Saturday, October 22, 2011

Malaysia Day 2: Penang National Park and the Turtle Conservation Center

Sunrise over the Penang Harbor, 20 October 2011

Blog Entry #37: Penang National Park and the Turtle Conservation Center

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Sunrise over Penang Harbor
After so many days cooped up in either a ship or a bus, Pat and I were really looking forward to a day of hiking through the rain forest in Penang National Park.  Unfortunately Pat had too much University of Montana curricular work that had piled up while we were in India, so he took a day to get through it while I joined 14 others on this cross-island trek.

Map of Penang with its distinctive "turtle" shape

Penang is a small island off the far NW corner of Malaysia, and less than 100 miles south of the border with Thailand.  Our guide refers to it as a turtle with its head withdrawn; Georgetown is near the upper right of NE “leg” and Penang National Park near the upper left of NW “leg.”
Luxury Condos in Penang
Our drive to this NW corner of Penang Island took us across Georgetown, which seems to be in a mad race to put up luxury-condominium skyscrapers end to end across the island.  20 years ago the KOMTAR building was virtually the only high-rise on Penang Island, but the booming economy since then has changed that, and now historical preservationists are dueling with real estate developers in their efforts to preserve and restore many of the older buildings in their distinctive architectural styles.

Entrance to Penang National Park
Formed in 2003 and covering less than 10 square miles, Penang National Park preserves some of the island’s remaining native rain forest and turtle egg-laying habitat, and is considered to be the world’s smallest national park.  We had the good fortune of working with two guides who had grown up in this area and knew both the terrain and the flora and fauna intimately.

Budein, our guide
I had picked up one of my many “on-ship” colds in the days between India and Malaysia, but 4 hours of trekking through the rain forest up and down steep hills in the high heat and humidity seem to purge my ills from my body. 

Army ants with larvae from raid
Termite mound
At times hiking through this lush rainforest felt a bit like being in a National Geographic special.  On the ship we had watched a documentary on ants and termites featuring E. O. Wilson, the great Harvard biologist and ant specialist, and then there they were: lines of army ants carrying off larvae from another ant colony they had raided.  Around the next bend in the trail we encountered termite mounds, and then the carnivorous pitcher plant, luring unwary insects into its depths. 
Carnivorous Pitcher Plant
Rattan with spiral thorn pattern
Rattan grows here, a sort of flexible bamboo-like plant, from small flexible vines to large, long strands with a fascinating spiral pattern of its thorns on the trunk.  We sampled many different plants used for medicinal and spice purposes, from wild curry to cinnamon bark.

Kerachut Beach, Penang Island
After two hours and several liters of sweat, we arrived at Kerachut Beach, with some of the coarsest quartz sand grains I have ever seen, from the weathering of the underlying Jurassic-age granites that make up much of the Island.

White-bellied Sea Eagle
While lunching on these beautiful weathered boulders, I was lucky to watch a native White-bellied Sea Eagle soaring over the beach looking for prey.  It looks very similar to our native bald eagle, only with a white underbelly to match its white head.

2-day old Green Turtles
Baby Green Turtle at Kerachut Beach
Following lunch we visited the Turtle Conservation Center ( where they are working to protect the egg-laying habitat of the Green Turtle and the Olive Ridley Turtle at the three beaches on Penang Island where the turtles lay their eggs.  We were able to see several 2-day old turtles in a small tank where they are held until they can be released safely to the sea.  According to WWF Malaysia (, turtle populations in Malaysia have declined precipitously in recent years, with Olive Ridley Turtle numbers down by 95%.  Faced with threats from over-hunting, habitat loss, and climate change, their future is cloudy, but it is encouraging to see the conservation efforts being put in place by these groups.
Rainforest in Penang National Park
Beach at Penang National Park entrance
Mangrove roots along beach
We hiked back over the hills and through the rainforest (and through another few liters of sweat), and were happy to encounter our bus with several liters of water.  Pat and I enjoyed another wonderful dinner of Chinese-Malay food with friends from the ship, and then I slept the sleep of the dead that night; wonderful to sleep in the next morning!

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