To see Malaysia’s elusive wildlife, take a walk in the trees

Steel structures and swinging bridges built high above the rain forest floor give tourists a non-intrusive way to spot the country’s tapirs, tigers, and notoriously shy primates.

“Green is a blind spot for most Malaysians,” says wildlife photographer and conservationist Peter Ong. What he means is that locals tend to take their forests and parks for granted, not caring or even noticing that this green cover is steadily diminishing.

But Ong notices. He spends entire days in these forests, photographing endemic primates and birds for his Project Monyet and for Eko-Eko, a movement that showcases Malaysia’s biodiversity, inspired by Jane Goodall’s Roots and Shoots program.

Nevertheless, despite a 28 percent loss of tree cover in the last two decades, with magnificent primary rain forests giving way to commercial palm oil plantations, 54 percent of Malaysia’s land surface is still covered with forests. It is also one of the world’s mega biodiverse countries, with a stunning variety of flora and fauna in its rainforests.

The challenge, as Ong notes, is how to make Malaysians care about all this.

One of the ways Malaysia is trying to do this is through canopy walkways, revealing a world high above the rain forest floor. They take the form of freestanding steel structures or swinging bridges built around hardwood dipterocarp tree trunks.

With over a dozen treetop walks across the mainland and Borneo open to tourists—the first was built in 1968 for research purposes—Malaysia is a canopy tourism pioneer in Asia. It is one of five countries selected by the Global Canopy program for its focus on canopy sciences, showing its value not just for ecotourism but also for species conservation and sustainable development of local communities.

Walking in treetops

Across peninsular Malaysia and the Bornean states of Sabah and Sarawak, canopy walks have been attracting domestic and foreign visitors to the rain forests. People don’t have to go far from the city in search of them: Treetop walks have been created even within urban Kuala Lumpur as entryway experiences, such as the ones at KL Forest Eco Park and FRIM (Forest Research Institute Malaysia).

Experts say that canopy walks are popular because they offer an easy introduction to the rain forest ecosystem, without the fear of leeches, uneven ground, straggly roots, or even the unbearable humidity of the forest floor. “Ecotourism light,” in Ong’s words. More importantly, these walkways open up an unseen and often silent world to visitors.

(Learn about the fascinating insects discovered in the Amazon’s canopy.)

Ong talks about how tourists who come to these jungles complain that they cannot even spot monkeys, not to mention tapirs and tigers. “The animals are shy and the forest is dense,” he explains, “so walking along the canopy is a good way to see wildlife, even notoriously elusive primates like gibbons.” At the same time, they are good for species protection because they are not intrusive, letting animals and birds go about their business.

Canopy champion and National Geographic Explorer Meg Lowman, who has helped create the Langur Way Canopy Walk at Habitat Penang Hill, calls it a “life-changing experience.” She explains that the forest floor is often a dark and uninteresting tunnel with few animals, whereas the treetops are where “all the action is.”

“It offers such a unique view of the forest that it suddenly opens your eyes to what a magical place you are really in,” she says.

Hidden treasures

Canopy walks in Malaysia have also succeeded in revealing hidden and previously undiscovered aspects of popular destinations. One stellar example is the Rainforest Discovery Centre (RDC) at Sepilok in Sabah. Previously, visitors tended to start and end their exploration of the Sepilok Forest Reserve and Orangutan Sanctuary at the Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre. But ever since the endemic Bornean bristlehead was first spotted from the forest canopy walk, opened in 2010, the area has begun to attract birdwatchers from all over the world.

The RDC now hosts the annual Borneo Bird Festival, and the canopy walk provides an incentive to spend an extra day (and night) at Sepilok, thus boosting the local economy.

In peninsular Malaysia, the Habitat can claim to have contributed toward Penang Hill’s UNESCO Biosphere Reserve status. Lowman says that local tourists have been flocking to the Habitat for the walkway, and “are loving what they can now see of the Penang Hill’s ecosystem.”

The Habitat group’s managing director Allen Tan says that this aerial bridge has given locals a desire to learn more about their forests, acting as a “potent tool to inspire visitors to re-examine their link with nature, and what it gives them.” He adds that while Penang was always known for its art and culture scene, it was never an ecotourism destination. That’s beginning to change.

(Here’s what we can learn from trees.)

The main purpose of canopy walkways—to get people to love their forests and care for them enough to want to protect them—is slowly gaining traction in Malaysia. For inspiration, Lowman looks to an example from the 1980s in Queensland, Australia, when people who supported chopping down forests, seen as “dark and damp and dreary places,” changed their minds when they got to experience the first canopy walkway.

“They could suddenly see the scarlet macaws and the cheeky possums. And they said, you gotta go see how cool the forest is,” she recalls.

Malaysia is not there yet, but there is reason for hope.

Charukesi Ramadurai is an Indian living in Kuala Lumpur, and reports from both India and Malaysia. Follow her on Instagram.

Read This Next

Can science help personalize your diet?
Hogs are running wild in the U.S.—and spreading disease
Salman Rushdie on the timeless beauty of the Taj Mahal

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet