Some of the most varied and rare wildlife populations on earth find homes in ancient rain forests of this small Southeast Asian country encompassing the Malaysian peninsula and, across the way in the South China Sea, Sabah and Sarawak on the north coast of Borneo.
In moist woodlands unchanged for millions of years are giant chartreuse-and-black birdwing butterflies, big as small birds and often mistaken for them as they flutter about the forest canopy, and their night-flying counterparts, Atlas moths 10 inches (25 cm) across.
Gentle red-haired orangutans, primate “men of the forest” renowned for their intelligence and endangered by destruction of their tropical woodland homes, hang on in Borneo and Sumatra. Magnificent Asian tigers, their populations decimated by poaching for body parts supposedly useful as aphrodisiacs and in traditional medicine, survive precariously on the Malay Peninsula, where sightings have been reported of individuals almost 10 feet (3 m) long.
Enormous two-horned rhinoceros now known to exist only on peninsular Malaysia and Sabah crash through undergrowth; they are up to eight feet (2.5 m) long, weighing almost a ton (900 kg), once regarded as extinct, still nearly so after surviving almost unchanged for the past 30 million years. They also are coveted for medicinal body parts. Floppy-nosed proboscis monkeys forage along streams with honey or sun bears (named for sunburst spots on their chests).
Pangolins or scaly anteaters, resembling animated artichokes with large overlapping scales, claw out termite burrows. Tiny big-eyed slow loris are slow until a praying mantis flies by, then lightning-quick in grabbing a meal. Giant flying foxes, world’s largest bats with wingspans up to four feet (1.2 m), cluster in hundreds around fruiting trees.
Burly gaur, world’s largest wild ox, can stand 6.5 feet (2 m) at the shoulder and weigh up to a ton (900 kg), while at the other end of the size scale, eight-inch-high (20-cm) lesser mouse deer trip about on pencil-sized hooves. These tiny grazers, closer relatives to camels than deer, are storied in Malay folklore for alertness enabling them to outwit such powerful opponents as tigers and elephants.
Some of the world’s most beautiful and colorful birds find riverine and forest homes here—more than 700 species, from hornbills with giant multihued bills to hawk-eagles, brilliantly plumaged pheasants, and shimmering, jewel-like orioles, flower-peckers, sunbirds, and bee-eaters.
Others only apparently “fly”—squirrels, frogs, and snakes. Flying squirrels glide up to 330 feet (100 m) on skin-flaps connecting legs fore and aft. Colugos or flying lemurs sail even farther on flaps connecting their tails as well, making them in effect whole-body kites. Frogs spread outsize webs between their toes and snakes flatten their vertebrae, gliding long distances in the canopy, saving the trouble of descending to the ground as they feed in adjoining tall trees.
Botanical features are equally remarkable. Peninsular Malaysia alone has over 8,000 kinds o fflowering plants, including 2,000 trees, 800 orchids, and 200 palms. Borneo may have even more in Sarawak and Sabah. The tualang, world’s tallest tropical tree, reaches a height of 260 feet (80m) with a base diameter of almost 10 feet (3 m). Largest leaf ever found was in Sabah as well—one measuring 10 by 6 feet (3 × 1.9 m) on an aroid plant—and the world’s largest bloom, the rafflesia, which can span three feet (1 m) and weigh almost 20 pounds (9 kg).
Malaysia is home to some 100 kinds of toads and frogs and more than 100 snake species—mostly inoffensive although black cobras, common in oil palm plantations, often attack workers who unknowingly step on them.
At least four endangered sea turtles nest on sandy beaches. Coral reef inhabitants of stunning beauty and variety reflect connection with both Indian and Pacific Oceans. Equally notable freshwater fish include mudskippers and climbing perch with extra gills enabling them to walk about on mudflats, supported by pectoral fins. Mudskippers actually are able to climb trees. Archer fish squirt pressurized water at overhead insects, getting a meal when their prey fall in the water. There are giant catfish weighing 100 pounds (45 kg).
Much of this diverse wildlife is threatened by hunting and habitat destruction, the result of population and development pressures, some sadly with little or no thought to environmental damage.
National parks and other protected reserves occupy about five percent of Peninsular Malaysia and Sabah and three percent of Sarawak—on the whole, regarded as better run than elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Still, many are small, inadequately protected islands of habitat in a sea of logging and plantations, and more protected land is needed if these natural wonders are to survive.
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PENINSULAR MALAYSIA as well as...
TAMAN NEGARA NATIONAL PARK
SABAH as well as...
DANUM VALLEY CONSERVATION AREA
SARAWAK as well as…
GUNUNG MULU NATIONAL PARK
Niah National Park
Batang Ai National Park
Bentuang-Karimum National Park
Bako National Park
Sepilok Forest Reserve
Matang Wildlife Center
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