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.
Published December 21, 2022
8 min read
“Green is a blind spot for most Malaysians,” says wildlife photographer and conservationist Peter Ong. He means that most locals take their forests and parks as a given, and don’t care or notice that the green cover is decreasing.
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. Ong calls it “Ecotourism light.” These walkways also open up a hidden and often quiet world for 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.
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. This is changing.
(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. She recalls that they said, “You gotta go see the forest is cool.”
Malaysia is not there yet, but there is reason for hope.
Canopy walkways around the world
Malaysia: Borneo Rainforest Lodge, Sabah
Keep your eyes peeled for orangutans and eight species of hornbills along this 300-meter-long walkway in the heart of the Bornean rain forest.
Rwanda: Nyungwe National Park Canopy Walkway
Thirteen species of primates, including chimpanzees, are found in the Nyungwe forest, and a stroll on this canopy offers a sporting chance to see them in the wild.
Australia: Daintree Discovery Centre Aerial Walkway, Queensland
This popular aerial walkway offers glimpses into the world’s oldest surviving rain forest and possible sightings of rare fauna, such as cassowaries and tree kangaroos.
Costa Rica: Monteverde Sky Walk, Monteverde
Bird-watchers on this walk through the cloud forest canopy have a good chance of spotting many of the country’s more than 400 bird species, among them toucans and trogons.
USA: Redwood Canopy Trail, California
A walk on this network of netted bridges and viewing platforms is a great way to get a closer look at towering redwoods.
Charukesi Ramadurai is an Indian living in Kuala Lumpur, and reports from both India and Malaysia. Follow her on Instagram.
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.