Stalking the Soil

By Jheri St. James

Biologist Kae Kawanishi lives in Kuala Lumpur, capital of Malaysia. In the last month of her three-year study of tigers in peninsular Malaysia’s Taman Negara National Park, she made an unusual discovery about the fauna of this constitutional monarchy. Although the camera-trapping study—in which she and her research team set up cameras in the rain forest so that animals would trigger trip wires and photograph themselves —
was designed primarily to estimate tiger density, Kawanishi’s work also gave the world its first glimpse of the full array of wildlife in a Southeast Asian lowland rain forest. Kawanishi and her team, bankrolled largely by the Save the Tiger Fund through the University of Florida’s Malaysia Tiger Project, racked up thousands of photos of Malaysian wildlife. Day and night, tigers, tapirs, elephants and porcupines strolled past the 150 or so cameras set along game trails.

Dozens of little known species, including clouded leopard, dhole, golden cat and the goat-like serow, tripped the infrared sensors and photographed themselves. Among the most unexpected finds was Taman Negara’s leopards, which triggered the cameras more than 100 times. The surprising thing about them: In every one of the photos the big cats were black. Black panthers are rare in the wild. Almost never seen in Africa, they show up only occasionally in southern India. Historical reports and hunters’ stories from a century ago record that as many as half of the leopards in the Malay Peninsula may have been black, but as Kawanishi has just discovered, black leopards now seem the norm in that part of the world. The reason might be as simple as camouflage or as complex as disease resistance.

Looking for an explanation as to why this usually rare color was prevalent, Kawanishi checked with the forest people who helped her team with the camera-trapping study. “About 400 Orang Asli [original people] live in the park,” she explained. “They are hunter-gatherers. They know every animal in the forest. When we asked them about the various cats, they recognized clouded leopards, tigers and black leopards, but no one recognized a large spotted cat. To the Orang Asli all leopards are harimau kumbang, or black leopards.” The fact that the Orang Asli never saw spotted leopards at least proved that the cameras were not lying. (from National Wildlife Dec/Jan 2007)

The Orang Asli are the indigenous minority peoples of Peninsular Malaysia. The name is a Malay term, which translates as 'original peoples' or 'first peoples.' They migrated from Siam around 2500 BCE. A multi-tribal/language part of Malay culture (5%), the Orang Asli have been the subject of much debate in Malay government for decades, much of it evidently discriminatory and resulting in losses of land, rights and independence.

The tribal people of Sarawak are known for their magnificent hunting skills. They are aided by the sumpit, a six-foot long wooden blowpipe with a poisoned or a barbed tip. One quick puff sends the dart to the victim, usually a wild pig, deer or bird (sometimes 20 yards away).

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During the late 18th and 19th centuries, Great Britain established colonies and protectorates in the area of current Malaysia; these were occupied by Japan from 1942 to 1945. In 1948, the British-ruled territories on the Malay Peninsula formed the Federation of Malaya, which became independent in 1957. Malaysia was formed in 1963, when the former British colonies of Singapore and the East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak on the northern coast of Borneo joined the Federation. The first several years of the country’s history were marred by Indonesian efforts to control Malaysia; Philippine claims to Sabah; and Singapore’s secession from the Federation in 1962. During the 22-year term of Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad (1981-2003), Malaysia was successful in diversifying its economy from dependence on exports of raw materials, to expansion in manufacturing, services and tourism.

Malaysia is a federation of 13 states and three federal territories in Southeast Asia. The capital city is Kuala Lumpur, with Putrajaya the seat of the federal government. The country is separated into two regions—The Malay Peninsula and Borneo—by the South China Sea. Malaysia borders Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei and the Philippines. The population of 27 million people is made up of predominantly Malay, Chinese and Indians.

Malaysia is the founding member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and participates in many international organizations, such as the United Nations, the Commonwealth of Nations and the Developing 8 Countries.

Cultures have been mixing in Malaysia since the very beginning of its history. More than 1500 years ago, a Malay kingdom in Bujang Valley welcomed traders from China and India. With the arrival of gold and silks, Buddhism and Hinduism also came to Malaysia. A thousand years later, Arab traders arrived and brought with them the principles and practices of Islam. By the time the Portuguese arrived, the empire that they encountered was more cosmopolitan than their own. Now, Islam is the largest as well as the official religion of the federation. Malay is the official language.

Some examples of the multicultural nature of Malaysia are the city of Penang, a nearly complete Chinese entity. The Malay wedding ceremony incorporates elements of Hindu traditions; the bride and groom dress in brocades, sit in state, and feed each other yellow rice with hands painted with henna. Muslims have adapted the Chinese custom of giving little red packets of money at festivals; the Muslim packets are green and have Arab writing on them.

Flowers form an integral part of the cultural heritage of Malaysian Indians for religious occasions, weddings, moving house, or welcoming an important guest. Flowers, holy basil, and the leaves of the margosa or mango tree are strung together to form a malai or garland.

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The soil collector for Malaysia was Jonathan Gressel who, fittingly, is an Agricultural Counselor for Malaysia and Singapore, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Kuala Lumpur. What more perfect occupation for our soil collector? In the often-mundane way of Common Ground 191, Mr. Gressel took his sample from, “my backyard, which does have a beautiful view of downtown Kuala Lumpur, including the famous Petronas Twin Towers. I will send you a digital photo of the view when I send the package.”

Mr. Gressel, who was encouraged to find a citizen of Malaysia with whom to choose the collection site, was unable to do so. He wrote: “My office was merely responding to your repeated request to the U.S. Ambassador for a soil sample for your project. I have copied the Embassy Cultural Affairs Officer to see if they want to be involved in your project as your request goes beyond my office’s purview. My intention was to take some soil from my back yard or neighborhood, which has no significant history. If the Cultural Affairs Office is unable to assist you, do you still want me to send the soil from my neighborhood?”

Gary Simpson, creator of this project, will always try to get “significant” soil for our project—collected from an historical, cultural or aesthetically storied location—for this journal. But, let’s think a moment. Isn’t ALL soil significant? Isn’t all soil critical to our survival on earth? Some of the agricultural products produced in Malaysia include rubber, palm oil, cocoa, rice, timber, coconuts and pepper. Life on earth would be much different without even one of these products.

The journal for Common Ground 191 is the story of the SOIL; everything atop that is really the story of mankind’s activities on the soil. Gary Simpson stalks the soil from every country, regardless of narrative or history. We say thank you to Jonathan Gressel for his very important location, his back yard with the view of the constructions of mankind off in the distance, resting on the soil of Malaysia.

This is a picture of the Petronas Tower in Kuala Lumpur. Maybe this is how it looks from Jonathan’s yard?

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The leopard (Panthera pardus) is an Old World mammal of the Felidae family and the smallest of the four 'big cats' of the genus Panthera, along with the tiger, lion, and jaguar. Leopards that are melanistic, either all-black or very dark in coloration, are known colloquially as black panthers. Once distributed across southern Eurasia and Africa, from Korea to South Africa and Spain, it has disappeared from much of its former range and now chiefly occurs in subsaharan Africa. There are fragmented populations in Israel, Indochina, Malaysia, and western China. Despite the loss of range and continued population declines, the cat remains a least concern species; its numbers are greater than that of the other Panthera species, all of which face more acute conservation concerns. The species' success owes in part to its opportunistic hunting behaviour and its adaptability to a variety of habitats. The leopard consumes virtually any animal it can catch and ranges from rainforest to desert. Its ecological role resembles that of the similarly-sized cougar in the Americas. Physically, the spotted cat most closely resembles the jaguar, although it is of lighter build. (

Stalking the soil...



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