Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Rating of forest canopy walkways: 4 stars for Sepilok

I visited the canopy walkway in the Sepilok Forest Discovery Centre in Sandakan last week. The experience is so different from my first walkway, in the 1960’s, that I am moved to attempt a rating of the canopy walkways I have seen in Malaysia.

My first walkway was constructed by local jungle people, the Orang Asli, in Bukit Lanjan forest at the edge of Kuala Lumpur, under the supervision of US Army medical officers. The US team was based at Malaysia’s Institute for Medical Research during the duration of the Vietnam War to study animal-borne diseases that could affect troops in tropical rain forests. While the medical personnel screened the animals of the canopy, I worked on the trees. The walkway was improvised with aluminium ladders for walking upon, suspended by a system of ropes anchored to big trees. The walkway swayed and bounced with every step and one had to keep a firm hand on the ropes to avoid falling out. Whenever an anchor tree died, the walkway had to be realigned through a different set of trees. This interfered with long-term observations on canopy trees. I give the Bukit Lanjan walkway a one-star rating. It no longer exists.

The Bukit Lanjan canopy walkway may have been the first in the tropics. Subsequent walkways have been built with tourists in mind, and the sides are netted so that people cannot fall out by accident.

The Sepilok walkway merits a 4-star rating. It is absolutely steady, on permanent supports of steel and concrete. The work has been done very carefully, with no noticeable damage to the trees and forest. This walkway will not require shifting and is ideal for long-term studies of the forest from permanent vantage points. The walkways are steady enough to ride a motorbike on, and to support camera tripods for time-lapse photography. The forest is truly magnificent for its big trees and diversity of species. At present, users walk to the end and have to come back the same way, but when the last lap is completed, users will do a full circuit. When that happens, the walkway will deserve a 5-star rating.

The walkway at the Belian Camp in the Maliau Basin in Sabah merits a 3-star rating. The walkway is anchored on big trees, but the construction could have been better. The barks of the anchor trees show some signs of damage. Users reaching the end have to come back the same way and there are no plans for a one-way circuit.

The walkway at the Forest Research Institute Malaysia in Kepong also merits a 3-star rating. It is anchored on big trees. The anchoring has been done carefully, with no damage to the trees. Traffic flow proceeds in a single direction. The walkway gets a 3-star rating because although the forest is great, it is not as magnificent as in Sepilok or Maliau.

The walkway on Penang Hill merits 2-stars. It is anchored on trees, and users proceed in a single direction. The forest is a unique coastal hill forest of Shorea curtisii. It gets two stars because the species diversity is low compared to the other sites.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Horticulture in Myanmar

I have just returned from a 5 day tour of Myanmar, during which we visited Yangon (Rangoon), Mandalay and Bagan (Pagan). It was a sightseeing tour, and the sights were worth it. Some of the temples are, in their own way, as impressive as St Peter's in Rome. The roads and hotels are excellent; the people are friendly; street crime is virtually unknown; and the towns, villages and markets are free of rubbish. The vendors do not try to cheat foreigners. We did not see any armed military or police personnel anywhere.

The extent of poverty is high. On our flight back to Malaysia, the plane was filled with young men and women coming to Malaysia to work. They were shabbily dressed, did not know how to use the toilets, and had not bathed for several days. Curiously, on our way there, the plane had been full of returning workers but we had hardly noticed them. They had obviously been changed by their stay in Malaysia.

Horticulturally, the country is still in the 1950s. Almost all the garden plants are old varieties from the colonial period and the diversity is small. For example the most common variety of hibiscus is the variety that Malaysia chose as its national flower in 1957. This variety is now uncommon in Malaysia because of replacement by new imported hybrids. Still, it was nice to see some old garden plants that I have not seen for years.

The countryside in Pagon is semi-arid savannah, with trees spaced out instead of forming a closed forest. Here most of the trees belong to just a few species, notably neem, tamarind, Acacia leucophloea and Borassus flabellifer (commonly known in Thailand and Malaysia as 'sea coconut' though it has nothing to do with the sea and is not a coconut). In Myanmar, the fan-shaped leaves of Borassus are used as thatch for roofing, the inflorescences are tapped for its sugary juice to make a fermented drink, and the fruits are harvested for food. In olden times, Myanmar was part of the 'palm culture' of South and Southeast Asia, in which written records were made on the leaves of Borassus cut into strips and inscribed using a sharp stylus. The strips were sewn into books for safe keeping.

The women in the villages and countryside are in the habit of painting their faces with a yellowish powder made by grinding the bark of Limonia accidissima on a stone surface.

Those wishing to visit Myanmar should be aware that credit cards are useless because of the US and European trade embargo. You need to carry cash in US dollars. One USD can be changed in hotels for 1000 Kyats (pronouced 'Jets' because K is silent and y is pronounced as j). The banks offer only 450 Kyats for 1 USD. Only clean USD notes are accepted. Soiled or torn or faded notes are not accepted.