The chug of the boat is almost hypnotic as we traverse the calm bottle-green waters of the lake pierced by stumps of dead trees looking like mournful guardians in the pale light of dawn. As the sun rises, layers of rolling mountains shimmer in the distance in shades of everything from indigo to navy blue, emerald, chartreuse and shamrock green.
There’s little conversation on board, just watchfulness as everyone’s eyes carefully scrutinise the skies and the tops of the green canopies that surround us. At the helm, our guide and lead expedition leader Andrew Sebastian unfolds his long limbs and leaning precariously from the boat, he scans the horizons with intense concentration.
The lapping of the water is lulling me to a near stupor. It’s too early in the morning and my rear is slowly beginning to throb from sitting too long. As I surreptitiously begin shifting my body to find a comfortable position to snooze, Sebastian suddenly and wordlessly points to a direction up in the skies. He doesn’t need to say anything.
There’s a general scuffle as cameras are whipped out and binoculars are raised. This is what we’re here for in this cold drizzly morning in the middle of a rainforest, far away from civilisation and WiFi connection.
A flock of birds flying overhead in a classic V-formation enters our periphery briefly on the slowly brightening skies. “Plain-pouched hornbills!” murmurs Sebastian, his binoculars pressed against his eyes. Just as well. Soon after we see these glorious birds, rain begins to fall in earnest and another mad scramble ensues to get our equipment (and ourselves) covered with plastic sheets and raincoats.
Whipping out his clipboard, our intrepid guide quickly makes a careful note of our discovery before safely tucking it away from sight, away from the pelting rain. The note-taking is important. We’re part of the annual hornbill expedition, doing a count of hornbills and each year, the new data will be compared with the past to obtain information about the prevalence and patterns of hornbills within this area.
“It’s the hornbill capital of the world,” declares Sebastian, who aside from wearing the caps of expedition leader and bird guide, is the chief executive officer of Ecotourism and Conservation Society Malaysia (ECOMY), an NGO that’s focused on sustainable ecotourism as a means to ensure that conservation values are upheld at all key natural heritage sites in Malaysia.
ECOMY, along with Perak State Park Corporation and Perak State together with the support of the Northern Corridor Implementation Agency (NCIA), Tourism Malaysia, Ministry of Tourism & Culture Malaysia and the Wild Bird Club Malaysia and NESt, has organised the Royal Belum International Hornbill Expedition to survey the hornbill population at the heart of one of the oldest rainforests in the world.
Dating back 130 million years, this swathe of rainforest is older than the Amazon and the Congo basin. It’s populated by some of the world’s most endangered mammals including wild Asiatic elephants, sun bears, Sumatran rhinos, cloud leopards, tapirs, tigers and panthers, as well as over 10,000 indigenous people.
The Royal Belum State Park was legally gazetted as a State Park on May 3, 2007. Encompassing a total area of 1,175 square km, the park lies within the Belum Forest Reserve which itself is part of a much larger tract of contiguous forest spanning 4,000 square km known as the Belum-Temengor forest complex.
It’s the only existing forest where you can spot all 10 species of hornbills found in Peninsular Malaysia comprising the White-Crowned hornbill, Bushy-crested hornbill, Wrinkled hornbill, Wreathed hornbill, Black hornbill, Oriental Pied hornbill, Rhinoceros hornbill, Great hornbill, the globally-threatened Plain-pouched hornbill and the critically-endangered Helmeted hornbill.
“There’s nowhere else in the world where you can have the chance to spot 10 species in one small area,” remarks Sebastian with much pride. He adds that the seasonal migration of the Plain-pouched hornbills is a phenomenon that’s unique to this area and is not encountered in other parts of the world. The State Park has been recognised as an Important Bird Area (IBA) by Birdlife International, a global partnership of conservation organisations focused on bird conservation, for this very reason.
“August seems to be the best month at Belum for fruiting trees and this is also the season when big concentrations of hornbills start to appear,” he says, before adding with a grin: “It’s literally a bird watching haven!”
Our boat slowly navigates its way through the dead tree stumps protruding out of the lake. Its serene waters (up to 304 m deep in places) and 80-plus islands are man-made. The stumps that dot the periphery of the lake are a stark reminder of the once-large expanse of virgin jungle that was partly inundated after the Temengor Dam was completed in 1972.
The rain gets heavier, and while the ride to our houseboats — our home for three days and two nights — seems like an endless trek, all thoughts of snoozing are banished from my head. “This isn’t what I signed up for,” I think miserably as I clutch the plastic sheet over my head. It’s no use; I’m drenched anyway, as too the rest of the bird watchers on my boat.
Seated across from me, Professor Yuji Arakaki from Meio University, Japan remains upbeat and is unperturbed by the rain. The brief sighting of the Plain-pouched hornbills before the rain meant that Belum certainly delivered on the first day itself. It’s not his first trip, he confides with a smile pointing to the T-shirt he’s wearing with the 2013 Royal Belum Hornbill Expedition emblazoned across the front.
The birdlife is undeniably wondrous — over 300 species have been documented — but birdwatchers from all over the world mainly gather at this remote spot for a glimpse of the iconic hornbills. And like Arakaki-San, they keep returning for more.
“There is so much potential to develop this area as a premier birding and eco-destination,” explains Sebastian, pointing out that the expedition is also a showcase for international tour operators, photographers and bird guides to experience the natural wonders of the serendipitous swath located in the state of Perak.
The expedition has brought in teams from China, India, Taiwan, Japan, Thailand, Singapore, the Philippines and the USA. The latter country has a sole representative and a birding royalty at that in the form of writer, photographer and ornithologist Noah Strycker. The Oregon-native has also set a record for a worldwide Big Year of birding, seeing 6,042 of the world’s estimated 10,400 bird species in a continuous journey spanning all seven continents from Jan 1 to Dec 31, 2015.
Excited conversations abound over plates of rice, ikan kering (salted fish) and curry as we gather for an early lunch. The relentless rain has cut short the expedition for the morning as sighting would be near-impossible. Spirits run high however, as there’s a collective sigh of appreciation at some of the photographs taken of the hornbills.
Unlike our boat, some of the boats had a closer view of the soaring birds — and better shots. “We’ll fare better at the next boat ride in the evening,” promises Sebastian as news of an elusive Helmeted hornbill sighting by the Philippines team travel through the houseboats.
In an area cut off from all means of communication — there’s no signal whatsoever — conversations, and human interaction make for a refreshing change. Cold showers, communal toilets and bugs that dot the walls can form the provincial city slicker’s nightmare. However, the surrounding breath-taking landscape more than makes up for the shortcomings.
And yet for all its natural wonders, it’s a site that’s seen little in the way of tourism. Belum’s out-of-the-way location doesn’t help either. It’s a five hour drive from Kuala Lumpur and not quite on the way to any of the country’s more fabulous tourist destinations. So you really have to want to visit Belum specifically.
“And you should,” says Sebastian emphatically, sitting at the helm of the boat again, as we make our way through the silent lake on yet another one of our boat trips. We fare better this time — more flocks of Plain-pouched hornbills fly closer, flocks of Black hornbills flit through tall canopies and we hear the unmistakable call of the Helmeted hornbill. It rains intermittently throughout but like Arakaki-San and all the other enthusiastic bird watchers, it doesn’t bother me anymore.
“There’s so much to be done to preserve this piece of paradise. Poachers, illegal logging and even rampant tourist developments are all immediate threats to Belum’s fragile ecology. But there’s a big opportunity for a different type of tourism that’s scientific, environmentally-sustainable and community-based,” says Sebastian, peering thoughtfully into the skies.
It’s clearly a challenging task ahead for ecotourism champions like Sebastian but where there’s life, there must be hope. And the Royal Belum State Park is teeming with both.