Finding flying foxes and aphrodisiacs on Pangkor island

Mention Pangkor, and you'd probably think of the seaside resorts and satay fish snacks that are so often associated with this small island, just off Lumut, Perak.

Nobody could've imagined that in mid-July, over 115 researchers from 14 different institutes in Malaysia would have convened here for the Pangkor Island Scientific Expedition 2017 (PISE 2017). They were joined by 300 local primary school pupils.

Only a 10 minute boat ride from the mainland, this island is home to over 82 species of reptiles and amphibians (herpetofauna).

PISE 2017 was a seven-day event hosted by the Ecotourism and Conservation Society of Malaysia (Ecomy) and supported by Vale Minerals Sdn Bhd. Its aim was to document the local flora and fauna, and help the local community better appreciate the rich biodiversity on the island.

The PISE also aimed to build on the knowledge that the Forestry Department of Peninsular Malaysia had collected from an expedition in 2009.

Another major aim was to promote ecotourism. The Malay saying "tak kenal maka tak cinta" was emphasised time and again by Ecomy co-founder and CEO, Andrew Sebastian, as a reminder that only through getting to know the island can one appreciate its beauty.

(left to right) The huge seed of the bogak tree, after which a place on Pangkor island is named, and a tiny crab on a researcher’s hand.
Photo: The Star/Asia News Network

I was introduced to Ismadi Din, a local naturalist who was interested in becoming a certified nature guide. Sebastian explained that the main eco-tourism issue that he had identified when visiting Pangkor was that there are many locals who take tourists trekking, but are unable to provide their guests with knowledge on the flora and fauna seen during treks.

This led to the birth of the Vale & Ecomy Mentorship Scheme for locals interested in becoming certified Pangkor Nature Guides.

In 2015, Sebastian and a few other leading scientists including Dr Manohar Mariappan (Mano) from Universiti Putra Malaysia, had educated and trained four local people on the history of Pangkor, its flora and fauna (on land and sea) and nature photography.

By 2016, there were five more guides who wanted to be trained and certified as well.

"Ecomy will just be in Pangkor temporarily, but the locals who have been trained as guides will stay and benefit the local economy, making it self sustainable," said Sebastian.

Another important reason for the scientific expedition was to emphasise the importance of the island's biodiversity on land.

Usually tourists visit Pangkor for the sea activities such as banana boating, jet skiing and kayaking. However, they are often blissfully unaware of the beautiful trails scattered around the island.

Both Sebastian and Mano highlighted the fact that a rare tree called Shorea lumutensis exists in only three places in the world, all of them along the west coast of Malaysia, and mostly on Pangkor.

Sebastian also mentioned that he wished there were more local heroes discovering new species, instead of waiting for foreigners to come to the island and discover them.

The purpose of PISE was to address all these issues and produce high quality scientific evaluations of the island that will be useful for the Pangkor Nature Guides and the local community.

Nature experts teaching young ones about sea cucumbers and other marine life found on Pangkor island.​Photo: The Star/Asia News Network

Hornbills, rare trees Hornbills and aphrodisiacs

When I arrived on Pangkor island, I was greeted by the smell of the salty sea and the view of pink taxis all ready to shuttle passengers around the island.

As I pulled up at the Panville Resort, I was warmly welcomed by Andrew Sebastian, the organiser of the Pangkor Island Scientific Expedition 2017 (PISE 2017), and his team.

After unpacking, I went out to explore the surroundings. One of the Pangkor Nature Guides, Mohammad Pin, who is a hornbill expert, told me that every day at 6.30pm in front of the Sunset View Chalet, there would be a hornbill feeding session. Of course I had to go and see it.

The hornbills were waiting along phone lines and even right at my feet, eager to be fed. Although it was a great way to gather these majestic birds at one spot for tourists to see, I was upset that their natural diet had been altered. However, Sebastian clarified that they don't actually agree with this feeding practice.

That night, I met two very interesting scientists: Dr Manohar Mariappan (or Mano), an academic who specialises in nature interpretation, and Dr Vincent Teo, a sports scientist and passionate snake specialist. I made up my mind to follow them the next day.

Next morning, we headed to the Sungai Pinang trail. It was steep and slippery at first, but as we ascended, it levelled out. The air was cool at the top and a clear path, a remnant of the logging activities from the 1960s, lay ahead of us.

The group sat down for a quick break, and that's when Mano started telling us the stories of the forest. It started with a small tongkat ali (well known as an aphrodisiac) tree that he had identified.

"Here, taste the leaf. When you try to crumple it, it wont break apart," he said.

The leaf was indeed bitter and the aftertaste stayed in my mouth for the rest of the trek. As we trudged along the trail, I realised I didn't know where we were headed.

"Are we going to the peak?" I asked Mano.

"No, we're going to find a special tree, the Shorea lumutensis," he replied.

A closer look at various species of plants found on Pangkor.​Photo: The Star/Asia News Network

This rare tree is found in only three places in the world, all in the state of Perak, and most abundantly on Pangkor island. It is characterised by its distinct bark that contains resin.

When we finally arrived in front of a specimen, its tall woody trunk towered above me and I arched my neck to see the top.

"See the bark? As the tree grows older, it stretches and the leaves develop patterns. This is like cellulite on humans!" exclaimed Mano as we all looked at the massive tree in awe.

The trek took around 90 minutes in total but everyone felt satisfied after finally finding the lumutensis.

That night, while the scientists would be presenting their first day's findings, I followed Teo to find snakes. We went back to the Sungai Pinang trail, and walked along a small river.

The night trek felt like an Amazonian experience, with vines dangling over my head and only the sound of the river and cicadas ringing in my ears. The perfect setting for a python?

With my feet drenched in water, I prayed that no leeches would bite me, while also hoping that I could get a glimpse of a magnificent python.

Unfortunately, after an hour or so of trekking, we gave up - there was not a snake in sight. Still, we managed to see a few common geckos and a posing toad, much to my amusement. I went to sleep absolutely exhausted.

Next morning, we headed to Teluk Ketapang, named after the Terminalia catappa tree, that is famous for its small seeds that taste like almonds.

We walked along the paved, coastal trail and I enjoyed the cool breeze and shade provided by the overhead canopy. It was a picturesque and easy trek, enhanced by the stories told by Mano.

The last day of my adventure was a trip to Paksu's famous salted fish and spicy squid snack shop. While I sat on the ferry back, I realised that the expedition was not only about enjoying the beautiful beach and sea of Pangkor, but also to experience the richness of the jungle.

The magnificent Shorea lumutensis tree is found in only three places in the world, and mostly in Pangkor.Photo: The Star/Asia News Network

Treasure trove

The initial scientific findings for Pangkor's biodiversity are exciting, according to Andrew Sebastian, the event organiser. These include:

  • 42 species of dragonflies.
  • About 50 species of mosses, including discovery of two new ones. - Dr Nik Norhazrina of UKM
  • 10 species of rattan, over 140 species of liana (climbing vines).
  • 20 species of rare or wild fruits recorded. 170 herbarium specimens from various wild plants. - Dr Norfaizal Ghazalli of Mardi
  • A spider called Heterepoda davidbowie recorded by Hardy Adrian A. Chin.
  • 44 species of birds recorded, including two types of hornbills. - Dr Farah Shafawati of UKM