Small Forest, Rich Wildlife

Small Forest, Rich Wildlife

Written by Andrew Sia

Would you like to see real-life tapirs, gibbons, hornbills and slow loris in Malaysia? Normally, these are associated with rather expensive, multi-day tours to Taman Negara, Pahang or the wilds of Sabah and Sarawak.

What if they and more can all be found in a small forest right in the Klang Valley? That is an eco treasure trove on the doorstep of Kuala Lumpur (KL), something that our capital city can show is better than anything Singapore has.

But how will you feel if someone tells you that the authorities plan to chop down part of this natural haven? 

This little place packed with lots of wildlife is called the Shah Alam Community Forest or SACF. 

The local “celebrities” here – the adorable Malayan Tapir, stealthy Leopard Cat and Large Indian Civet – have been captured several times with automatic camera “traps”. Also making their appearance were the Lesser Mousedeer (of Sang Kancil fame), the Malayan Porcupine and Buffy Fish Owl.

A slow loris seen at SACF on a night walk – photo: Steven Wong

Other “stars” of SACF include the Dusky Langur or Dusky Leaf Monkey, the White-Handed Gibbon and the Slow Loris. These primates provide both visual and audio attractions to visitors. 

The langurs look as if they are wearing cute white spectacles against their grey fur. As for the gibbons, their trademark melodious hooting ( graces the forest and can be heard by hikers. And then there is the Slow Loris, whose innocent stare is often picked out by powerful torch lights during night walks. 

Dusky Leaf Monkey — Facebook file photo

Eco wealth in grave danger

The camera trapping was part of several biodiversity surveys of mammals, birds, frogs/reptiles, butterflies and plant life. All this was commissioned by the non-profit SACF Society with funding from the UNDP GEF-SGP (Global Environment Facility – Small Grants Programme).

It’s remarkable how so much wildlife is packed into a little forest of only 162 hectares, a legacy of years past when SACF was part of a much larger Bukit Cherakah Forest Reserve (BCFR).

However, since then “development” has been steadily chipping away at BCFR, even though former Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi had once pledged to conserve it after witnessing widespread deforestation from a helicopter ride.

Now, as naturalist Dr. Rosli Omar points out, SACF is just a tiny pocket of forest surrounded by various housing areas including Setia Alam. Only a tenuous link remains with its parent BCFR (to its north) and Taman Botani Negara Shah Alam (formerly Bukit Cahaya Agricultural Park, to its south).

Map showing SACF as precarious wildlife link between Bukit Cherakah Forest Reserve and Taman Botani Negara Shah Alam — photo: SACF Facebook

This makes SACF a crucial, yet precarious, forest corridor that allows wildlife to move between forests.

“If wildlife cannot move between the three forest sections, this will lead to inbreeding and limiting of their genetic pool. This will eventually result in their likely demise. It will also jeopardise the ecological viability of the forest,”

Dr. Rosli Omar

The Malayan Tapir, with its white patches on a black body, is one of our wildlife icons. Indeed, it’s our version of China’s panda bear yet much less publicised. 

But the fragile forest links are endangering them. More than ten tapirs have become roadkill on the Persiaran Mokhtar Dahari highway, laments SACF Society founder Alicia Teoh, as these gentle creatures try to cross between SACF and BCFR.

Tapir photographed by camera trap in bio survey commissioned by SACF Society

Tapirs bear only one calf at a time after a pregnancy of 13 months, so their continued existence at SACF is in peril, comments zoologist Dr Dionysious Sharma. Eco-viaduct crossings, or at least traffic slowing measures, are needed so that tapir populations on both sides of the Mokhtar Dahari highway, can mingle and breed. (Wildlife crossings are important not only for the safety of animals but also drivers.)

This writer remembers having to travel all the way to Taman Negara, Pahang, to see tapirs. As for the slow loris, I had to undertake a long plane and 4WD journey to the Danum Valley of Sabah to see one. 

Yet both of these natural attractions are also found at SACF, right in the Klang Valley, where me and eight million other people live. Unfortunately, the Selangor state government and City Council of Shah Alam (MBSA) plan to build a road across the southern part of SACF, “elite eco housing” plus, of all things, a graveyard. Can’t these be built elsewhere in the great, big state of Selangor?

Why replace abundant life with the dead? These “development” plans put the great wealth of wildlife here in “grave” danger, pardon the pun.

MBSA proposal to cut down part of SACF to build…a graveyard – photo: SACF Facebook

Beautiful Birdlife

A team of naturalists led by Mike Chong did a survey for only 10 days in Nov/Dec 2020 but managed to record an impressive 106 species of birds from 41 families. 

“106 is quite high since habitats at SACF are somewhat fragmented due to housing development,” he explains.

In addition, the team went in at the end of the year when most birds had finished breeding. Thus, the birds were not actively calling or courting and were less easy to spot. 

“If more surveys are done at other times, more species may have been recorded,” he says.

Dr Tan Beng Hui, a birder who was part of the team, says, “During our surveys, we came across long tracts of cleared forest where we had to walk through the barren red earth under the scorching sun.” Yet, she was “impressed and grateful” that the “little tiny pocket of forest” still held lots of birds. 

Destruction creeping into SACF near the iconic Peak Garden. – photo: Vivienne Lim/SACF Facebook

Both Black and Oriental Pied Hornbills have been recorded here. While these are the smaller hornbill species, it shows that SACF can still support these birds which require large trees for nesting, explains Chong. 

“The lack of larger hornbill species shows how the fragmented forests have affected them. If conserved, SACF may attract even larger hornbills over time,”

Mike Chong

If so, can this little forest help Selangor become another “Land of the Hornbills” in the future, just like Sarawak? 

Also found here are 14 birds that are globally threatened/vulnerable according to the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species. Among them are the Grey-headed Fish Eagle, Malay Brown Barbet, Black-and-Yellow Broadbill plus the Greater Green Leafbird.

File photo of Oriental Pied Hornbill by Kelvin Low, Wild Bird Club Malaysia

Compare this to the huge virgin jungles of Taman Negara where 350 bird species are normally observed, and one can appreciate how sumptuous the wealth of bird life in SACF, added Chong.

While Taman Negara is a 3 or 4 hour drive from KL, SACF is a mere half hour away. Dr Teckwyn Lim, a forest researcher from the University of Nottingham Malaysia, adds, “SACF is more valuable than Taman Negara in terms of its recreational value because it is more accessible and thus appreciated by more people.”

Environmentalist Dato Dr Dionysius Sharma says SACF and its bigger neighbour BCFR both have 227 bird species. This was compiled “on short notice” from field work, previous camera trapping and hikers’ photo records, he says.

Given the more abundant birdlife at the larger BCFR, there is the potential for far more birds to eventually live at SACF if it is conserved. Birdwatching is a multi-billion dollar global ecotourism industry. Can SACF help Malaysia capture a slice of this?

Lush forest at Tasik Pasir – photo: Mohd Zareefkhan Esa/ SACF Facebook

Trees, Butterflies and Dengue

SACF is a mix of mature forest with big tall trees and smaller areas of secondary growth. It’s also very popular with hikers. 

A botanical survey commissioned by SACF Society found a whopping 350 species of plants, including seven species of large timber trees (Dipterocarps). There are some species of ebony wood and 11 species of the Burseraceae family, including Canarium vulgare that produces an expensive nut, known as kacang kenari. 

A few species of trees from the nutmeg family produce fruits which are a favourite meal for hornbills. And there are even gaharu trees, famous for a precious resin used as incense and perfumes.

SACF is a regenerating forest with many species of young trees that need time to regrow, concluded the flora survey.

Amazing insects at SACF. Top two left butterfly photos are the Malay Punchinello and Banded Yeoman by Dr Rosli Omar. The other photos by hikers (citizen scientists) are from SACF Facebook.

26 species of freshwater fish have also been found in the lakes and waterways of the area, notes Dr Dionysius. Indeed, there are seven lakes at SACF, with the most famous being Mirror Lake which is much beloved by hikers, anglers and even kayakers.

Another survey of butterflies by Dr Rosli found 94 species from six families. 45 of the butterfly species are found only in forests, such as the White Imperial, Purple-streaked Catseye, Plush Sithon and Banded Yeoman. 23 species are deemed to be uncommon or even rare, for example the White Palm Bob or Suastus everyx everyx.

“This shows that SACF is a healthy forest. If it is allowed to regenerate to a primary forest, the list will be even better,” explains Dr Rosli. 

Apart from being beautiful, about 75% of our food comes from plants pollinated by birds and insects. With the loss of forest habitats, birds and insects will disappear,” he adds.

Ecotourism and Conservation Society Malaysia (Ecomy) president Andrew Sebastian also points out that dragonflies and butterflies from forests feed on mosquito eggs and reduce cases of dengue and malaria. 

But when the forest is cut down, stagnant pools of water at construction sites become the ideal breeding ground for Aedes mosquitoes, he adds.

Frogs and reptiles of SACF. Clockwise from top left: Green Paddy Frog, Lesser Swamp Frog, Four-lined Tree Frog, juvenile Wagler’s Pit Viper. – photos: Steven Wong, Andrew Sia, Alicia Teoh

National Geographic walks 

Herpetologist Steven Wong points out that SACF has better biodiversity than more famous urban forests. Among the bio treasures he has seen here are the Lesser Mousedeer (kancil), Slow Loris and Leopard Cats. All in, some 21 species of amphibians and 32 of reptiles have been recorded here. 

“The variety of frogs, reptiles, insects and mammals in SACF exceeds that of other urban community forests such as Bukit Kiara, Bukit Gasing and Kota Damansara Community Forest,”  

says Herpetologist Steven Wong.

No politician would ever think of chopping down those more established urban forests because it would spark public uproar. Unfortunately SACF, being further away from KL and less well known, is in grave danger of being turned into a graveyard (and elite housing).

Wong has gone into SACF “more times than he can remember” to lead groups on night eco walks. This writer follows one of his walks and sees an Oriental Vine Snake swaying its head to and fro.

“It’s mimicking a twig in the wind, so as not to alarm lizards which it hunts,” explains Wong.

His sharp eyes reveal tiny gems that most hikers would never see, such as the Green Paddy Frog and Black Eye Leaf Litter Frog. The highlight of the night is watching two Giant Red Flying Squirrels gliding down from a tall tree. All in all, it’s like being part of a real life National Geographic documentary! 

MBSA plans to cut down part of SACF for “elite housing” in an “eco wellness sanctuary”. – photo: SACF Facebook


It’s amazing that a tiny forest just 162 hectares in size contains such a wealth of natural treasures. These range from headline grabbers such as tapirs, gibbons and hornbills to less prominent butterflies, frogs, reptiles and the trees themselves. 

SACF lies right in the Klang Valley and is easily accessible to eight million Malaysians. It’s already popular with hikers, and has huge potential for environmental education and ecotourism. Finally, we will have an urban forest far better than anything Singapore has!

Is it worth chopping part of this treasure chest just so that a few posh folks can have some so-called “eco” villas? Or to destroy this rich natural heritage to build a graveyard? 

Hopefully, conservation, long-term vision and common sense will win the day.

For more information, please visit the SACF Facebook page

You can also watch a video about SACF here 

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