A boat ride to see the fireflies in Kampung Dew, Perak, leaves Putri Zanina wondering whether Malaysians care about protecting the country’s ecological wealth
“THERE’S no moon. It’s the perfect time to see fireflies,” says our boatman-cum-guide Abdul Halim Bidin as our boat glides along Sungai Sepetang. It’s murkish water barely shimmers in the pitch dark.
Since we left the jetty at Kampung Dew — a relatively unknown fishing village in Perak — about a quarter of an hour ago, Halim has been excitedly telling us how something so ordinary to villagers like him has become a tourist attraction. For years, there have been huge colonies of fireflies thriving near the small, sleepy village, which is about five minutes’ drive from the Kamunting toll plaza near Taiping.
The natural light show is spectacular. I sit in the boat, entranced. Millions of fireflies flicker in perfect synchronicity in huge berembang (Sonneratia caseolaris) trees on both sides of the riverbank. The berembang trees are a mangrove species that’s the only known habitat for fireflies in the country. The flickering lights in the trees cast brilliant reflections on the surface of the river. It’s like a magic show in the dark. And the show is attracting boatloads of visitors, who have heard about this natural phenomenon in the village.
“Since we started operating this firefly boat cruise about two years ago, the tourists have all been locals,” says Halim, who’s a member of Pertubuhan Kelip-kelip Cahaya Alam Perak (Kecap), a body formed by the villagers of Kampung Dew to manage its firefly location as a tourist destination.
Is this an indication of the changing mindset of Malaysians on the importance of preserving the country’s ecological treasures? I believe that it’s very likely that more Malaysians want to do their bit for nature, if not by volunteering to help preserve nature, at least by visiting natural attractions, and in the process helping the locals to sustain their livelihood within their environment. Simple folk like Halim, for example, are fast learning the advantages of environmental preservation, a crucial element in ensuring the success of Malaysia’s eco tourism.
But eco tourism is not all about environmental preservation only. According to ecomalaysia.org, a non profit-making organisation formed to help preserve Malaysia’s rich ecology, eco tourism focuses on volunteerism, personal growth and environmental responsibility and it typically involves travel to destinations where flora, fauna, and cultural heritage are the primary attractions.
The International Ecotourism Society puts it in simpler terms. It defines eco tourism as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people”.
Here’s where Kecap’s activities are relevant as it has helped uplift the livelihood of villagers like Halim. The person who started it all is Khairul Salleh Ahmad, a teacher from Taiping who’s passionate about preserving the fireflies of Kampung Dew. The locals fondly call him Cikgu Khairul. Responsible for initiating Kecap’s formation, he now serves as association’s secretary while its president is Mohamad Noor Salleh, the village head of Kampung Ayer Puteh near Kampung Dew.
Through Kecap, the villagers, who comprise mainly fishermen and farmers, have been introduced to a new means of supporting their livelihood. They’re also acquiring knowledge on environmental preservation such as the need to keep the river clean and to protect the berembang trees which will ensure the survival of the fireflies in the area.
Helping them with their efforts is Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) which also collaborates with Ramsar Regional Centre East Asia to conserve wetlands and the many natural resources that thrive on the existence of wetlands.
Kampung Dew is located within the Larut-Matang district which is world-renowned for its Matang Mangrove Forest Reserve. It has long been recognised as the best managed sustainable mangrove eco system in the world.
MNS, led by its president, Professor Dr Maketab Mohamad, has conducted studies of the mangroves and the berembang trees along Sungai Sepetang, which involved the villagers who also benefited from learning about the need to protect these natural resources.
MNS, of course, has conducted numerous other nature-related programmes, including for children from as young as 5-years-old who together with their parents, are taken to various nature spots in the country. The programmes involve educational nature walks where they get to learn more about the flora and fauna including marine life.
Support for MNS programmes, which are run by volunteers, has been growing since its formation 73 years ago. It’s the oldest and one of the most prominent environmental NGOs in the country, with a membership of some 5,000 members today from just a handful of its core group in the early days.
Its “indirect” contributions to the country’s eco tourism development — from forest and marine conservation efforts to helping to popularise nature-based activities such as bird-watching and turtle conservation — are enormous.
One of its other rural projects is to educate the women of Kampung Mangkok in Penarik in Setiu district, Terengganu, about the benefits of conserving wetlands. The Setiu Sustainable Development project first kicked off in 2006 when Nestle partnered with WWF-Malaysia to create environmental awareness among the local community. The village women eventually became very active and a year later they formed Persatuan Wanita Kampung Mangkok Setiu or Pewanis, also known as the Setiu Women Entrepreneurs, a non-formal group dedicated to helping its members improve their income. With the additional training on wetlands conservation by MNS, the women have been planting and nurturing mangroves along the beautiful shores of Pantai Penarik to mitigate erosion.
Today, Pantai Penarik has become one of Terengganu’s new tourism jewels, polished further with the presence of a major tourist attraction in the area — Terrapuri — which showcases century-old Malay houses and the rich Malay heritage. It’s owned by Terengganu entrepreneur, Alex Lee, who runs the state’s largest tour company, Ping Anchorage Travel & Tours. Lee himself is a nature lover who fiercely protects Terengganu’s heritage and natural attractions and also creates employment for the locals.
Well-conserved natural tourist spots as well as nature-based activities attract foreign tourists especially those who are ecologically and socially conscious. Considering that Malaysia is still regarded as one of the 12 mega-biologically diverse countries in the world (boasting some 15,000 species of flowering plants, 286 species of mammals, 150,000 species of invertebrates and 4,000 species of fishes in addition to the countless micro-organisms), Malaysians must be doing some things right.
Yes, they do slog it out in conservation efforts. The “silent heroes” who love nature, the volunteers who protect nature just for the sheer love of it, and in turn become volun-tourists themselves are among those who are helping to keep the country’s ecology intact. Today, it’s no longer the domain of foreigners, particularly westerners. More and more Malaysians are into it as well and they have joined their foreign counterparts to make it happen in Malaysia, thus ensuring the continuous inflow of nature-loving foreign tourists.
Malaysia also has many eco-tourism-related events organised on both large and small scales. These include the Tabin Wildlife Conservation Conquest in Sabah, Fraser’s Hill International Bird Race and Taman Negara Eco-Challenge competitions in Pahang.
There are small groups of local volunteers as well such as Waterfalls Survivors whose members visit and clean waterfall areas around the country and Reach, which is a community-based organisation formed by a group of Cameron Highlands residents to push for the preservation, restoration and maintenance of Cameron Highlands as an environmentally sustainable agriculture and hill resort.
In East Malaysia, Sabah and Sarawak locals have got their acts together to preserve their natural bounty, including its forests, caves and seas as well as animals particularly the orang utan, proboscis monkeys and turtles. Both States’ reputation as two of the best eco-tourism destinations in the region is heightened by the inclusion of Mulu National Park in Sarawak and Kinabalu Park in Sabah in Unesco’s World Heritage Sites list.
Then, there’s the geopark in Langkawi Island in Peninsular Malaysia, which has also been recognised as a world heritage site by Unesco. The geopark title is given to outstanding geological landscapes in the world. Langkawi is the only geopark in Southeast Asia and one of 50 around the world.
Additionally, there’s growing awareness among many players in the tourism industry, including hotel and resort owners, on the benefits of being environmentally-friendly. There’s a proliferation of many establishments in recent times which encourage their guests to reuse, recycle, reduce and go greener. Whether many Malaysian guests are into the green initiative is anyone’s guess. But with tourism-related establishments promoting the agenda — with quite a few winning awards for sustainable tourism, such as Frangipani Resort in Langkawi — more Malaysian tourists can be swayed to jump on the bandwagon.
I’m happy with such thoughts as I listen to Halim as he talks about the river which is his playground as well as the main source of livelihood for his village. Indeed, nature, if not protected, will not be able to continue sustaining lives.
Malaysia’s Matang Mangrove Forest Reserve claims the title as the best managed sustainable mangrove eco system in the world.
Boatload of tourists on a wildlife spotting cruise along Sungai Kinabatangan in Sabah.
Scenes like this lure nature lovers to Malaysia.
Fishing villages are also a tourist attraction in Malaysia.