Millennia ago aboriginal hunters came to Taman Negara Malaysia (Malaysia National Park) to fish. Decades ago Malay princes and colonial officers came to shoot game. Today tourists come to take photographs of endangered species.
Taman Negara, peninsular Malaysia’s oldest national park, has finally taken off as a tourist destination. Shorter flying times and a surge of interest in tropical rainforests have helped put it firmly on the Southeast Asian tourist trail.
In the past 10 years visitor numbers have more than tripled. Some 60,000 visitors stayed at park headquarters in 1997, the Parks and Wildlife Department says.
The figure is not far short of the area’s carrying capacity, estimated at 70,000 to 90,000. How many can come without damaging the very thing they want to see? That question is increasingly being asked.
To get to park headquarters at Kuala Tahan requires a three-hour boat ride. Returning after a few days in the park, one British expatriate laments that he could not see more wildlife.
”I suppose with all the people, it frightens them away,” he said. ”I was working in Malaysia in 1987 – not so many people came up here then.”
Taman Negara shelters some of Malaysia’s last tigers and rhinoceros as well as thousands of stunning butterflies.
Although there is plenty to see around park headquarters, visitors have already had a subtle impact, says an official at the Parks and Wildlife Department. Animals that once could be seen within two km of park headquarters now keep up to six km away.
To relieve pressure, new entry points have been opened in the three states the park straddles – Pahang, Kelantan and Terengganu, the official says.
Some people wonder if this will only worsen the problem.
”It cannot be denied that the increasing numbers will have some detrimental effects on the park,” said Sabri Zain, spokesman for the Malaysian branch of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) regarding this Malaysia national park.
”They are certainly aware that in the long term the carrying capacity is something that must be monitored.”
Accommodation at Kuala Tahan, 180 km northeast of Kuala Lumpur, was privatised in 1994. It is now in the hands of Taman Negara Resort.
There are chalets, hostels and a campsite. Visitors can safely walk a short distance into the forest on well-trodden paths. Further on they become less well-kept _ true jungle trails, blocked in places by fallen trees.
For a small fee, guides take small groups on night-time walks in the rainforest to see mushrooms that glow in the dark and hear the night orchestra of thousands of chirping insects.
Hovering above Malaysia National Park
A 400-metre ”canopy walkway” takes visitors right up into the treetops on suspension bridges. Or visitors can spend a night in a ‘hide’, from which they may see larger animals drinking at a salt lick.
It is educational and includes displays highlighting some of the plants and animals that Malaysia has already lost.
But the canopy walkway is often so full of visitors that the animals they come to see are scared off. People’s expectations may be unrealistic, says Sabri of WWF.
”In tropical forests you cannot see the sort of things you see in the savannah,” he said. ”It is a matter of patience. If you are in the hide and you start chattering away, generally animals are not going to go out to the salt lick.”
Taman Negara is said to be the world’s oldest rainforest, dating back 130 million years to the time of the dinosaurs. It is one of the last major areas of rainforest in peninsular Malaysia.
The orang asli, aboriginal descendants of the pre-Malay inhabitants of the peninsula, still live in Taman Negara, largely avoiding contact with the outside world. They may well be hoping that the outside world will not force itself on them.
The status of Malaysia National Park was gazetted in the 1930s, replacing a game reserve, then came invasion by Japan, a communist insurgency and sheer distance kept tourist numbers down, but all that has changed however, these days Malaysia’s blooming economy has plenty of use for tourist dollars.