Malaysian authorities are working on opening up the country’s oldest and largest state park to the public… little by little.
With Belum literally meaning “Land Before Time”, Royal Belum State Park is still one of Asia’s best kept nature secrets. It is part of Malaysia’s largest and oldest forest reserve – Belum Temenggor – in the northern part of the Malaysian Peninsula. Being contiguous with the smaller Bang Lang National Park and Hala-Bala Wildlife Sanctuary in South Thailand, this makes the entire area one of Asia’s largest biodiversity basins.
Opening up the park to the public entails treading a fine line between ensuring the protection of the local environment, while enabling people from around the world to experience this unique place that gives a true sense of “nature in the raw”.
This activity is being carefully piloted by the Northern Corridor Implementation Authority (see interview with CEO).
WORLD HERITAGE STATUS REQUESTED
While in 2012, the Malaysian Government declared Royal Belum State Park a “National Heritage Site”, the park has now been submitted as a potential UNESCO World Heritage site.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), is to study the proposal which was tabled in 2017 by the Permanent Delegation of Malaysia to UNESCO, following which the IUCN will provide the World Heritage Committee with an evaluation for further action.
Along with the Taman Negara National Park, Belum Temenggor is one of the oldest rainforests in world, dating back over 130 million years.
14 of the world’s most threatened mammals; among them the Malaysian Tiger, the white-handed Gibbon, Asiatic Elephant, Malaysian Sunbear and Malayan Tapir still roam freely in Belum Temenggor.
Belum Temenggor is equally an exceptional site for birds. 316 bird species are known here. It is unique through the fact that in particular it is possible to see, in certain periods of the year, all 10 of Malaysia’s magnificent hornbill species. It may be one of the World’s richest sites in terms of species richness and large population. It is also the only existing forest in the world where more than 2,000 individual birds can be found in one single congregation.
There are reported to be around 60 “salt licks” around the Belum area. Salt licks are natural mineral deposits where animals in nutrient-poor ecosystems can obtain essential mineral nutrients. These areas are usually covered with all types of animal tracks. The Sambar Deer, the Kijangs, Tapirs, Elephants, wild boars, Seladang and the Malayan Gaur – come down to the licks, usually under the cover of darkness.
The most iconic flora in the world are the gigantic rafflesias whose flowers are the largest in the plant kingdom. There are about 26 species, in Malaysia there are eight species and in the State Park and its vicinity it is represented by four species namely, Rafflesia cantleyi, R. kerri and R. azlanii, the latest was named after the Patron of the Malaysian Nature Society Heritage Expedition in 1998. The fourth species for Peninsular Malaysia, R. sumeiae occurs south of the State Park, as far as currently known. The occurrence of four endemic species of Rafflesia in the protected State Park is most significant for biodiversity conservation in the World.
The park boasts 46 species of palms (15 endemic), over 30 species of gingers, rare limestone flora and many others. In total, the forest is home to over 3000 species of flowering plants.
Belum Temenggor is home not only to an astonishing number of plants and animals, but to many orang asli or “aboriginal people” who having been living in the forest for millennia. The orang asli were the first inhabitants of the Malay Peninsula. They are of Australo-Melanesian origin, with many of their earliest burial grounds dating back 10,000 years ago.
The orang asli that settled along the area of Belum Temenggor were traditionally nomadic or semi-nomadic, mostly hunter-gatherers, sustaining their communities with fishing, small farming and trading of medicinal herbs, spices and handicrafts. Semi-nomadic orang asli villages can be found today on some of the islands of Temenggor; they still live in their traditional way in bamboo huts, hunting small mammals using blowpipes, fishing and gathering plants and honey from the forest.
It is possible to visit a village if pre-organised through the local tour guide in advance. It is customary to bring gifts (sweets for the local children etc.), in exchange for a welcome smile by the villagers.
VISITING THE PARK
The Royal Belum Park is visited by boat, via the artificial lake of Temenggor, the second largest lake in Peninsula Malaysia. The lake covers 15,200 Hectares, with hundreds of tiny islands. It is home to 23 species of freshwater fish (with the “Toman” or the Giant snakehead being the famous one in the area) and 5 species of turtles, as well as aquatic and amphibian species.
Boats depart from Pulau Banding. The upper Belum is a totally wild, compared to the lower part of Temenggor, since access and human activities are strictly regulated there.
Entry into Royal Belum requires valid entry permits. The Royal Belum Resort or local tour guides are able take care of permits, and their costs are included in the price of day trips, but it is necessary for travellers to submit their passport at least two weeks in advance of any visit. Entering the park, one’s motorboat stops briefly at a checkpoint at the beginning of the journey.
The total area of the Royal Belum State Park is 117,500 ha, straddling the northern undisturbed and pristine lowland dipterocarp, hill dipterocarp and lower montane forests (up to about 1,533 m above sea level) of northern Peninsular Malaysia forming the northern and strategic component of the Central Forest Spine (CFS). The State Park is a relic of the geological confluence of the southern Gondwanaland supercontinent and northern Laurasian supercontinent. Geographically, about 57% of its area is located in the range of 80-300 m above sea level and 41% in the range of 300-1,533 m above sea level.
A word of warning: Being sheltered from development, there is no mobile phone service (or mobile internet) in the park.