A walk on the wild side in Langkawi

Photo of Brad Thompson

Meet dusky leaf monkeys, sea eagles and the rare and mysterious flying lemur on a wildlife walk on Malaysia's Pulau Langkawi.

Irshad Mobarak is looking into the canopy at what he regards as the most important tree in the Langkawi rainforest.

The strangler fig he admires started growing high up in the branches of a host tree before sending roots to the forest floor about 40m below. The invader is slowly choking the life out of the once-towering host now captured in its roots. Irshad admits the strangler fig has a public relations problem, starting with its name.

The former banker defends it in business terms.

“Don’t think of it as a hostile takeover but as company restructuring,” he says.

“The seed of the strangler fig needs to sit in a cavity, a cavity big enough that it is not going to heal. The tree is like us with a festering wound which left untreated will turn to gangrene.

“The strangler fig is in fact the number one food source in the entire rainforest. The fig doesn’t have a fruiting season, just a pattern. This one works on a seven-month cycle.

It’s the start of December and the tail-end of the rainy season in Langkawi. Beneath the rainforest canopy, the air is thick and filled with a smoke-alarm like noise made by one of 150 species of cicadas.

The strangler is about to fruit and soon hundreds of birds, squirrels and monkeys will arrive to feast on the bounty. Pigs and deer will eat the fallen fruit and at night fruit bats, flying squirrels, civet cats and the slow loris will come in to take their share.

Irshad is one of Malaysia’s foremost wildlife advocates and has featured in documentaries with National Geographic and the Discovery Channel.

The Negeri Sembilan-native became a naturalist and rainforest guide after turning his back on banking. 

He leads trekking tours and shorter wildlife walks out of Datai Bay on Pulau Langkawi, the main island in a cluster of about 100 that makes up Langkawi.

The islands separated from the Malaysian mainland about 13,000 years ago and the unspoilt rainforest surrounding Datai Bay is about 10 million years old.

A movement in the trees near the strangler fig and Irshad is ready to share his next tale of life and death in the jungle. It is a troop of dusky leaf monkeys he has observed over many years.

They might look cute but he describes these monkeys as “nasty vegetarians”. The females in the troop are due to give birth and the alpha male is sorting out any potential challengers.

A young male already has a big gash on his leg but that is nothing compared with the bloodshed that can occur within the troop.

The first priority for a successful challenger is to hunt down and kill the former alpha male. The second is to kill all the babies in the troop to quicken the establishment of his bloodline.

Irshad witnessed a young male attempt to do this in reverse order at the end of one rainy season. The entire troop turned on him and he was killed.

High above these monkeys a white-bellied sea eagle is returning to its nest on a steep section of rainforest overlooking the Strait of Malacca.

Irshad has watched this eagle and her partner since they were a honeymoon couple building their first nest 15 years ago.

That first nest and the eggs inside crashed to the ground in year one of their union. The next day the male started rebuilding in a different part of the same tree and from that nest they have produced one or two eaglets in most years.

In the distance, a young sea eagle and a brahminy kite are locked in a territorial battle.

Irshad explains there are squabbles over nesting sites across many species as they prepare to mate.

The top spot in the predatory-bird pecking order belongs to the rarely seen mountain hawk eagle. It is one of more than 260 species of birds recorded on Langkawi.

The main island is a paradise for birdwatchers with specialist walks and photography tours into the rainforest. 

Butterflies are even more prolific than the birds. There are 509 species identified so far but that number is expected to climb to at least 550 based on the latest studies.

The night skies are ruled by bats, flying squirrels and the rare and mysterious colugo, or flying lemur.

Irshad points out a colugo clinging to a tree trunk not much above head height. It’s camouflaged to blend in with the tree and sits motionless to avoid predators — birds of prey, macaque monkeys and pythons.

The colugo has a membrane which stretches from its front legs to the tip of its tail and looks like a furry kite when it glides long distances from tree to tree.

Irshad notes this one is carrying a baby and isn’t worried by us as long as we don’t get too close.

It’s part of the fine line he walks in trying to raise public awareness of the rainforest and its precious wildlife without causing too much impact.

He closes this particular tour with a plea to avoid any palm oil product that does not carry the stamp of approval from the Roundtable Agreement on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).

Irshad warns that a new phenomenon he calls the haze season is emerging in this part of South-East Asia because of the pervasiveness of slash-and-burn-production in Indonesia.

Fact File


Brad Thompson travelled as a guest of The Datai.


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