By Mariam Mokhtar
For 49-year-old Khairul, who is affectionately dubbed ‘The Guardian of the Fireflies of Kuala Sepetang’, Visit Malaysia Year (VMY) 2014 could not have come at a better time. A keen nature lover and conservationist, Khairul did not imagine that his hobby would equip him to play a leading role in VMY.
Setting-off on a fishing trip for freshwater lobster (udang galah) one night, he came across colonies of fireflies (Pteroptyx tener) along the banks of the Sepetang River. He was captivated and from then on, he vowed that he would tell the whole world about these fireflies and do all that he could to protect their natural habitat. What started off as a chance discovery in 2008, has now become an exciting part of his life.
With a projected target of 28 million visitors for Visit Malaysia Year (VMY) in 2014, Khairul is keen to do his bit to promote Perak, specifically the area around Kuala Sepetang and Taiping. According to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation, Malaysia is in the top ten most visited countries in the world.
Looking back to that first trip, Khairul said: “I was concerned about the perils awaiting me. Catching lobsters could be dangerous. Snakes and crocodiles lie in wait beneath the trees.”
He set-off when the difference between high and low tide was very small, and the weak current, allowed the river water to run clear. He said, “With these conditions, it is easy to spot the eyes of the lobsters, with a powerful torch.”
Although the villagers had told him about the presence of fireflies, he had not yet seen them: “Seeing the fireflies for the first time was breathtaking. When the fireflies flashed, their lights reflected off the leaves, which were still wet after an earlier rainfall. It was beautiful.”
Khairul has since started a series of structured programmes, to show visitors the fireflies and the mangrove forest. He also organises tours and activities for the Kuala Sepetang and Taiping area, catering to those with only a few hours to spare, and those who wish to stay for a few days.
He said, “I have my own team of tour guides, forestry rangers, boatmen and villagers to help me. I want to educate the public about the importance of the fireflies and the mangrove forest.
“The presence of the fireflies is indicative of a good environment, both in the water and in the woods. The Matang Mangrove forest provides natural pollution treatment, is a tsunami barrier, a food source, a nursery for fish and provides timber to make poles and charcoal.
“The Matang Mangrove Educational Park is a good starting point for visitors to learn about the mangrove forest, and has facilities such as a boardwalk, chalets, a campsite and a hall.”
He criticised the attitude of some people towards the mangrove forest: “Sadly, most of them do not care. They treat the river as their dustbin. “Effluent from nearby factories have previously threatened the fragile ecosystem of the mangrove forest, affecting the water quality and the life that the river systems support.”
Aware of the dilemma faced by the community and their desire for development, he said, “States will want development, which means more factories and farms to generate more jobs. This will affect the natural habitat of the fireflies. “The government have promised to make Sungai Sepetang a Forest Reserve and FireFly Park, but to date, nothing has happened.”
Kuala Sepetang has a fascinating history. Khairul said, “Some people will know Kuala Sepetang by its old name, Port Weld. This area is rich in history. During the British era, the first railway was built to Taiping, in 1882. Before the Pangkor Agreement, nearby Matang was the administrative capital for this district.”
“Kuala Sepetang is now a fishing village and has a large, blood cockle farm. The place is an important centre for ecotourism in Perak, with 2 hotels, 12 tourist boats, floating chalets and many seafood restaurants. Local specialities are mee udang, curry mee and fresh seafood. During the school and public holidays, both my mangrove tour and the planting of mangrove saplings are popular.”
“There are other attractions like the charcoal factory, river cruises, fishing trips and the night- firefly tour. All our boats are licensed and equipped with life-jackets and rescue equipment.”
Khairul looks forward to VMY 2014: “When I started, two years ago, I had 1000 visitors. Last year, I had 3500 visitors with tourists from Singapore, America, Europe, Japan, New Zealand and Australia. “The local tourists are mainly university students. The rest are families or groups of people. They all love to learn new things and experience something new.”
Aware that a few tourist operators have sullied the reputation of the industry, he was keen to stress the qualities of a good tourist operator: “Being honest, professional and inspirational.”
Khairul knows that Kuala Sepetang can be successfully promoted during VMY: “First. It would be good if the Perak Tourism Board could coordinate with the Penang Tourist Board to inform the tourists, about Taiping and Kuala Sepetang. Penang is only a short distance from these places.”
Appealing to the authorities he said, “Second. We need help with infrastructure, such as a jetty in Kuala Sepetang.” He added, “The Kuala Sepetang tourist industry is like a rough diamond. If the community were to have a hand in its development, the diamond will be polished and shine. There are plenty of opportunities for everyone to share.”
Footnote: Visitors interested in touring the area around Kuala Sepetang and Taiping are welcome to contact Khairul at www.kualasepetang.com.