Page: Lessons in the forest

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August 7, 2011

Lessons in the forest


A group of students venture into the jungle of Belum-Temenggor where they learnt to appreciate nature, conservation efforts and a different way of life.

Jostling into a speedboat with his fellow classmates, communications and media student Ramzi Bustami is fretting about meeting new people.

“I’m sort of excited and worried at the same time,” he says, his forehead wrinkled in deep concentration.

“I’m not sure how they’re going to respond to us showing up, or how we’re even going to communicate with each other when we don’t speak the same language... it’ll go well I’m sure.”

We are heading towards an orang asli village located in the Royal Belum State Park in Perak, as part of a student trip organised by University Industri Selangor’s (Unisel) Faculty of Communication and Media.

The village turns out to be a small clearing with a few tatched-roofed huts, populated by the Jahai people of the Negrito tribe.

The students have brought items from Kuala Lumpur that they hope would be useful to the villagers – rakes, clothing, and food supplies – and proceed to unload them at the main meeting hall which doubles up as a kindergarten.

As the students break out to explore the village and meet the locals, Ramzi’s worries seem to have melted away, eagerly shooting off questions to whoever who could speak Bahasa Malaysia and gently coaxing the young children peeping out of their homes to share his packet of sweets.

Meanwhile, Ramzi’s coursemates have established small connections of their own – for better or worse. A few have even bonded by sampling a villager’s rokok daun – a handmade cigarette rolled out of dried leaves.

Overhearing the students’ conversations, it appears that the simple act of experiencing the lifestyle of another culture is making an impact in broadening their world view.

“It’s a bit of a shock to see how people live out here – like how the single room of each hut functions as the bedroom, kitchen, everything.

“They’ve made a home out of practically nothing,” says Siti Mariam Nur Ulfah Zulkifli.

Ramzi and his classmates giving the goods to orang asli children at the village.

This idea of taking students out of their comfort zone was part of the reason for the trip, says journalism lecturer Mohammad Razlan Rashid Ali.

“University study is not just about academia and being in the classroom,” he says.

“I started initiating trips like this to not only let the students have some fun, but also to allow them to gain leadership and teamwork skills.”

Aside from the visit to the orang asli settlement, the rest of the trip plays out in an outward-bound type format, revolving around a lot of jungle trekking, water tubing and rafting activities.

The Royal Belum State Park is part of the larger Belum-Temenggor forest, and its 117,500 hectares of land was given the Royal status in 2003.

With an estimated 3,000 species of flora as well as an important habitat for mammals such as the endangered Sumatran rhinoceros and the Malayan tiger, the area is said to be the only real virgin forest remaining in the country.

The Belum-Temenggor also boasts of being the only forest in Malaysia with all 10 species of Malaysian hornbills, and has three species of the infamously foul-smelling Rafflesia flower.

But before arriving at this idyllic spot, one has to first endure the seven-hour drive from Kuala Lumpur to the Pulau Banding jetty, which serves as gateway to the forest complex.

For this trip, we pile on a houseboat to continue to the journey to the base camp – for a further six hours.

However, passing time on the houseboat is not much of an issue; for one, there is the magnificent view of the dense greenery framing the edges of the Temenggor Lake right up to Sungai Kejar camp site.

Then there is the bursts of commentary on the forest from the houseboat’s owner and navigator, who wishes to be known as Lan.

“This whole valley was a communist area before, and that’s one of the reasons they drowned out this place then, to disrupt communist movements,” says Lan.

This theory aside, the Temenggor dam was indeed completed in 1977 when the area was still was considered a ‘black area’, and the resulting Temenggor lake is the third largest lake in Malaysia.

At the campsite, we are met with Safri Muhiyuddin, a ranger with the Enforcement and Prosecution Division of the Perak State Parks Corporation.

A bubbly and talkative 23-year-old, Safri almost immediately assumes the role of caretaker for our group.

As he shares his experience of working in the field, his passion for protecting the forest is apparent.

“My girlfriend says that I’m more interested in animals than I am in people,” he laughs.

“But I think this place really is a national treasure, and it is important for it to remain pristine.

“That’s why we require visitors to apply for permits before even entering the park – if you have any sort criminal record, no permit will be issued.

“Plus, because we have such close borders to Thailand (there are army camps scattered through out the forest), we have to keep a close watch on who goes in and out.”

While its lush tropical setting has led the state park to being identified in the National Ecotourism Plan for ecotourism development, Safri adds that this is not the main priority.

“Our key work is in conservation, not ecotourism,” he says.

“While it is good for visitors to see and appreciate what Malaysia has to offer, it should not be at the expense of the natural setting of the park.

“When building campsites, for example, there are strict requirements to be met,” he says, adding that campsites are limited to a 1km radius from river banks and must be constructed using only natural materials.

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