Enjoying the Wild

05  July 2007.

One of Malaysia’s most accessible and beautiful tropical islands, Pulau Langkawi’s sun-drenched tropical climate, white powdered and black volcanic beaches, and welcoming people make it a popular tourist destination. However, there’s more to Langkawi life than beach-bumming, as Rowena Forbes discovered…

As the peaceful surface of the river started to shudder, I moved out from under the boat’s shelter to feel the refreshing burst of large, warm raindrops on my skin. The air shifted, filling our nostrils with humid, lush aromas from the tropical undergrowth, and an undertone of sea salt. “It will soon pass,” our guide Irshad said calmly; and, sure enough, the deluge was over within minutes, while the resuming combination of hot sun and warm breeze speedily dried my white shirt as if nothing had happened.

While the boat chugged slowly past leafy mangroves and majestic limestone outcrops, Irshad pointed out details that our slower senses would otherwise have missed: the colourful splash of a kingfisher skimming over green-tinged water; the slow, implacable blink of a sunbathing monitor lizard; the twisted knot of a slender snake, tied around a perilously high tree branch, and the heavy rustle of leaves that heralded the arrival of a long-tailed macaque monkey as it swung into view.

Formerly a banker in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur, Irshad Mobarak fell in love with Langkawi on his first visit several years ago, and was inspired by its beautiful, diverse and vulnerable ecology to become the area’s first naturalist. Now employed by the Datai Bay Resort, he leads boat tours through mangrove swamps, fishing villages and bat caves, and nature walks through tropical forests. The rest of his time is devoted to conservation, fighting to preserve Langkawi’s fragile, fragmented ecosystem in the face of increasing development.

An intelligent, charismatic man, with gentle brown eyes and a warm, steady voice, Irshad has an engaging and infectious passion for his surroundings. Every sighting is accompanied by a wealth of background detail, from the flying habits of swifts (which can apparently feed, mate and sleep on the wing), to the physical and financial struggles of loggers, who harvest wood from the mangroves to support their families.

The trip is an entertaining, thought-provoking insight into a side of Langkawi that could easily be overlooked in favour of the more obvious pleasures of this tropical getaway: luxurious resorts with private beaches; cheap shopping; watersport activities, and delectable Malaysian cuisine.

As Irshad is quick to point out, tourism has boosted the local economy and brought development and many positive opportunities to this little agricultural community. Yet the damaging effects all too often associated with the industry need to be tackled carefully. Responsible eco-tourism can help.

Rounding into an open bay, we were greeted by the spectacular vision of numerous magnificent birds of prey performing shooting swoops and dives as they circled overhead. An awesome display, it was nonetheless tinged with sadness, as Irshad explained that the birds were attracted by chicken pieces thrown from the boats of other tourist operators. This practice not only upsets the birds’ natural diet and feeding habits, but also increases the likelihood of disease spreading from contaminated meat: a possibility that Irshad is convinced will one day become a reality, when the birds will disappear from the skies as swiftly as the rains do.

“With more education, tourists will hopefully stop this practice, and the birds will be safe again,” he sighed, his warm eyes riveted to the skies as the kites and eagles cried above us. Both the sight and sentiment are inspiring, given to us by someone who is so obviously in love with one of the region’s most beautiful islands, and so happy to share his hidden treasures with us – Langkawi’s lucky guests.