As I exited Singapore’s Changi Airport, I felt the harsh, hot hit of the South East Asian humidity for the very first time. Unlike most, I wasn’t here for the bright city lights and culinary delights of Singapore. This was merely a pit stop on a trip of firsts, experiences, and unintentional discoveries. Instead, I was due to make a seven-hour journey by train, road, and sea to the tropical island of Tioman in the South China Sea, the very next day.
During the bus journey from Singapore to a ferry terminal in the Malaysian town of Mersing, I gazed at the last few remaining patches of tropical rainforest left in southern Malaysia. Dreaming of the wonders that could be left undiscovered. Could there still be tigers? Or perhaps binturong? A bizarre, cat-like creature that lives in the jungle canopy. My mind was buzzing with excitement – see, I wasn’t just there to explore, I was heading to Tioman to study the mystical gliding dragons of South East Asia. Not real dragons, but tiny Agamid lizards which escape predators by opening their rib cage and unleashing a pair of wings that allows them to glide between trees. I had devised a plan, but there was one problem… I had never seen one before nor had I ever been to South East Asia. So how could I guarantee I could find them?
In the build-up to the expedition, I had spent the past few months planning my research project. Having read what felt like every scientific paper and website about Tioman, it’s flora and fauna. What I found was that, like many islands, Tioman supports several endemic species found nowhere else in the world. The Tioman bent-toed gecko and the Tioman soft shelled turtle for example. But it wasn’t just small species secluded to the Island’s inaccessible montane rivers and highlands. Even the island’s long-tailed macaque population is regarded as a separate subspecies.
Twenty minutes from the end of our ferry journey from the Malay Peninsula, a giant volcanic rock covered in jungle appeared on the horizon. Mist, arising from the rainforest canopy hung over the mountains like a cushioning halo. Directly beneath the steep montane rainforest, granite boulders, and sweeping sand beaches touched the clear waters of the fringing reef. Each morning, waking up on the verge of the jungle, I would gaze up to the mountain peaks. Wondering about what was left undiscovered. For Tioman was a mountainous island, largely untouched due to its montane jungle being unscalable.
Luckily for me, gliding dragons were everywhere in the rainforest. To start with, picking out their tree-camouflaged scales was a challenge. But after a week, this new world of pixie-like lizards fizzling around the forest changed my perspective. Suddenly, I understood the forest. My senses became heightened to the tiniest movement, sound and smell. This was to become a useful skill later on in my trip…
Two weeks before I was due to head home, I had become well adept at walking several jungle trails. So much so, that we’d been heading out on night walks searching for nocturnal life, occasionally taking the odd tourist along with us. These night walks gave me my first experiences of giant jungle crickets, palm civet cats, and porcupine. However fascinating these animals were, little else beat the wicked screeching of dog-faced fruit bats and Malayan colugos gliding against a moonlit sky. Both common sites along Tioman’s coastal forests. These otherworldly animals seemed like myths when researching from the comforts of a bedroom in the UK. However, as I was to find out, they were not to be the most surprising finds of my trip.
A few nights before another researcher and I took out a wildlife photographer with a keen interest in insects. As we searched for praying mantis, mealybugs, and other vibrant creatures, I spun my torch out to the footpath looking out for civet cats. However, out of the corner of my eye, I caught a solitary monkey climbing through the canopy. Unperturbed by us crawling through the understorey. “Wait… that’s not a macaque, that’s a slow loris!”.
For a moment, I couldn’t fathom what I was looking at. But as the surreal feeling subsided. Trying hard to conceal our excitement, we followed the loris a few minutes, watching its sloth-like fluid motion through the canopy. This was unexpected. Unexpected, because no official records of slow loris had occurred on Tioman for nearly 100 years. In fact, so unexpected, that none of the staff believed us. We had just unintentionally discovered something potentially profound! A surreal feeling that harked back to the dreams I had conjured up whilst researching in my bedroom.
In the 21st Century, it may feel like there’s little else to discover in what feels like a small world. This experience made me realise, discovery is about what you know about a place. Or more importantly, what’s left unknown. In fact, we’ve probably all made new discoveries, we’re just yet to realise.