotic restaurants sell their meat; their penis is said to be an aphrodisiac; and Chinese covet their bones for health cures, including tiger-bone wine, the “chicken soup” of Chinese medicine. Experts have put the black market value of a dead, adult male tiger at $10,000 or more. In some Asian countries, tourist attractions called tiger parks secretly operate as front operations for tiger farming—butchering captive tigers for their parts and offering a potential market for wild-tiger poachers too. (Keeping an adult tiger costs $5,000 a year in food alone, but a bullet costs only a dollar.)” (http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/print/2010/01/asian-wildlife/christy-text)
“What was that?” I whispered hoarsely in the dense jungle. The resounding echo of a rumble that a very large jungle dwelling mammal had just emitted bounced off the bamboo trunks, vines, ferns and palm fronds (with spikes that could take out an elephant) shadowed by huge trees that towered over us like the Petronas Twin Towers.
Ash shushed me as all senses went into hyper-mode. Ears perked and eyes followed everything that moved. We waited like shoppers at the gates of Myers on Boxing Day.
“That was probably the grunt of a wild boar,” he finally said. “Usually our presence would scare it off and we’d hear it breaking through the forest.” He looked at us, “so it makes me wonder how big this one is that it doesn’t run off. You don’t want to encounter a 200-kilo wild boar.”
It’s definitely not on my to-do list.
Ash wasn’t just our guide. He is also the program director for MYCAT, a non-profit organisation working in alliance with the Malaysian Nature Society, TRAFFIC Southeast Asia (animal trade), Wildlife Conservation Society-Malaysia Programme and WWF-Malaysia. It’s supported by the Department of Wildlife and National Parks Peninsular Malaysia for the National Tiger Conservation Action Plan for Malaysia and by the generosity of the individual citizen and corporations.
Baz and I were on a recon hike through the jungle on the border of the Taman Negara, which translates into ‘National Park’ (also known as ‘King George V National Park’). This 130-million-year-old tropical jungle rainforest is older than the famed Amazon Jungle. In it reside a few mammals but the one we were after was the critically endangered Malayan Tiger (Panthera tigris jacksoni for all those Latin speakers out there).
One had been sighted in the area 6 months prior. If I were a tiger and there was a 200 kilo wild boar in the hood, I’d hang around too. But since our collective weight wouldn’t surpass an elephant’s toenail, it was a bit of a head scratch to understand what we were doing here.
Oh, right, we were checking to see if there were any fresh paw prints, or worse – human prints – meaning poachers.
We had been in the jungle for 5 days. Our base camp was the camping grounds of the Taman Negara where we slept in concrete huts by the Ralu River.
Ash had provided us with hammocks that had built-in mosquito nets which we tested between the trees. To protect ourselves from potential rain, each hammock had a tarp that was to be tied above it. It also kept the heat in as the temperature dropped during the night.
I was keen to get used to mine so I spent my first night airborne between the trees while Ash and Baz slept in the hut.
The next day we hiked out to set up our camera traps. We headed out just as the sun started to peak through the trees. We had seen photos from previous camera traps that showed Asian elephants, Tapir, Barking Sambar and Mouse deer, Civets, wild dogs, Golden cat, Leopards – black and clouded – Malayan Porcupine, Malayan Gaur (the largest Ox on the planet reaching 6-7 foot at the shoulder), wild boars, Malayan Sun Bear, Marble cat and of course, the cream of the crop – the endangered Malayan Tiger.
I was hoping to see at least one, if not, a few of these mammals, especially an elephant. How hard could it be to miss an elephant?
“Ash,” I turned to our fearless leader, “what’s the protocol if an elephant charges at you?”
“Run,” he said.
“Run?” I scrunched my face. “I thought you’re supposed to stand your ground.”
“Oh, no. You want to run if an elephant charges at you. It won’t stop if you stand your ground. Run and, if it’s still chasing you after a few metres, break off the track into the jungle. The density of the forest will slow it down until it will eventually stop.” One can only hope. “In the event of an elephant charging and we scatter, we’ll rendezvous at the last resting place.”
The rising sun splashed an orange hint on the green ferns, huge trees leaning like the Pisa Tower shading the road, entire Eco systems living on their trunks. Monkeys called out as did Hornbills and Gibbons.
We set up our cameras, tying them to trees, changed over a third one and hiked back to base camp – without seeing so much as a fly. Sure, we saw month-old panther spoors with bone fragments and fur of whatever hapless animal had the misfortune of being on its menu. And elephant dung, now producing fungus, from two weeks back. We also spotted a Gibbon leaping between trees, so you’d think we’d at least see an elephant or hear one.
Still, it was only Day 1 and we were to head deep into the jungle that afternoon and camp in the heart of it, sleeping in hammocks above the jungle floor to avoid leeches, Sun bears, panthers, boars and tigers so chances were as high as Elton John in the 70s.
Ash was hoping that we wouldn’t encounter any of the above (although seeing a high Elton John from the 70s in the Malayan jungle would have been an experience second only to sighting a Malayan Tiger).
“You wouldn’t stand a chance against a tiger,” he said.
Or Elton John.
Tigers are the largest of the predatory cats. They’re also the most lethal, known to take down a Brown Bear, Grizzly Bear, Polar Bear (which just happens to be the largest predator on the land) and elephants.
This is one cat not to play yarn with.
Even though the Malayan Tiger is the smallest of the tiger species, it’ll still pack a punch, claw and bite. Unlike lions, tigers are solitary animals, the cubs make up an average litter of 3 with one or two at best surviving.
Deforestation and expansion of human habitat are a major cause for having tigers on the critically endangered list. But it’s the Asian market that’s killing them off.
It only took 70 years of mankind’s touch to kill off three species – the Balinese, Caspian and Javan – with the rest following close behind. Hard to imagine that just a century ago there were a 100,000 tigers roaming the planet. From the jungles of Southeast Asia to the snowy forests of Siberia. There were nine sub-species but now 93% of its natural habitat has been destroyed, along with the above-mentioned three species,
Illegal logging is another factor where poachers go in and cut down trees, slicing the trunk into planks onsite and somehow, smuggling out the planks without being seen.
The illegal trade of tigers has put their numbers so far down that less than 3,000 remain in the wild (across all species of tigers). In the Taman Negara of Malaysia, only 50-60 Malayan tigers – only recently discovered to having its own unique genetic pool line – have been recorded.
Their dwindling numbers has had a catastrophic effect on the jungle’s Eco system. There’s no other predator in the Malaysian jungle that can control the growing population of wild boars like a tiger can. What panther would be crazy enough to tackle a 200 kilo muscle bound pig? When it charges at anything breathing, be sure that whatever it charged will no longer breathe.
As we trekked through the muddy jungle floor, picking off leeches, flicking off ants the size of a Morris Cooper and doing the best we could to avoid the jaws of the Fire ants, we came across an abandoned poacher’s camp. Bamboo trunks were cut to fit and make a secured shelter. Batteries, plastic bottles and pieces of clothing were strewn all over the ground.
“The poachers, mainly from Thailand, will hunt what they need then head out of the park,” Ash explained, “where they will change their clothes and get picked up and taken to the Thai border –”
“Oh, hello,” I smiled and waved at the two indigenous men that had silently appeared out of nowhere – carrying poison-tipped darts and a blow pipe.
Ash turned, surprised to see them, and began to talk with them as I looked to their feet.
“Baz,” I indicted him to look down, “they’re barefoot.”
Here we were, long pants tucked into winter-thick socks tucked into sturdy military-grade hiking boots, copping leeches that could suck blood through titanium plates and these guys were barefoot without a scratch.
“No leeches?” Baz pantomimed to the men as Ash translated.
The men grinned and shrugged as though to say, ‘What are we? White?’
We onwards to the canyon where, under a limestone rock the size of an earth-destroying asteroid, a tree stood with claw marks on it. From the height Ash determined it to be a black leopard.
“Or it could be a small tiger,” I suggested.
“Could be,” he agreed.
I was hoping for the tiger. I really wanted to see one, despite its killer instinct and ability to take out anything as small as a snake to as big as an elephant.
But the most noticeable mark we found on the jungle floor was the abundance of wild boar hoof prints, their population growing as rapidly as the tiger’s numbers declining. And as though to prove the point, with Baz behind me and Ash looking at his GPS, I looked down and noticed something that was very un-jungle like.
“Ash,” I called to him, “is this net supposed to be here?”
He turned towards me as I pointed at the ground and followed the net. It stretched 60-feet along the jungle floor. Whoever had placed it here was after something big.
“Good catch,” Ash congratulated.
We marked it on the GPS, took photos and decided to wrap it up in the morning, chancing an opportunity to catch the poachers red-handed.
The 16:00 cicadas warned us that we only had light for the next couple of hours. Ash found a camp site by the Taman River where we strung up the hammocks between sturdy trees. He started a fire and after a dinner of 2-minute noodles (best bush tucker around) we sat by the fire peeling oranges.
By the glowing light of the flames, I heard the leaves by my boots rustle and saw something black and hairy with eight legs practically fly across the jungle floor and shoot up Bazza’s pants. His orange became airborne, disappearing into the darkness as he jumped up screaming and cursing as he swiped and wiped at his trousers, flicking off the tarantula while I tried not to roll into the fire from laughter.
After his voice changed back to that of a man’s, we headed down to the river to bathe.
It was here that I discovered a fat leech hiding in the inside corner of my boot. I looked at my right foot and saw that one of my veins had been penetrated.
“Sonofabitch,” I cursed as the blood flowed freely from the tiny pinhole.
It helped my decision of sleeping with my boots on (and in case a 200 kilo boar crashed through with a tiger on its ass, it’d be easier to run in boots rather than barefoot). I climbed into my hammock after wishing everyone, “Goodnight,” and listened to the jungle soundtrack of Gibbon apes howling, cicadas sounding like power tools, birds of a feather flocking together and branches and fruit crashing from the jungle canopies to the ground.
“Just hope that if there’s a tiger around he won’t get too curious and take a swipe at your hammock – with you in it,” Ash said. “There have been recorded incidents of tigers taking cattle, the skulls of the cows shattered just from the swipe of its paw.”
A simple ‘goodnight’ would have sufficed.
The morning bird songs and Gibbon howls had us up early. We needed to pack fast, untangle the net into a collectable pile and head back to the car and meet the weekend group that had come for one of the cat walks.
The cat walks were part of the program provided by MYCAT for individuals and corporations where they could send staff down (or go individually) for a weekend into the jungle, learn about the importance of protecting Malaysia’s national symbol and educate the people about what they can do to suppress poaching and illegal trade in wildlife.
“If you see anything anytime you’re out in the jungle, you can report it confidentially to the wildlife crime hotline. It’s open 24/7,” Mona, a volunteer with MYCAT, was informing the group of product designers.
We took them up a mining road, across an active train track, through an old logging road, had them slipping and sliding on the muddy ground, clambering over fallen tree trunks, battling it out against leeches, identifying animal prints, showing them what a poacher’s camp looked like and trekking through the river.
Not wanting to get my only pair of boots wet, I took them off, flies clouding around my feet. I dipped them into the water and trekked with the group. We stopped on a sandy bank for lunch where I stripped to my pants and swam out into the cool, muddy waters.
A vine was hanging just overhead and I climbed up it like George of the jungle (watching out for that tree) before dropping back to the water. As I swam back to shore, I noticed the thin-legged water spiders that made an effort to move out of my water-churning way.
All but one.
It was an 8-legged Huntsman-looking beast. Its eight eyes had me in its sights as it dove off the bank and jumped across the water towards me. My immediate reaction was to flap about in reverse, almost tripping over my own feet.
Luckily, it quickly tired and jumped back to the beach, leaving me with the realisation that this was the real deal. This was a fucking jungle with tigers (potentially), leopards, bears, monkeys, elephants. I felt like Mowgli in Rudyard Kipling’s classic, ‘The Jungle Book’ – the king of the swingers with just the bare necessities.
We continued to trek through the river to the car park and after resting and showering at base camp, we headed out for dinner where the group put our meals on the company account.
Driving back to base camp, we picked out two Civets climbing up the palm trees.
My first jungle mammal – tick.
We sat around the grassy area between our huts drinking wine, playing with poi, Baz showing off his flaring skills while I strummed my guitar.
The next day we trekked up through a palm oil plantation.
“Just a few safety tips,” Mona began to explain as the group huddled around her. “A tiger has been spotted here so if we come across it, know this: it’s just as afraid of us as we are of it. If it does decide to come at you then you’ll know by it snarling, exposing its teeth, keeping low and ears flattened back. Don’t turn your back to it or it’ll think you’re prey. Back away slowly and if you have a stick in your hand, be ready to use it.
Remember; the most dangerous animal in the jungle is still a human.”
We were leading the group to camera traps within the forest. They were going to change over the batteries and SD cards on three cameras. We hiked up a hill noting deer droppings just meters from the palm plantation.
“If there are deer droppings here, there could well be a tiger in the area,” Ash remarked.
The Sambar Deer (Rusa unicolor), a native to the Malaysian jungle, is the Malayan tiger’s main source of food. A single Sambar could sustain a tiger for a week. Otherwise, it would need to hunt down at least three adult boars to do the same job. And a tiger has a success rate of 1 in 10-15 attempts. That’s a lot of energy used to catch a single meal.
Unfortunately for the tiger, Sambar Deer are becoming rare in the jungle. Another human touch added to its declining numbers.
Trekking on we found two metal trap cages, stacked on one another perched by a tree, poorly camouflaged by its owner.
“Probably poaching civets,” suggested Ash.
Civets (Paradoxurus hermaphroditu) are a cat-like creature of the Viverridae family (and unlike its scientific name, has two distinct sexes). They’re famous for producing the world’s most expensive coffee – Kopi Luwak.
How? You ask, as well you should if your ever offered an exotic cuppa Joe (watch The Bucket List).
This mammal will eat coffee beans, digest them, poo it out and then a human will come along, pick out the Civet-gutted coffee beans and sell it for $50 a cup. The increase in this particular coffee’s popularity has also created a rise in the capture of Civets that are force-fed coffee beans to reach the demand quota.
The main question that should be asked is, Who the hell looked at a pile of Civet poo and said, “Hmm, I bet that’ll make great coffee”? The fact that someone else agreed is also a serious issue.
After changing over the camera batteries and SD cards we trekked back to the cars and headed over to base camp to check the photos.
I undid my shoelaces and as I pulled my right boot off, a fat leech, the size of a golf ball, crawled out like a drunken Irishman. I had to place small squares of toilet paper to contain the bleeding as blood splashed everywhere I stepped for the next three hours.
Our hut soon looked like a murder scene from a CSI show.
The pictures from the camera traps showed us the asses of boars, a monkey, a Sun bear, the elusive (and rarely seen) wild dog and a profile shot of a majestic black leopard.
But no tigers.
After we said our ‘goodbyes’ to the group, we rested for our overnight trek back into the jungle.
Heading out just after 15:00, we hiked down a hill on a 4WD track and walked parallel to the Taman River. The 16:00 cicadas warned us that daylight would soon be fading. We collected firewood as we clambered over a log crossing into an abandoned Batu campsite.
The Batu people are Eco-friendly and build small shelters called, ‘Hya’. It’s made from palm prongs weaved together with vines. We set up our hammocks between some sturdy looking trees and built a campfire. After dinner we trekked down to the river for a splash.
“Oh look, a spider,” Ash pointed with his stick at the 8-legged Huntsman-looking arachnoid. As I stooped to get a better look it seemed to look up at me before it lunged at my boot. I hopped back and it continued to jump towards me like a small convict going for the biggest prisoner in the jail block. I salsa-ed behind Ash as I kicked leaves at it.
“Jesus!” I exclaimed, just managing to rumba away from it.
“What happened?” Baz asked coming up behind me in his thongs.
“Spider, man. It went for me!”
I followed Ash as he pointed them out every few metres. Doing my best Russian gymnast impersonation, I hopped and jumped from side-to-side to avoid them.
“There’s one. And there’s another. One more over here.” He was un-phased by them – a real-life Bear Grylls.
It was ridiculous that something so small could freak us humans out so quickly whilst one of the most lethal predators was (potentially) lurking about, watching and waiting.
The water felt cool as we lay down against a fallen log in the river by the bank, stripped to our boxers. The jungle night life woke up, starting with a few fireflies (that we momentarily mistook for cat-eyes), Gibbons and Macaques warming up their vocal chords, the choir of cicadas singing loud and proud and the occasional buzz of something that would put a C-130 military cargo plane to shame.
“The bigger the insect the less harmful it is,” Ash said philosophically. “Now, in this spot, just so you have an idea, if a tiger sees us and decides we are on its menu, we stand no chance. They can swim very fast. Back when the British colonised Malaysia, pilots flying over the archipelagos of the area would spot tigers in the sea swimming between the islands – up to 50 K’s distance.”
“Tigers swimming between the islands?” I repeated.
“Yes, tigers swimming between the islands,” Ash confirmed.
Even sharks don’t mess with tigers. Now that’s sayin’ somethin’. We were truly in the home of the most formidable predator on land. I mean this animal – beast, if you will – which can take down a polar bear and elephants –
– was the true King of the Jungle.
Although poaching had been largely suppressed due to the awesome efforts of the volunteers and employees of MYCAT and its alliances, the war on the tiger trade is far from over. It’s harder to tackle the issue at hand when certain officials in the wildlife department are being bribed and working alongside those trading in tiger parts and other endangered animals.
One official, having been named and shamed in a National Geographic article) is still working in the very same job that’s putting the lives of critically endangered animals on the extinct list. Like the leech in the jungles of Taman Negara, they’ll find a vein that’ll supplement their need and suck it dry, dropping off in a drunken manner, unable to seal the wound.
The sunset over the jungle as we headed back to Kuala Lumpar, hoping that future generations will have the chance of at least knowing that these majestic mammals may still roam the wild. And that during these 5 days in the jungle, us conservationists had won one battle by dismantling that 60-foot net.
If you’re ever in Malaysia, contact MYCATS through their website, http://malayantiger.net/v4/ and volunteer for a cat walk. It’s an experience that will open your eyes and change your life.