Kampung Kuantan Fireflies ~ Kuala Selangor, Malaysia

Due to the uncontrolled pollution from nearby plantations and factories located along the river, the population of fireflies in the area has decreased greatly. Although there are still colonies of fireflies in the area, for repeat visitors who have been awed by the fireflies phenomenon 10years ago..the situation has changed somewhat. For first time visitors, it may still be worth a visit if you have never seen fireflies in the wild before.

It's a pleasant drive out of the city, winding through old rubber and palm oil plantations, a few shanty-looking towns and several Malay villages …peering into a way of life that perhaps seemed all too familiar to the British planters who used to own large tracks of lands out here at the turn of the 19th century.

Colonial planters and estate managers worked hard on their lands for most times of the month. Then when it came to payday, which was usually once every month coincidentally coinciding with a weekend, they walked or cycled into town some 60-odd kilometres away…first to the banks then to the popular watering holes. The planters got merry and rowdy on 'Setengahs' (a popular drink with ½ measurement of water, ½ measurement of whisky). After the long awaited weekend, the planters returned to their humble little cottages tucked away on the edges of the jungle.

For most of the time, these estate managers remained on their rubber plantations, most likely living a solitary life - looking forward to a hunting outing with fellowmen from neighbouring estates.

Would they have seen the million twinkles in the night, afloat on a sampan coming back from a hunting or fishing trip upriver? I wonder….

Where fairies lived

jetty at kampung kuantan
A long, long time ago bedtime stories were filled with adventures; of far, far, away lands; of flying horses and wise, old owls; of mischievous pixies and powerful wizards, of formidable giants and dainty fairies. There were always happy endings - a world where dreams come true.

Kampung Kuantan was once a humble little village, not unlike many during the early years. But as industrialisation set in later, this village suffered what many others did - Young folk moved away; fishermen and farmers living off the land found it difficult to eke out a living and the highways took away any chances of revival in the area.

Then one day, a bunch of entomologists heard about the strange congregation of lights not too far from the village - a place where millions of little green lights twinkled in the shadows of the night. The entomologists descended on the area like a swarm of bees to honey.

That was in the 70's. But the beauty of the place was kept a secret until almost a decade ago. These twinkling lights helped the villagers revive their little town. They are the local folks' little fairies....

What is Kelip-Kelip?

Kelip-kelip in Bahasa Malaysia, means 'to twinkle'. Twinkle is what these little creatures do.The kelip-kelip is more popularly known as fireflies, However, as confusing as the English Language goes, fireflies aren't flies but are in fact tiny 6mm long beetles, which belong to the Lampyridae species. And they don't produce fire but a cool green glow in the lower abdomen.

If you would like to know more about the kelip-kelip, the visitor centre at Kampung Kuantan has some information. This is also where tickets for the boat ride can be bought. The ticket includes a drink and a packet of local snacks, just in case you get hungry during the boat ride. However, there are pretty good seafood restaurants at Kuala Selangor itself… and seafood doesn't come fresher than the ones sold there. Fishing boats come in from the day's work with fresh catches that are sold to the restaurants. Prices are reasonable…much more affordable than the average place in KL.

As the crowd often turn up in the weekend, boat operators usually tend to accommodate as many of the visitors as they can. This means sacrificing a little on the allocated time spent on the cruise per boat. So, instead of the 40minute cruise, it may only take 30minutes on weekends. If it's possible try making a night excursion during the weekdays and preferably not when there is a full moon or during rainy evenings…the effect would not be that great.

A trip downriver

Standing on the floating platform waiting for our turn to climb into the wooden sampan (rowboat), I was glad that we were all given life jackets. Having been told to pick a moonless night to go, we planned the perfect night, the 1st night of the month on the Chinese lunar calendar….least to say that we had worked it out just a little too well that night. In such darkness on the floating platform, where the sampans docked to empty out and fill up with eager visitors ready for a trip into the unknown, I would surely have done a 'walk-into' the water if it wasn't for the guidance of the boat operators and boathands. The murky, flat-white coffee coloured river just seemed a little too swift for a dip. But we settled into our seats on the sampan comfortably and safely and with a push of the oar, the boatman slowly steered us away from the platform and into the night.

As we drifted down river, we saw no sign of twinkling trees. So we took a moment to lay back and admire the twinkling of the heavens. Knowing little about the kelip-kelip, their lifecycles and living habits - we proceeded to bombard our poor boatman with a barrage of questions. Realising that he spoke little English, we proceeded to load him with the same questions, only this time in Malay. He imparted all that he knew in a hushed voice. Straining to hear his story, we found out that the kelip-kelips in many areas are fast becoming a rare sight as more and more of their habitats are being chopped down to make way for development. The species of kelip-kelip we were about to encounter, reside only in mangrove areas. During the day, they retreat into the tall grasses just behind the mangroves. As night falls, they move to the mangrove trees(called pokok berembang) lining the banks to feed on nectar from the leaves and to attract mates with their synchronised flashing. The chemical reaction in the thorax of the insect produces a cool green glow that is controlled to flash at a rate of 3 flashes per second. The males flash within 1/30th of a second of each other whilst the females do not flash as frequently nor as flamboyantly as the males. Each tree has different groups of families and sometimes the synchronisation of flashes on one tree falls out of synch with the neighbouring tree. However, for optimum effect, it is best to visit the place just after nightfall and not later than 11.00pm, after which time the kelip-kelip would have found mates or mated, and subsequently the flashing would stop.

We requested for the boatman to steer us to the edge of the bank so that we could get a closer look at the beetle. The boatman gently cupped a straggling individual in his hands. As he opened his cupped hands, his palms lit up a green glow, flashing on - off, on - off. Beautiful from afar, but up close, these beetles are pretty unsightly..not cute like the ladybug or even the dung beetle. The boatman then gently returned the poor flustered creature back on the leaf.

….and then there was none

We rowed down river for a while longer. Sitting back to enjoy the ride and appreciate the wondrous sight, it felt as though we were floating through the Milky Way, suspended amongst the dust of twinkling stars shimmering in the velvet darkness of the universe. The trees were filled with these tiny wonders and everyone who went on the trip were so awed by the spectacular display. It was a really great evening out with nature. But that was our trip last July 2000. The kelip-kelip at Kampung Kuantan is now seriously in trouble.

Our 26th May 2001,to the place has shown a great depletion in numbers. The thousands that used to line the trees on both sides of the riverbank has dwindled. We sat there counting the number of 'lit' trees. The boatmen and other operators at Kampung Kuantan blame the dam building upriver at Kuala Kubu Bahru as the source for this depletion.

Unfortunately, it may be a little too late to save this wonderful place from drifting back into oblivion. There may be no more kelip-kelip soon at Kampung Kuantan and another of our natural treasures may be lost forever. Perhaps, the colonies will find another place to inhabit to continue their lifecycles. Somewhere, where they can live in peace...where the fairytale will live on forever.

Returning to the jetty, we looked into the faces of other visitors for reassurance that perhaps we were just overreacting. 'It's just a small drop in numbers but the atmosphere remains just as intact as before?!'. There was no reassurance, nothing but disappointment in their eyes. End of story….

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