The Malayan rainforest and its rare flower

The Rafflesia is the largest flower in the world, growing in the jungles where Gurkhas fought a guerrilla war

Gurkha soldiers of the British Army in the Malayan jungles during the anti-Communist insurgency in the 1950s. Photo: US LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

The Royal Belum State Park in Perak is the last remaining and largest continuous rainforest in Peninsular Malaysia, and these jungles were also where Nepali soldiers helped the British Army fight Maoist guerrillas from 1948-1960.

With some 185,000 species of fauna and 12,500 species of flowering plants, Malaysia is one of the 12 megadiverse countries in the world, and a biodiversity hotspot.

The jungle of Royal Belum has existed for over 130 million years, making the park the world’s oldest rainforest. It has a high concentration of large mammals including Asian elephants and Malayan tigers. The park also hosts the endangered helmeted hornbill and all 10 Malaysian hornbill species.  

Royal Belum State Park
Royal Belum State Park near the Malaysia-Thailand border is the largest and oldest rainforest in the world that has existed continuously for 135 million years.

What protected the forest was also the insurgent activity when Malaya was under British colonial rule. The armed wing of Chin Peng’s Mao-inspired Communist Party Of Malaya (CPM) had launched a guerrilla campaign to end British rule.

The British Army fought back, and on the frontlines were its Gurkha commandos recruited from the mountains of Nepal, battle-hardened during World War II against the Japanese in these same forests. 

Tim I Gurung in his book The Gurkhas: A True Story writes, ‘In order to protect those British interests of the early fifties in Southeast Asia (Malaya, Singapore, Sarawak, Sabah and Brunei in Borneo), the first battle the Gurkhas had to fight was the Malayan Emergency and it was a long, nasty and costly guerrilla war that lasted from 1948 until 1960’.

Although the insurgency was crushed with a scorched earth policy as well as the spraying of Agent Orange herbicides on the jungles, the guerrilla presence persisted till 1989 and was under tight security. Even today, security posts stop travellers for inspection along the East-West Highway which traverses the jungle.

The Royal Belum State Park was set up in 2007 with a 300,000-hectare forest complex near the Malaysia-Thailand border, and is now a hub for research and eco-tourism.

The Park is home to Rafflesia, the world's largest flower, and one of the world’s rarest and most threatened species. A Rafflesia azlanii blossom is featured on the Malaysian 10 Ringgit banknote and was named after the British founder of Singapore, Stamford Raffles.

Rafflesia flower
The author with a rare sighting of the Rafflesia flower in the Royal Belum State Park in Malaysia recently.

What makes Rafflesia so unique is that it takes nine months to blossom into a flower up to 1.2m in diameter with the smell of rotting meat, but dies within a week after pollination which makes it difficult for anyone to see it.

David Attenborough featured the flower for a BBC Earth telecast and called it a “corpse flower” because of its extraordinarily foul odour.

Given that the Gurkhas were deployed extensively in these jungles, one cannot help but wonder if the Nepalis saw and marvelled at this enormous flower with a stench strong enough to put off all enemies.

Gau Lal Gurung, 96, is a Gurkha veteran of the Malayan campaign and a composer of the traditional Ghatu folk songs of his people. He spent much of his youth in Malaya, travelling for months through the remoter parts of the jungle hunting for insurgents. 

“We found plenty of guerrillas, but never came across a Rafflesia flower,” Gurung says. Since the Rafflesia flower blooms for a day or two, it is a rare sight indeed. One has to be lucky, and be at the right place at the right time.

Gurkha veteran
The author with Gau Lal Gurung, 96, is a Gurkha veteran of the Malayan campaign who traversed the rainforest hunting for insurgents but never once saw the rare Rafflesia bloom.

The Malaysian Nature Society set up over eight decades ago has been collaborating with the government for biodiversity conservation and environmental education. Programs including the BirdLife-led forest governance project and forest condition are under operation with the engagement of indigenous people Orang Asli.

The Royal Belum State Park itself was recognised as an Important Bird and Biodiversity Area in 2004 by BirdLife International. It is also the first to receive CA TS (Conservation Assured Tiger Standards) in Southeast Asia. In 2019, it was also shortlisted on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list.

But Malaysia is also one of the world’s largest producers and exporters of palm oil. The multi-billion dollar industry has cost the country much of its rainforest to make way for palm plantations. A win-win plan is needed to safeguard the ecology and green economy —  much like in Nepal where planners want to clear 80 sq km of native hardwood forest in the eastern Tarai to build Nijgad airport.

Hum Gurung is the Asia Partnership Manager and Former Regional Project Manager of Asia Pacific Forest Governance Project, BirdLife International.