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Langkawi - Whale Sharks, Coral Reefs and Clouded Leopards!

In June 2012 I was lucky enough to be asked to conduct a project recce on behalf of the Scientific Exploration Society. The project is primarily to be based on Langkawi, on the west side of peninsular Malaysia.

The original scope was to consider the feasibility of a whale shark tagging project, a coral reef regeneration initiative and to carry out a census of clouded leopards. During the reconnaissance trip though the scope of the projects changed as various factors came to light.

Whale Sharks I spent some time in the company of Dr Gerry Goeden, a marine biologist trained in Australia and USA. He is retained by one of the major hotels and is instrumental in the operation of their coral nursery and committed to the rebuilding of the local reef which was ravaged by the tsunami in 2004.

As well as spending time with Gerry I was extremely lucky to spend a significant amount of time with Irshad Mobarak who is a self-taught local conservation & nature specialist (as well as a bit of a celebrity). He is also retained by a couple of the hotels in addition to which he runs a business which arranges nature and wildlife tours. He is incredibly knowledgeable of land-based mammals, birdlife, flora and fauna.

As I said the requirements of the project changed over the course of my time there when we realised what would realistically be achievable. When considering the possibilities for whale shark tagging local knowledge was sought and visits were made to the only dive centre on the island, the local flying school, a helicopter leasing firm and the head of Langkawi Fishermen. The overall purpose was to try and understand where the whale sharks are seen, in which months and in what numbers.

The outcome was that the end of February, or the beginning of March seems to be the most likely time of year to see them. It must be noted though that there is always the possibility that in any given period it is possible that no whale sharks would be seen. A degree of luck is definitely required.

Bearing in mind the fact that the tagging devices needed for this project are expensive and have a limited battery life it means that there is an element of financial risk attached to this aspect of the overall project. Perhaps it will be re-thought?

The north-west of the island is the most common area for the whale sharks to be spotted and is assumed to form part of their normal migratory route. This is the area of the island where the project will be based. We will most likely camp on Princess Beach which is slightly difficult to access from both land and sea.

It was agreed that we would not need divers (as originally thought) as the whale sharks can either be tagged from a boat or by snorkelers competent in the use of a spear gun. For a pilot project we would take a limited number of tags. If successful this could then be extended in future years. All very exciting!

Next on the hit list was the coral reef regeneration initiative. In December 2004 a hugely destructive tsunami hit the region. Were it not for the local reef, which took the majority of the impact out of the waves, the main hotel in Datai Bay would most certainly not be here today. The local motto seems to be that ‘The reef saved the hotel, so now the hotel is going to save the reef’. Guests and staff alike at the Andaman Hotel take part in clearing dead coral from the beach and reef when low tides allow. This will eventually be re-planted with healthy living coral which will re-establish a living reef.

There were several options considered in terms of how the tsunami damage could be repaired. One was to let nature take its course but this would take decades so the clearing of dead coral by hand seemed the best way forward. Thus it was decided to rescue small pieces of live coral from the battered reef and to nurture them in a dedicated nursery on-site.

The nursery has only been in existence since the beginning of 2012 and is being enhanced on an ongoing basis as corals and other species are introduced.

For the Clouded Leopard census we thought we would need a number of camera traps costing between £150 and £300 each depending on the lens quality, card capacity, battery life, night filming capability etc. We decided that the best quality is probably required owing to the fact that nocturnal filming will be necessary to ensure the optimum results. We also soon learned that the cameras will need to be adapted / protected from inquisitive primates, weather and accidental damage. Irshad said this can be done by building metal housing for them. Otherwise the monkeys will simply tear them apart through sheer inquisitiveness.

It was also decided that the census should count all animals which the cameras record and that this should form the basis for an ongoing project which will help to better understand the impact of human development on Langkawi. Rubber plantations, rice fields, roads and human settlements have carved the island into approximately 19 distinct areas and there is concern that without ‘corridors’ some of these gene pools may not survive. Once some of the animal populations in these pockets are better understood corridors can be constructed to enable the animals to move from one pocket to another and ensure their long term survival.

One surprise addition to the whole scope of the project came when I got the chance to go to an island off the north east coast of Langkawi called Pulau Langgun. Although not in the original project scope I hired a boat and visited this island with Irshad. The reason for visiting was to recce a lagoon in the middle of the island. It is believed that this lake is fresh water and that it could contain previously unidentified species of fresh-water fish. It has never been properly investigated before.

There is a track from the beach area all the way through the jungle to the lagoon. The boatman told us it is very seldom visited which was immediately obvious from the fact that the track was very overgrown in places with vegetation and some fallen trees. He couldn’t understand our interest in the place.

The opportunities here are significant in terms of seeking new species of fresh water fish and possibly even butterflies too. Only two islands in the Langkawi group have been formally investigated and this resulted in 51 new species of butterfly being identified.

The lagoon is approximately 100 metres across, and round-ish in shape. The proposal would be to map the lagoon, effect a grid system and sample the water depth in each grid sector (as well as temperature, salinity and other factors). Fishing would then take place and with the assistance of a fresh water fish expert we would aim to determine whether there is the possibility for new species.

It’s going to be a tricky place to camp as there is a significant likelihood of encountering large lizards, venomous snakes and constrictors in and around the water.

The beach on which we landed was badly contaminated with flotsam. This is something that we could also clean up but we would need a boat to take it to the main island and from there we would need several trucks to take it for re-cycling / incinerating.

The climate is a near constant 28-32C. The humidity is intense, especially on Pulau Langgun. Though short, the walk across Pulau Langgun is arduous and will need to be done at least twice per day by those working on that aspect of the project. At times equipment (possibly a small boat) and water will need to be carried across the island up inclines, through undergrowth and in oppressive temperatures and humidity.

Looks like it could be a very exciting project! For further details please contact Mike on the Contact Page.


(C) Mike Laird 2024