It is a surprisingly lesser known fact that Malaysia, ranked among the 17 megadiverse countries on earth, is estimated to be home to an astounding 20% of the world’s animal species! From colorful birds to resilient mammals, the exquisite fauna of Malaysia has long tempted zoologists and eco-tourists the world over to head off to the countries largely untouched jungles.
It is a sad fact, however, that many of Malaysia’s dazzling and unique species are headed for extinction. Barring the successful efforts of determined conservation efforts both local and international, it is likely that many of the creatures found on this list will no longer be found in the wild within the next several decades.
1) The Atlas Moth (Attacus atlas)
Photo Credit: internets_dairy, Flickr
At a distance, it would be very easy to mistake the Atlas Moth for a good-sized parrot or passerine. With a wingspan that can reach 25cm in length, it is widely held by zoologists that the Atlas Moth is the largest species of moth on the planet (though only the female of the species can reach this impressive size). The Titan of Greek Mythology who supported the world on his shoulders, Atlas, is the insect’s eponym because of the map-like patterns on the moth’s wings.
Atlas Moths are relatively common throughout Malaysia, though they favor shrublands and dry broadleaf forests. Though the stunning, earthy hues that cover the creatures’ downy wings makes it easy to see why the species has long been the subject of aesthetic inspiration, Atlas Moths have also been cultivated for their unique, wool-like string (though the practice of Atlas Moth string ‘farming’ is not commercial, and takes place mostly in India.)
2) The Clouded Leopard (Neofelis nebulosa)
Photo Credit: spencer77, Flickr
It is somewhat disheartening to note that this incredible feline species has recently been given the status of ‘Vulnerable’ by the International Union for Conservation. What makes the Clouded Leopard such a special animal is that it represents a kind of evolutionary node between Felinae (small cats such as lynxes and servals) and Pantherinae (big cats such as lions and tigers). The Clouded leopard is so named because of the beautiful dark and grey blotches that cover the otherwise golden pelt.
The prey of the Clouded leopard, which favors dry tropical and evergreen forests, consists of ground-squirrels, Slow Lorises and even the tough-shelled Malayan Pangolin.
The largest threat to the Clouded Leopard in Malaysia, as with so many other animals the world over, is large scale deforestation.
3) The Reticulated Python (Python reticulatus)
Photo Credit: spisharam, Flickr
The world’s longest reptile and serpent (though not as heavy as the more famous green anaconda) the reticulated python can grow to a staggering 6.95 meters in length! Though they are enormously powerful and excellent swimmers (some have been located considerably far off shore!), the danger that the Reticulated Python poses to humans is exceedingly low. As constrictors, the python (which feeds on pigs, rats, chickens, stray cats and dogs and, in one astounding case, a small sun bear!) will ambush its prey; seize it in its coils, and then slowly devour it. The reticulated python can ingest prey that is up to one quarter of the snakes own length!
Reticulated Pythons’ prefer rainforests for habitation, though they have been known to dwell near village settlements.
4) The Great Hornbill (Buceros bicornis)
Photo Credit: Lip Kee, Flickr
Though Malaysia is home to 10 species of Hornbill, none are more impressive than the Great Hornbill. The species considerable size, vivid plumage and powerful beak is easily why the tribes of Borneo revered the Hornbill as a sacred creature (usually to the bird’s detriment, as their feathers and skulls were used for head-dresses).
Great Hornbills mate for life, and females will typically construct nests within the trunks of trees which are then sealed over with excrement. The male will feed the female through a slit in the sealed-up nest whilst the imprisoned, molting female raises her chicks until they are sufficiently developed.
Male hornbills are known to engage in aerial confrontations in which they butt their ‘casques’ (the distinctive hollow protuberance above the bill) together. Despite this, the actual purpose of the casque, if indeed there is one, continues to baffle zoologists (though it is widely held that the casques are the result of sexual selection).
Like most species of hornbills, the greater hornbill brandishes long eyelashes.
5) The Trilobite Beetle (Duliticola)
Photo Credit: Dave Dunford, Wikipedia
Named after the famous Mount Dulit in Borneo, this amazing species of beetle looks like something out of the Mesozoic era. The segmented chitin armor that covers the insect’s back and is larger at the head makes it easy to see why the beetle has been named after the extinct trilobite.
Trilobite beetles are most frequently found in rotting logs and tree trunks. The female of the species is much larger than the male and can grow up to 88mm in length (males typically grow to a mere 9mm).
6) The Malayan Tapir (Tapirus indicus)
Photo Credit: cml.1674, Flickr
Walking in the wilds of Malaysia’s tropical lowlands, it would be easy to mistake this amazing mammal for a large rock (provided it was sleeping). The Malayan Tapir is a solitary beast and this fact, coupled with its status as an endangered species, means that one would be exceedingly lucky to spot one in the wild. Like other species of Tapir, the Malayan variety makes up for its poor vision with exceptional hearing and a highly sensitive (and flexible) trunk. Because of this, Tapirs tend to be more active at night, although they are still not characterized as being solely nocturnal.
A Malayan Tapir calf has a stunningly beautiful piebald coat which gives the impression that it has been painted by some tribal artist. Sadly, this may be part of the reason why the illegal sale of Tapir calves continues in South East Asia (particularly in Thailand, where infant Tapirs are worth up to US$5500.00).
An adult Malayan Tapir can grow up to 2.4 meters in length. For this reason, they tend to have few natural predators, though tigers have been known to hunt Tapir’s from time to time in much the same way that Jaguars hunt Tapirs in South America.
7) The Sun Bear (Helarctos malayanus)
Photo Credit: Tambako the Jaguar, Flickr
The sad plight of this amazing omnivore has long been the focus of environmental groups the world over. It is estimated that, in recent years, the global population of Sun Bears has decreased by a worrying 30%. The reason behind this steady declination (aside from the usual factors like illegal logging) can be attributed to the bears being poached for their bile (which is then used in a range of commodities ranging from shampoo to soft drinks!).
Fortunately, a range of conservation strategies have been implemented in Malaysia to save the Sun Bear from the wretched bile trade. An international captive breeding program for the bears has been in place since 1994.
Sun bears dwell in tropical rainforests. Though they eat a variety of fruits and insects, honey and beehives are the preferred food of the Sun Bear. For this reason, they are also known as “Honey Bears”.
8) The Bornean Orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus)
Photo Credit: Lip Kee, Flickr
The word “Orangutan” translates roughly as “person of the forest” in Bahasa Melayu. It is a wholly befitting name when one considers how closely related we are to these creatures. Indeed, humans share 97% of their DNA with Orangutans.
The Bornean Orangutans, along with their cousins in Sumatra, are the only great apes that are native in Asia. In addition to this, they are also the largest tree-dwelling animals on the planet! Bornean Orangutans are known to frequently employ tools in order to keep insects away or to grab prickly fruits. Though their diet consists primarily of figs, leaves, insects and bird eggs, the Bornean Orangutan will also consume mineral-rich soil on occasion. In more frightening instances, Orangutans (much like the chimpanzees of Africa) will prey upon smaller primates.
Although Orangutans are known to be relatively solitary animals, documented examples have made it clear that the bond between the mother Ape and her offspring is stronger than any other creature next to homo sapiens. Mother Orangutans have been known to suckle their young for up to seven years.
9) The Malayan Tiger (Panthera tigris jacksoni)
Photo Credit: bobosh_t, Flickr
Though we often see them emblazoned on the Malaysian government’s coat-of-arms, the Malayan tiger is seldom seen in the wild. They have been known to prey on such animals as serow, deer, wild pigs and even young elephants in the forests of southern Peninsular Malaysia. A recent video, taken at Lake Kenyir, also demonstrates the Malayan Tiger’s swimming prowess.
As has long been the case in India, the clash between Tigers and local agriculturalists has led to a swift decline in the big cats numbers. The most notable example of this has been in the state of Terengganu when human-tiger conflicts have been high due to the fact that farmers in the poorer areas on the fringes of the jungle have had their livestock repeatedly taken by tigers and (due to the significant amount of money lost due to this) have sought vicious reprisals.
The Malayan Tiger is among the smallest species of tiger. The average male weighs around 120KG whilst the average male Siberian Tiger (the largest species) can weigh up to 176.4KG.
10) The Asian Elephant (Elephas maximus)
Photo Credit: kumaravel, Flickr
No list of Malaysia’s greatest creatures would be quite complete without including the Asian Elephant. An extensive translocation policy has removed the pachyderm population from the states of Negeri Sembilan, Selangor and Perlis in order to foster better relations between these forest giants and local village communities. Asian elephants can live for up to 60 years in the wild and, whilst mothers and calves tend to travel in groups (usually consisting of 15 members), bull elephants tend to be solitary though all-male herds are not uncommon. Though smaller than their African counterparts, Asian Elephants have had a much longer history of domestication and cooperation with humans (largely due to their being extremely intelligent creatures).
The Kuala Gandah sanctuary in Pahang remains a popular hotspot among tourists hoping to get up close and personal with Malaysia’s elephants. Although guests are not permitted to ride the elephants, they are able to feed them as well as learn more about the conservation efforts that have been put in place to protect these amazing creatures from the blight of land clearing and poachers.