Inspired by the tropical beauty of Malaysia, Alfred Russel Wallace (author of The Malay Archipelago) wrote: ‘Should civilised man… bring moral, intellectual, and physical light into the recesses of these virgin forests, we may be sure he will so disturb the nicely-balanced relations of organic and inorganic nature as to cause the disappearance, and finally the extinction, of these very beings whose wonderful structure and beauty he alone is fitted to appreciate and enjoy.’
Our own naturalists, taking his wise words as a caution, prefer a more optimistic view. This week, we take a walk in Rimba Ilmu, a biodiversity haven carefully curated to recreate the wild glory of the Malaysian rainforest.
At the entrance of the garden’s front terrace, the Mata Lembu tree (Firmiana malayana) has shed its leaves to mark the dry season. It will remain bare for up to two months to flaunt its brilliant orange flowers that grow in tassels at the ends of empty twigs.
What you see here is not the growth of new leaves, but the tree’s fruits. These are encased in pinkish, papery boats, with a pale green lining. As they reopen they will be blown off by the wind, spiralling to the ground up to 100 meters away.
The White-rumped Shama (Copsychus malabaricus) has a distinct white patch on its rump, with an orange underside. The Shama is frequently kept as a cage-bird for its melodious singing, but in Rimba Ilmu, it roams free in its natural habitat of bamboo and broadleaved forest.
Student and keen lepidopterist Sofwan Badrud’din soon spots a Common Sailor (Neptis hylas), named for its black and white markings. A member of the Nymphalidae family, this butterfly loves sunshine, although its swift, powerful flight is no match for Sofwan’s butterfly net.
One of botany’s strange mysteries is the fruit of the Belian (Eusideroxylon zwageri). According to botanist Dr M. Sugumaran (left), this threatened hardwood tree is in itself incompletely studied—although extensively logged, due to its prized timber—and no one quite knows how the tiny fruits (pictured) develop into this papaya-sized behemoth.
And with this one of many infinite mysteries of nature, we turn back again to Wallace: ‘This… must surely tell us that all living things were not made for man. The cycle of their existence has gone on independently of his… and their happiness and enjoyment, their loves and hates, their struggles for existence, their vigorous life and early death, would see to be immediately related to their own well-being and perpetuation alone, limited only by the equal well-being and perpetuation of the numberless other organisms with which each is more or less intimately connected.’
All pictures by Benjamin Ong
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