Ulu Muda: Kedah's Neglected Eden

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. 38 No. 4, April 2018

By Fariman Salahshour

Our journey begins from the jetty near Muda dam. The view is magnificent, the peaceful Tasik Muda lake rimmed by verdant forests on all sides. We have barely left the dock, when to our left a Crested Serpent-eagle soars above the line where lake and forest meet. For the next half hour, the boatman navigates between islands and dead trees, victims of the dam, which now serve as excellent perches for ospreys, Lesser Fish-eagles, Grey-headed Fish-eagles, White-bellied Sea-eagles, and an assortment of birds such as egrets, swifts, and kingfishers. The shoreline reveals that the water level rises much higher during the rainy season. Tasik Muda provides good fishing judging by the number of fishing boats on the lake. The fishermen are locals who make a living off the bounty of the lake.

We are in the north-eastern corner of Kedah state in northern peninsular Malaysia in an amazing forest known as Ulu Muda, the name derived from the Muda river, which originates in the heart of this vast forest.

What makes this forest particularly important? The absence of the Orang Asli, the aboriginal people of Malaya, means that wildlife has escaped hunting pressure for over half a century. Furthermore, its inaccessibility has kept a lid on rampant poaching so prevalent in other parts of Southeast Asia. Another great feature of Ulu Muda is several areas of high-mineral soil, known as saltlicks or locally as siras… plus several interesting cave systems.

A common sight around the Tasik Muda lake, the Stork-billed Kingfisher uses a ‘sit-and-wait strategy to hunt prey such as fish, frogs, crabs, rodents and young birds.
Photo: Fariman Salahshour


As we approach the river's mouth, the shoreline forms a funnel and pulls in the enormous walls of the green jungle on both sides. On the flat areas of the riverbank, wild pigs graze in good numbers. The near-absence of humans and the fact that most Malays are Muslims who shun pork, favors the wild pigs. Upriver we see more birds perched on vegetation and dead trees. Groups of long-tailed macaques scour the ground for food as dusky langurs pause in their search for green leaves high in the canopy, keeping a careful eye on our intrusion. As we proceed around one bend and the next, more picturesque views delight the soul. We have traveled over two kilometers and we have another two to go to reach camp. On the right bank, in a shallow area covered in dense vegetation, we see movement. A long, greyish shape comes to the surface and dives underwater again. It could have been a water monitor lizard, of which there are many, but this is a family of smooth-coated otters fishing in the shallows. They stand in their typical manner, straight up to get a better view and watch us curiously, before deciding that we pose no threat and continue feeding.

An hour later we reach a point on the left bank where we see a board with an artistic rendition of an elephant's silhouette and the words ‘Earth Lodge. Located at the confluence of the murky Muda river and a smaller clear river, the Sungai Labua, the campus supports around a dozen simple bungalows spread over one hectare. Initially built by the government, the facility is now run by Hymeir Kem, who was first drawn to the area because the caves fascinated him. Recognizing the significance of this forest, he soon found himself turning into a die-hard advocate for the protection of this biodiversity hotspot. The lodge is equipped to meet the most basic needs: there is a water tower, small gasoline-powered pumps, generators, a small solar panel installation for the kitchen and dining area, and a satellite phone for emergencies. Otherwise, its just the forest and its wild denizens, the occasional fishing boat, and much tranquillity. The food is simple yet delicious, the showers not warm but refreshing. And no alarm sound can be as delightful as the daily song of gibbons between six and seven a.m. Wading knee-deep in the Labua and feeling the soft sandy riverbed under one's bare feet is an amazingly invigorating sensation denied to most city dwellers. The peace and mellow pace of life helps you unwind.

Hymeir informs us that all 10 species of hornbill inhabiting Malaysia occur only in Ulu Muda and the Royal Belum in Perak. Between May and September, great flocks of Plain-pouched Hornbill fly from foraging areas to their evening roosts. The record number counted in one evening was an astounding 1,720 birds.

We notice deep tracks of a large animal in the soft mud leading from the river into the jungle. Elephants regularly cross to reach the siras. Some way downriver from the lodge we nudge the boat onto the right bank. A short walk later, and a losing battle against leeches, takes us to an opening in the canopy at a small stream. This is Sira Jawa, and elephant signs and tracks are everywhere. The spoor looked a couple of days old. The rich soil contains iron, calcium, and zinc amongst other minerals, which helps supplement herbivore diets.

On returning to the boat, we hear the whistling sounds of a group of nine otters hot on the trail of fish, which the agile mustelids manage to catch more often than not. Mesmerized, our attention is focused on the otter family, until our boatman alerts us to elephants. A family of six led by the matriarch, a small calf in tow, negotiates the soft mud. The matriarch sinks in belly-deep before reaching solid ground. The calf floats on its belly, struggles in the mud, but manages to reach the river with his mother's help. Only when the family group - two adults, two teenagers, and two small calves cross the river does an adolescent male, still dependent on the herd, follow at a safe distance, presumably upon a signal from the matriarch.

A great feature of Ulu Muda are several areas of high-mineral soil known as saltlicks or locally as siras. Seen here is a herd of elephants picking up mineral-rich soil with their trunks at the Sira Ayer Hangat hot spring.
Photo: Fariman Salahshour


The next day we went upriver about 1,000 m. by boat and then walked 100 m. to the hot spring Sira Ayer Hangat and our guide, some 10 m. ahead of us, sees a leopard cat cross the trail. We missed seeing it. A small glade in the forest reveals barren ground with steam and smoke rising up. The smell of sulfur pervades the air as pungent steam hangs in the air. Elephant dung is everywhere. A small cold-water stream on the far side of the glade merges with the hot waters and flows conjoined toward the Muda river. Distinctive three-toed tracks of tapir are imprinted in the softer mud. Tapirs are shy and only venture out at night. A sheet-metal and wood hide on steel stilts has been erected some six-seven meters above ground to one side of the meadow.

The next evening our guide escorts us to the hide at around six p.m., but as we approach the meadow, we hear sounds, and not of the light-footed variety. We circle back and reach the hide from the rear and watch eight elephants delicately pick up mud with their trunks. After 15 minutes they move to the opposite side of the meadow, ingest still more mineralized soil, and then vanish like mist. In the tropics, dusk comes quickly and we turn in soon after dark. Late at night, we are woken by the sound of splashing water. It's a tapir cloaked in darkness. On another night, guests were able to spot the tapir using night-vision goggles.

At sunrise we see a White-breasted Waterhen foraging for food around the hot spring, joined shortly after by a female Red Junglefowl. The wailing sound of the ever-so-secretive Great Argus can be heard, and the commotion we hear turns out to be a pair of Oriental Pied Hornbills across the glade. We also spot a pair of Greater Racket-tailed Drongos flitting from tree to tree and several species of bulbuls. A group of six Bushy-crested Hornbills descend noisily on a tree, then soon fly off. Trees and the architecture of the hidden limit side visibility, but through the gaps in the foliage a large bird can be seen approaching. We heard them every day since our arrival, but today we actually see a Rhinoceros Hornbill! Before we know it, it's time to go and we accompany our guide, who escorts us back to Earth Lodge. Within two minutes we encounter a pair of Black Hornbills across the river from the lodge. As we disembark, a Plain-pouched Hornbill flies high above us towards the lake. Five species of hornbills in a span of two hours since sunrise! And even before we reach the lodge we see a Bat Hawk drawing circles in the sky.

The White-bellied Sea-eagle is often seen perched upright on bare branches close to water waiting to swoop down on unsuspecting fish. Though a coastal species, the White-bellied Sea-eagle can also be seen further inland along rivers and lakes.
Photo: Fariman Salahshour


This afternoon we plan to spend time on the lake and head out after a late breakfast. Halfway to the lake near Sira Jawa, our boatman spots an elephant cooling off in the river. We approach to within 50 m. and stop on the left bank. Before long, four smooth-coated otters land up a few meters from the resting elephant. As the otters - diminutive by comparison - enter the river with indomitable confidence in front of the elephant's nose, the agitated giant trumpets a warning, blowing water in their direction with impressive force. The otters, masters of the wet element, disdainfully ignore the colossal pachyderm and swim casually down the river. In the opposite direction, a young male elephant crosses the river some 70-80 m. behind us, possibly the same one which we saw earlier with the family group. Sandwiched between two elephants, we have little choice but to stay and savor the moment. I turn my head just in time to see a White-bellied Sea-eagle swoop down to catch a fish, miss, and then pull up like a jet fighter.

The boatman cuts the engine, moving closer to the resting elephant, then revs it a few times to gently persuade the elephant to move. The giant trumpets an unmistakable expletive at us, exhales a breath strong enough to turn part of the river into a bubbling jacuzzi, and mock charges us. Wisely we move away and decide to visit the lake another day. On the way back to the lodge, we see a Changeable Hawk-eagle sitting on a branch, looking intently up into the foliage, and moments later disappearing among the leaves. Following a brief commotion, we see the eagle being chased by a Large-billed Crow.

A smooth-coated otter stands in its typical manner, straight up to get a better view and watch the authors group curiously, before deciding that they pose no threat and continues feeding.
Photo: Fariman Salahshour


We reach the lake without an event to typical views of fish eagles, ospreys, kingfishers, hornbills, woodpeckers, and other avifauna. A stand of dead trees serves as perches for birds, and we notice swifts and swallows, some resting on the trees while others chasing after insects or dipping their beaks in the lake on the fly. The maneuverability of these fast flyers boggles the mind. As we are watching their aerobatics, a dark shape swoops in like a missile to pluck one of the swallows with skill and precision. We watch open-mouthed as the Peregrine Falcon carries its prey to a branch. Before the falcon quite lands, an osprey to our left grabs a fish out of the lake and flies off in the opposite direction.

What a rich forest! The action often left us confused as to where we should look for fear of missing out on some rare action or other. On our return to the lodge, we see the group of six elephants we encountered the first day, once again near Sira Jawa, cross the river in the opposite direction, possibly because they already had their daily mineral dose.

We decide to spend the night at the hide at Sira Ayer Hangat the following night.

Within minutes of our arrival, the family of eight elephants is visible, teasing the mineral soil into their mouths before melting back into the jungle. One night, the elephants even visited the lodge but did not come inside the compound. We saw tracks near some of the bungalows close to the river and heard them trumpeting on another night. In all, we saw 16 different individuals from two families, plus lone males within a week. Clearly, the elephants loved the salt lick!

Comprising mainly lowland and hill dipterocarp forests, typical of tropical Southeast Asia, Ulu Muda supports stunning biodiversity, a fact reinforced by camera trap images that reveal clouded leopards, marbled cats, golden cats, leopard cats, sun bears, sambar deer, muntjac, an assortment of civets and even pangolins that are so tragically in decline across their range. Leopards are present and up to a few years ago, locals reported sighting tigers and more recently, have reported tiger signs.

Hymeir suggests a bird count of over 300 species, with more likely to be added. It is clear even from our short visit that this is a hotspot for elephants and otters (which speaks of a very healthy aquatic ecosystem). The discovery of a hairy-nosed otter close to Earth Lodge, the first-ever sighting of the species in Kedah, further reinforces our belief that this area needs extra-special protection as these are rarest of all Asian otters.

Along with the Tasik Muda, two more man-made lakes - the Pedu and Ahning - collect the waters of the expansive catchment area of the Greater Ulu Muda Forest Complex.


Lest our narrations give the wrong impression, we hasten to add that the forest is beset with problems, including encroachments from the east where it borders Thailand and from where poachers launch sorties. Such border transgressions have even been captured on camera trap images, but little effective action has been taken. Logging continues apace as the state government has not decreed full protection status to the forest, though it has recognized the significance of this crucial watershed and has gazetted 35,000 ha. of the total 1,60,000 ha of the Greater Ulu Muda Forest Complex as a forest reserve. But even here we saw evidence of road construction and logging. Siltation, a consequence of logging is now a serious issue. Tire tracks ride roughshod even over the hot springs.

It hurts to see a paradise so wounded. It would be tragic if this ecologically-diverse biome were allowed to fall due to human ignorance. Ironically, the water supply of about four million people in Kedah, Penang, and Perlis, plus an estimated 40 percent of Malaysia's food security, is dependent on this forest. It is imperative that the forest be afforded fullest protection, that logging be stopped and disturbance curtailed. Hymeir and a group of individuals, NGOs, scientists, and other concerned citizens have formed a coalition called ‘Friends of Ulu Muda and have started a petition on change.org to raise awareness. Sanctuary readers are urged to support this campaign to help keep one of South East Asia's great treasures wild and intact.


The Wild Supports Food Security

The damming of the Muda river, commissioned in the 1970s inundated a large tract of forest and resulted in the creation of the Tasik Muda lake, which saw new water-dependent and piscivorous species colonize the area. Beyond the dam, the Muda flows southwest to join the northern border of Penang before emptying its waters into the Strait of Malacca. There are two more man-made lakes here, namely Pedu and Ahning, which collect the waters of the expansive catchment area of the Greater Ulu Muda Forest Complex and feed agriculture, industry, and people of Kedah, Penang, and Perlis. This water catchment also supports the vast rice fields of the Kedah Plains, allowing double cropping, which sustains roughly 40 percent of Malaysia's rice production and is crucial to Malaysia's food security.

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