In the middle of the Malaysian peninsula lies a rainforest so old it makes the entire Amazon jungle seem like new growth. Taman Negara, literally ‘national park’ in Malay, has lain virtually undisturbed for 130 million years. Located as it is in the centre of the equator, even ice ages left barely a dent in this ancient jungle.
The river winds through thick jungle, much of it undisturbed by man
Not surprisingly, the flora and fauna of Taman Negara are unrivaled; 14,000 species of plants, 200 mammals and 240 types of trees can be found in a mere hectare of this lush rainforest. And with travel within the park limited to jungle tracks and riverboats, much more may still be waiting to be found.
One of the colourful fungi that sprouts on decaying trees
Prior to the Jurassic period, the entire Malay peninsula was submerged underwater. As a result, sedimentary rock and limestone make up the fertile base of Taman Negara and its interesting cave system. Most of Malaysia’s fossils have also been discovered within the limestone of this national park.
A perahu brings visitors to their jungle accommodation
Winding through Taman Negara and serving as its main highway is the Tembeling River and its tributaries the Tahan, Trenggan and Kenyam. Wooden river boats known as ‘perahu’ ply the waters, transporting people and supplies as they have done for hundreds of years. Human habitation along the river can be dated back nearly 2,000 years, bronze artifacts having been found along the river.
A close-up look at the perahu
Living within the rainforest are Malaysia’s earliest inhabitants, or Orang Asli, meaning original or native people. The Orang Asli of Taman Negara are of the Negrito group, who have burial sites in Malaysia dating back 10,000 years.
An Orang Asli village, which can be quickly dismantled when they are ready to move on
The Orang Asli live in settlements of about ten to thirty people. In the rainforest, they still live in hunter gatherer societies, in harmony with nature. When they have almost depleted the section of rainforest they live in, the Orang Asli move on and give the jungle time to rejuvenate.
Orange Asli women and children come down to the river to bathe and fish
The Orang Asli believe that only animals living above ground are best for consumption, so they hunt birds, squirrels and monkeys. Hunting was originally done with bows and arrows but nowadays the Orang Asli find blowpipes more effective. The darts of the blowpipes are tipped with the poisonous sap of the Ipoh tree (Antaris toxicaria). They supplement their diet with fish and jungle fruits.
Image: Bart Van den Bosch
A pet bearcat relaxes in an Orang Asli village
Far outnumbering the human inhabitants are the flora and fauna of Taman Negara. Within the park boundaries there are tigers, Malayan tapirs, elephants, wild boar, various species of deer, leopards, sun bears, civets and wild ox, to name just a few.
Image: Trisha Shears
The strikingly coloured Malayan Tapir, one of the animals found in Taman Negara
Add to this between 200-300 species of birds and thousands of insects making their lives on the jungle floor. Taman Negara has one of the richest ecologies on earth, protected both by its impenetrability and Malaysian law.
Image: Lip Kee
A Streaked Spiderhunter, a species of bird common in the Malaysian rainforest
These days, increasing numbers of tourists visit the national park although, perhaps fortunately, numbers are still regulated by transport restrictions. Although many hope to catch a glimpse of the larger mammals, most of these remain well hidden in the jungle depths.
A Barking Deer, so named for its strange calls
Visitors can, however, still experience the wonder of being in an ancient rainforest and take walks along jungle paths either on the ground or from hanging bridges in the trees.