and Scenery in Malaysia
by Neil Fahy
Haven't you always wanted to explore the tropical
jungles of Borneo? Well, in 1995 my own dream came true -- landsnail
collecting in Borneo -- when I joined a tour of sixteen people
to Malaysia. The country consists of two areas -- Peninsular
Malaysia and two states (Sabah and Sarawak) on the island of
Borneo. Unlike Indonesia, which I visited in 1994, Malaysia
is not located on a subduction zone and consequently lacks volcanoes
and earthquakes, which is OK with me.
Let's take a brief look at the world of landsnails.
Living on land, they occupy almost every habitat along the sea,
in the deserts and on the mountain peaks. Landsnails are separated
into two large groups - those breathing with gills (Prosobranchia)
and those breathing with lungs (Pulmonata). The gilled snails
have a single pair of tentacles with the eyes located at the
base, and an operculum for sealing the generally rounded aperture,
and the sexes are usually in separate animals. They are mainly
tropical animals with a few genera in semi-tropical areas. The
snails with lungs have two sets of tentacles with the eyes at
the tip of the upper pair, lack an operculum, and are hermaphroditic.
The great majority of landsnails are pulmonates. In Malaysia,
however, the prosobranchs comprise a third of the recorded species!
We flew from California to Peninsular Malaysia,
landing at Kuala Lumpur, the capital, where I found the ever-present
African landsnail Achatina fulica and the "tropical tramps"
Subulina octona and Bradybaena similaris. The 3-4" Achatina
fulica with its radial brown flames has been introduced as a
food source throughout Southeast Asia and most of the islands
in the Pacific. It feeds on live vegetation and is a crop menace.
The "tropical tramps" are found everywhere in the
tropics near habitation. Bradybaena similaris is usually helicoid,
with a single brown stripe. Subulina octona is recognized by
its shining shell surface, cylindrical shape, truncate columella,
and lack of strong sculpture.
Our destination for the next four days was the
national park northeast of Kuala Lumpur called Taman Negara
-- which conveniently means "national park." This
virgin lowland rain forest is on the eastern drainage of the
peninsula, a three hour bus ride to Kuala Tembeling and a three
hour boat ride to the park. The boat had back rests and a pad
for sitting, but the pad was on the floor. We sat, feet outstretched,
on the bottom of the boat for the three hour trip upriver. Because
the area had been logged, the scenery was not very exciting
and the river was chocolate brown.
Comfortable accommodations at Kuala Tahana blended
with the environment. Went for an hour-long night walk after
dinner. The temperature was hot and steamy, the forest, dark
and dense. Using flashlights we scanned the foliage for animal
life. We saw one inch long velvet ants and two live Cyclophorus.
These snails have a large (30-70mm) depressed shell with a flammulate
or spiral color pattern. According to the early literature they
are dangerous. If they crawl across your shadow, they will drain
your blood and cause your death. I didn't believe this, but
I did avoid their contact with my shadow. No sense taking chances.
Woke up to the morning prayer at 5:45. Along
the path to the dining room were many live Chloritis -- 18mm
greenish-brown shells with a red spiral band near the rounded
periphery, a perforate umbilicus and a white reflexed lip. After
breakfast we went on the new canopy walk. Completed in 1992,
it is 230 meters long with six bridges, five platforms, and
is 30 meters high. An interesting experience but we didn't see
Walked to Bukit Teresek for a view of the countryside
-- a steep trail, climbing about a thousand feet. In the distance
we could see Gunung Tahan (2186m), the highest point in Peninsular
Malaysia. Along the trail, passed a colony of white headed gibbons.
They made a lot of noise, but I didn't see any -- they blended
into the jungle background.
After lunch, a ten minute boat ride downstream
to climb a steep, slippery bank and walk a half mile through
open forest to the entrance of the Gua Telinga cave. It is not
a real cave, but openings between collapsed limestone boulders.
I did find the tramps, Bradybaena similaris and Lamellaxis gracilis.
L. gracilis, in the same family as Subulina, lacks the truncated
columella, and is considered the most widely ranging of all
landsnails. It is found in almost all tropical and semi-tropical
While eating dinner in the outdoor dining area,
saw a green- spotted three foot long Paradise Tree Snake. It
climbed up a 4X4 post and then up a straight wall. It was remarkable.
It is a rear- fanged snake and only mildly poisonous.
On our return to Kuala Lumpur we visited Batu
Cave, a Hindu shrine. We entered the cave by climbing a staircase
consisting of 272 steps, "guarded" by many long-tailed
macaques. The adults are about 18" tall and they growled
as we walked past. Maybe they knew we were not Hindus. The cave
is huge, with many altars decorated with carved figures of stone
and wood. On the ground in the cave I found two dead Cyclotus
perdix aquila. This operculate has a low- spired 20mm rapidly
expanding shell with an aperture free of the previous whorl,
brown radial blotches, and a prominent breathing tube. The tube
allows the snail, during the dry season, to pull its operculum
over the aperture and still breathe through the tube.
Flew to Sabah on the island of Borneo. We were
met by our guide Cede who took us by bus to the pier in Sandakan.
We then boarded two launches for the hour and a half ride to
Green Turtle Island (Seningan Island). The island is small and
the accommodations are minimal. The temperature was 100ø
and the humidity was 98%. My room contained a cot, a covered
mattress, and a towel, and a fan but no window, a toilet, oriental
type at floor level, down the hall, but no running water. After
dinner we watched a turtle lay about 95 eggs. The eggs were
collected and taken to the hatchery where they were reburied.
At the hatchery the previously hatched turtles were collected
and counted before we returned them to the sea. On the beach
the following morning the jeep-like tracks of the returning
females could be seen from the nests to the sea.
Returning by boat, we drove on the dirt road
to Gomantong Cave, one of the sources of birds nests for bird's
nest soup. The small, cup-shaped nests are made by swiftlets
from mosses and feathers held together by the swiftlet's saliva.
A very pleasant trail over limestone rubble winds between the
small trees. The ground is strewn with many dead shells, including
Hemiplecta densa, Cyclotus iris, and Amphidromus martensi. H.
densa has a large (38- 48mm) greenish-yellow shell with a spiral
red band below the angular periphery. The empty shells are very
fragile and are seldom found without breakage. C. iris ranged
from 14-30mm. It resembles C. perdix aquila of the Peninsula
except that the aperture is attached to the prior whorl and
the breathing tube is inconspicuous. The A. martensi specimens
exhibited variety. I collected six specimens, four unbanded
with one sinistral and three dextral, and two more both banded
and dextral. Along the bank at a stream crossing there were
many live freshwater shells (Thiaridae). There are living quarters
near the caves for the bird's nest collectors. The cave entrance
is huge -- 100' high and 75' wide, with guano, cockroaches and
dung beetles covering the floor. At the cave entrance I collected
snails, including Alycaeus, a 6-7mm helicoid operculate with
the body whorl exhibiting a sharp constriction which produces
a distinct change in the sculpture. I took soil samples from
the limestone depressions which have yielded twelve tiny "species."
We continued by canoe to Sukua River Lodge at
the junction of Mananggel and Kinabatangan Rivers. After getting
settled, we took a boat ride up the Menanggel River to see the
proboscis monkeys. They were numerous, but high up in the trees.
I was glad I brought my 600mm lens. Our guide Cede had taken
the beautiful pictures for the book, Proboscis Monkeys of Borneo.
There are three characteristics of the proboscis monkey -- 1)
The males weigh about 20 kg, very heavy for a tree-dwelling
animal, in fact one of the largest monkeys in the world. 2)
They have enormous stomachs, twice as large as their nearest
relative, and designed to digest leaves. This large stomach
makes them look permanently pregnant -- even the males! 3) Males
have huge, pendulous and greatly expanded fleshy noses which
overhang their mouths. A male needs to push his nose aside when
eating. Early accounts reported that the monkeys actually held
their noses while they jumped from branch to branch. From my
observations this is not true! After dinner went for a night
walk. Saw many insects, frogs and snails. Found Leptopoma undatum,
L. sericatum and Everettia. Leptopoma are Prosobranchia. The
unpatterned trochoidal shell of L. undata is almost triangular
in outline. Its bright green color is the color of the animal,
not the shell. L. sericatum is smaller, helicoidal, and has
several spiral bands. Everettia is 8-25mm, and has a greenish-yellow
low- spired shell with a rounded periphery and is narrowly perforate.
Went for a boat ride after breakfast up the
Menanggol River. While moving along, I spotted an Amphidromus
martensi on a branch across the river. Our course was changed
so that we could see the snail. Its dextral shell is yellow-green,
and the animal has a white boarder on its yellow-brown foot.
A short distance downriver our guide pointed out a reticulated
python, the world's largest snake, and non-poisonous, coiled
on an overhanging branch above our heads. There was nothing
to fear, he assured us. It is only nine feet long, and four
inches in diameter. They can attain a length of thirty feet
and weigh 250 pounds!
Drove to Sandakan, stopping at the Sepilok Orang-Utan
(man-of- the-woods) Center to see a feeding. The orangs are
the only Asian great ape. Tailless, large-faced, with long hairy
arms, they are social and very affectionate, always holding
or touching each other. One mother had her dead baby hanging
around her neck.
The next day we flew to Kota Kinabalu. The peak's
serrate summit was visible and was very impressive. Mt. Kinabalu
is the highest peak east of the Himalayas at 13,455'. The summit
is unusual for a granite mountain; where most granite summits
are either rounded or pointed, Kinabalu is composed of a series
of tall granite spires: massive granite is cut by well-defined,
close- spaced vertical joints, and lacks joints in the horizontal
direction, so differential weathering can give rise to granite
needles. The age of Mt. Kinabalu granite is 10 million years
(Miocene) and is intruded into Paleogene clastic and sedimentary
The height of Mt. Kinabalu is increasing at
5mm/year or 0.2"/year. If the granite formed 10 miles below
the surface and the elevation increase rate was constant (5mm/yr),
it would require 4 million years to erode 10 miles of overburden
and for the summit to reach its present height. It is a new
mountain! The mountain has over a thousand species of orchids,
26 species of rhododendrons and nine species of pitcher plants.
The many endemic plants are due in part to the mountain's isolation.
It is a high biological island surrounded by low, inhospitable
We drove to the park and visited Pouring Hot
Springs. Saw the sulphur pools and walked the trail to the canopy
walk. The only snail seen was Achatina fulica. Next morning
Mt. Kinabalu was in all its glory. To look from our camp at
4,500' to the summit at 13,455' in a horizontal distance of
6.5 miles is impressive -- that's 1,600' per mile. We left at
8:30 and rode to the beginning of the Summit Trail at Timpohon
Gate (6,000'). The trail is well constructed but steep. Walked
past Carson's Waterfall in the dense forest from shelter to
shelter: Pondok Kandis, at 6,500; Pondok Ubah, at 8,874'; Pondok
Lowi, at 7,500'. Here the vegetation becomes more mossy. We
had left the rain forest and were now in a cloud forest. On
to the fourth shelter, Pondok Mempening, at 8,262', and finally,
Layang Layang Staff Quarters, at 8,600'. Here were many species
of orchids and pitcher plants (Nephentes). There are seven shelters,
to 12,500', but the fifth was high enough for me.
It is strange how the tip of the pitcher plant
leaf can develop into a cup 5 or 6" deep and 4" in
diameter. The pitcher plant captures its prey when the victim
flies into the pitcher. Downward-aimed hairs and fluid excretion
prevent the victim from escaping. The plant possesses chemicals
to dissolve the entire prey, hard parts and all. Wonder what
prevents its own tissue from being dissolved?
The cloud forest presented many eerie visions,
like the trail vanishing into the mist and trees standing in
a sea of fog. The walk down was quicker than the walk up, but
harder on the legs. Tired on arrival at the first shelter, my
legs were even more tired on my return. Back at camp at about
5 p.m. after a long, tiring, delightful day, went snailing before
bed; found Bradybaena similaris and Trachia. Trachia has a perforate,
depressed, spirally banded, shouldered shell.
After breakfast visited the Mountain Garden,
a botanical garden at park headquarters. Saw many orchids and
pitcher plants. Found a live green slug with a remnant of a
shell on the leaf of the orchid Phylogenia clementsi. The snail
is probably a species of Microparmarion. The genus is "on
the road to slugdom."
We flew to Sarawak in the afternoon. Next morning
visited Sarawak Museum built by Raja Brooks to house Alfred
Russell Wallace's collection. There were even some landsnails.
Afterwards the museum hired a cab to take me to Wind Cave and
Fairy Cave at Bau, about 40 miles south of Kutching. Wind Cave,
with wooden walkways, is not accessible for collecting. Did
find a few collecting sites -- the park ranger helped me. He
showed me a human jaw that had been uncovered during the construction
of the walkway. The cave was used as a shelter in prehistoric
times. Many of the empty shells were from large freshwater species,
minus their apex - - it was removed by striking it, in order
to release the internal vacuum and allow the animal to be sucked
out through the aperture. The entire process of striking, sucking
and removal is quick -- a single suck will do it.
Drove the short distance to Fairy Cave. The
entrance, about 30 meters above the parking area, has steps
with a 2" riser and a very slippery 4" tread, a wooden
rail on one side, the cliff on the other. Found many empty snail
shells at the cave entrance, including Amphidromus similis,
Achatina fulica, Phaedusa borneensis, Lamellaxis gracilis, Leptopoma,
Opisthostoma, and Videna. A. similis resembles A. martensi but
has a few brown sub- sutural spots and the calluses are purple-brown.
P. borneensis is a skinny (22mm long and 3.2mm in diameter)
sinistral shell with a pointed apex, reflected lip and toothed
aperture. Opisthostoma are tiny radially ribbed helicoid operculates.
The aperture seems to have a mind of its own. It grows away
from the shell and in the opposite direction -- the most bizarre
shell I've seen! Videna has a dextral, fragile, translucent
14mm lens-shaped shell. One specimen is sinistral. It sure looks
like Videna. Will have to check on this.
Stopped at Bau to see the Bukit Young Gold Mine,
a large, deep excavation with a horizontal tunnel. The Malaysian
man sitting across the aisle from me on the plane home was a
geologist and the manager of the Bau gold mine -- first operated
by the British and abandoned prior to World War II. The excavation
has filled with water, creating a lake into which the Japanese
threw their ammunition and weapons at the end of the war. When
the new manager took charge they drained the lake, but had to
dispose of the weapons left by the Japanese. The mine is currently
producing gold and expects to continue for a few more years.
After the mining is completed, the area will be converted to
a public park.
Next day went to Bako National park. I took
the long (5.25km) Lintang Trail up the sandstone hill through
wet forest to the flat surface on top. Here, many six-inch circles
are cut in the sandstone, abundant, uniform, and not overlapping.
If I didn't know better, I'd say they were formed by the exhaust
of a small rocket ship. The sandstone drainage is poor and the
area is like an elevated swamp. Pitcher plants are everywhere,
on the ground and in the shrubs. Some are three inches and others
are closer to six or seven. Also saw the carnivorous sundew.
The walk back was long, hot and down -- didn't seem we'd climbed
that much. Found Dyakia, Geotrochus labuanensis, Chloritis and
Hemiplecta densa. Dyakia is a sinistral genus named for the
Dyak, a general term referring to all the indiginous non-Islamic
peoples of interior Borneo. It is also the world's only bioluminescant-shelled
landsnail. The low intensity yellow-green flash lasting about
a half second is emitted from a luminescent organ in the head.
G. labuanensis resembles a Chinese hat, about 16mm in diameter,
7mm high and triangular in shape, with a narrow red band just
above and below the angular periphery.
We then went to Demai Beach near Kutching. After
breakfast, went on the Jungle Trek. Started in wet forest and
ended in dry forest. Saw a picturesque waterfall along the way.
The stream was clearclear! Only stream I'd seen where the headwaters
had not been logged. Saw a green pit viper along the trail edge,
and the snails Chloritis and Leptopoma undatum. I like snails
but they did not hold my attention like the three-foot long
Our final adventure was a night in an Iban longhouse.
It was just an overnight visit but it was the experience of
a lifetime. The Iban are one of the Dyak tribes.
We left Kutching early for our two-hour bus
ride to the Engkare River. Just north of the Kalimantan/Sarawak
border at Ulu Ai lake damsite, we were met by our Iban boatmen
for an hour and a half boatride upriver to the Sunok longhouse
near the junction of the Stamang and Engkarie Rivers. The 2'
wide, 20' long canoe held three passengers, a driver at the
stern, and a poleman in the bow.
Rain came down in torrents, soaking us to the
skin -- even ponchos were of no avail. Fortunately it hot so
it was not uncomfortable. There were many rapids as the chocolate-brown
river -- the extensive logging in the interior has greatly increased
soil erosion -- left the lake. Our outboard motor was just powerful
enough to counter the current in one especially swift and narrow
rapid. Passed the Iban boarding school. which accounts for the
absence of school-age children at the longhouse.
We were greeted by the chief, 62 years old,
with designs tattooed on his shoulders and back. Traditionally
the Iban do not shake hands with visitors, but today shaking
hands has become highly acceptable. We shook hands.
The longhouse is a condo-like "city"
of 34 not necessarily related families, with a chief, shaman,
etc., for each longhouse. About 150 yards long, the longhouse
itself has a hall on one side, while the other is divided into
rooms about 20 feet wide and 50 feet long. It is made of bamboo
with mats on the floor and metal, bark and bamboo walls. The
toilet, shower (consisting of a bucket), and wash basin are
on the outside edge of the rooms. The toilet is oriental style
with paper and a flush bucket. There is running water. The area
is clean and bug free and the floor is dry.
After a greeting in which the chief prayed to
the spirits for our acceptance as guests, we were given tuak
(rice wine) and rice cakes. The response on drinking tuak is
"oo ha!" -- the louder, the better.
I asked Frederick, our guide, to inquire about
their use of landsnails. A young man took me to his room to
show me a pan containing many 3-inch freshwater snail shells.
All of the empty shells had the apical whorls broken off. He
would sell me the empty shells at 10 shells per ringet ($0.40)
but he threw in five shells more. Guess he felt sorry for someone
wanting empty snail shells. They eat the animal and crush the
shell for fertilizer in the dry rice fields. The snail is an
intermediate host for the lung fluke.
Ate dinner in the chief's room, sitting on the
floor in a circle. Thebowls of rice, their staple food, are
supplemented by chicken, fern fronds, spinach, bamboo shoots,
tapioca leaves and pineapple spears. The beverages were tea
and coke. They use their hands although silverware and water
for washing hands were provided. Each diner is expected to help
himself. It's best to take a small portion at first to determine
if you want more.
After dinner came more tuak and tribal dances,
with music by a woman striking a gong. The first dancer was
a sparsely tattooed man in a headdress carrying a sword, followed
by a woman in an Ikat blouse and skirt, then a warrior with
a spear and wooden shield, and finally four masked figures who
danced. Next it was our turn. The chief presented his headdress
to one of us, who drank a glass of tuak and performed, then
passed the headdress to someone else. Finally we presented our
gifts of pencils and writing pads, 34 piles of them, one for
each longhouse family.
The two sleeping rooms for guests consisted
of a central walkway with an elevated 1' platform on either
side. Mattresses and covers were placed on the platforms, with
a pillow, a blanket and mosquito netting.
Woke to the crowing of roosters. After a breakfast
of eggs, rice, bread and more, we watched a cock fight demonstration.
The Malay do not use spurs on the feet of the cocks like the
Chinese. Next was a blowgun demonstration -- a five foot tube
with a sight at the top end; it is held with both hands near
the mouth. I felt better with one hand halfway up the barrel
as we shot at balloons. The poison for the darts, which we didn't
use, is form the sap of the Ipoh Tree (Antiaris toxicaria).
The chief then took us on a nature walk, telling
us how they used plants for food and medicine. The walk ended
at 9:15 a.m. at the river above the large rapid. As we departed
in our canoes, the chief shook hands with each of us and his
last word was "Hello."