words by Anandhi Gopinath
Before first stepping foot into the Perlis State Park – located just 3km from the border town of Wang Kelian – earlier this year, nature photographer Peter Ong had barely known of its existence. The Kuala Lumpur-based lensman was in search of the Stump-Tailed Macaque as part of his Project Monkey initiative, which aims to document and photograph the country’s 26 primate species. Ong not only eventually found the rare species, known locally as beruk kentoi in Wang Kelian, but many other uncommon flora and fauna as well, some of which few people knew even existed in our rainforests.
Few outside of Perlis, that is.
Impressed by what he saw in this state park and by the knowledge of the local NGOs, Ong was inspired to produce Wang Kelian, Perlis – The Forgotten Valley. The objective of this picture-heavy tome is to bring the unspoilt, untouched beauty of this region to coffee tables all over the country, which Ong does by playing up the imagery and providing readers a glimpse into a world about which they may never know.
This collaborative project between Roots & Shoots Malaysia and Perlis Nature and Wildlife was partly funded via a grant from Think City with support from The Habitat Foundation and Jabatan Perhutanan Perlis, who were looking to support work to record the biodiversity in the northern region of Peninsula Malaysia. This allowed Ong to expand the reach of the project to include a 30-minute documentary, scheduled to be broadcast on Astro throughout the month of September.
“Perlis doesn’t get a lot of attention and there aren’t very many federal efforts to encourage ecotourism there either. But this is what I am saying with the book: Wang Kelian has so much to offer and more Malaysians need to know of its existence.” Ong speaks from personal experience; it was only after coming to Perlis did he know about Wang Kelian or the Nakawan Range, a 370- million-year-old mountain range that runs from the Thai border all the way to the Straits of Malacca.
The stump-tailed macaque that he was searching for is but one of seven primate species found in the Wang Kelian and Kaki Bukit area, and some of the other rarely found flora and fauna include serows and the Asian golden cat, and orchids like the Harbenaria Carnea and Paphiopedilum Niveum. What was also of great interest to Ong was the discovery of human history – drawings on ancient caves, remnants of ancient tools, and a variety of multiracial and multicultural stories that have shaped the region. This includes those of Chinese labourers brought in to work the tin mines around Gua Kelam at the turn of the 1900s, whose villages can still be found in the area today, as well as the farmers of Wang Kelian, who, before the construction of the only road leading to the village over the Nakawan range, have had to trek through the forest for 10km to reach the village of Kaki Bukit to trade their wares.
The Wang Kelian and Kaki Bukit area is also dotted with hidden rivers, streams, limestone hills and caves that are yet to be fully explored and recorded. “We don’t document our forests enough and, because of that, we are in a more difficult position when it comes to conserving it,” Ong observes. “It is not to say that this book is meant to be an academic reference point in any way – the idea is to get people inspired and, as a photographer, this is my way to be part of the conservation agenda.”
Naturally, Ong’s stunning images play a starring role in Wang Kelian, Perlis – The Forgotten Valley, with the accompanying text kept to a minimum. Not only are explanations punchy and to-the-point, they are also in both English and Bahasa Malaysia.
Ong says the bigger picture is to grow the eco-tourism appeal of Perlis. A city boy at heart – he is one of the three founders of KL-based theatre outfit PAN Productions – he quickly fell in love with Perlis, and hopes to play his own part in growing the state’s economy and driving attention to its natural beauty. “Perlis has no oil, not much timber, relies heavily on its agricultural and fishing industries, and is therefore a small local economy – eco-tourism is THE way to bring more money into the state and provide more employment opportunities for the local community, especially for the youth. That is really what I hope to achieve with the book… That this forgotten valley won’t be so forgotten anymore.”