Air Hitam Dalam Educational Forest, Tasek Gelugor
Ecological haven within a fertile riverside mangrove swamp
Who would have thought that somewhere on mainland Penang lies a little world just the size of three football fields but has sheltered more than a hundred species of birds, and scores upon scores of reptiles, insects and mammals? Sited just twenty kilometres from the Penang Bridge nestles Air Hitam Dalam, a secret forest of surprises, a dense mangrove wetland that houses a rich ecological realm waiting to be explored.
Probably, the enclave is so richly endowed as it lies at the extraordinary confluence of three natural waterways – the Sungai Air Hitam, Sungai Jarak and prominent Sungai Perai which flows towards the Straits of Malacca. Buffered by the rivers in this manner, the teeming natural haven is surrounded on its other sides by fertile paddy fields, picturesque kampung houses and breezy coconut plantations.
And criss-crossing the interior of this heartland is a kilometre-long network of boardwalks and a 210-metre suspension footbridge erected with ropes and planks. So one can explore the forest at a variegated pace - be it with a dash of adventure or just as an idyllic jaunt. The authorities need to ensure that the splendid environment is well complemented by properly-managed facilities and amenities for safety and pleasant accessibility.
The natural diversity recorded within this dense enclave is as astonishing in variety as it is exquisite in the assorted beauties. On lucky occasions one may find feathered creatures, of both exotic and mundane kinds.
There is, for example, the blue-eared kingfisher with its crimson beak, velvet wings and the striking yellow underbelly; the purple heron with silky gracefulness ornamented by its curling elongated neck; the black headed bulbul with its alluring round eyes and dulcet whistling voice; and the black kite displaying miniature hawk-like grandeur while spreading its handsome raptor wings.
In fact the Forestry Department which protects and manages the site has recorded more than 150 species of migratory and local birds here. The best time for aficionados to catch sight of feathered glories is during the migratory season from October to May, especially in the early morning and just before dusk.
The fauna here is also of an impressive variety. One does not have to be a botany expert to appreciate the range of plant life inundating the area, while strolling along the boardwalk surrounded by overhanging boughs, sunlight dappled fronds and verdant wetland thickets.
Indeed, the walkway goes through a veritable sea of lush low-lying foliage, giving visitors the chance to observe and photograph species up close, especially local mangrove treasures trees like the malabera, nipah and jejawi. There are very many plant species to observe here. There is the leea indica known as memali in Malay with its distinctively shiny symmetrical leaf veins, the licualaspinosa or palas ketupat with thin stalks radiating like a flowered explosion, the ficushispada or aralempong boasting bulbous little fruits, the giant mimosa or semalu gajah whose huge leaves fold up when touched, and many more.
The experience can be had both up close near the ground level and with panoramic perspective at an elevation. At the heart of the path are two watchtowers connected by the long rope-bridge. And fringing the eastern side of the forest is an idyllic earthen path that runs serenely beside a placid bend of the Sungai Perai river. Here one may see the smooth otter which characteristically thrives among mangroves.
There are several other intriguing animals to be found here, like the dinosaur-like the Oriental garden lizard with its smug snout and Mohawk crest, the slithering Oriental rat snake which steals about while hidden by its green scales amidst the vegetation, the common Sunda toad, Malayan box turtle, Brahminy kite, laced woodpecker, silver leaf monkey and common tree shrew.
Images of many such species in the Air Hitam Dalam Educational Forest have been captured by photography enthusiasts and nature specialists, and are available on the Internet for all to appreciate.
Managed by the Forestry Ranger of Seberang Perai Utara/Tengah
Tel: +604 5391743
Written by Himanshu Bhatt
Photographs by Adrian Cheah