Protected and Precious

loading Tall trees are a feature of primary rainforests in Malaysia. This photo was taken in the Highlands Permanent Forest Reserve, Penang.

Penang is home to a 130-million-year-old forest and a cherished network of reserves and protected areas.

In Penang’s early days, botanists and naturalists from around the world came to scour its hills for their flora. While the rest of Malaysia’s forests remained almost impenetrable, the forests of Penang with a network of bridle paths and trails made access to flora and fauna easy, thus opening the door to the early study of Malayan biodiversity. Plants from Penang’s hills were shipped to herbariums and botanical gardens around the world, and the Penang Botanic Gardens blossomed under the leadership of Charles Curtis, making the study and preservation of these most precious of specimens possible.

These days, while many seem to know Penang as a destination that "has it all" – from beautiful seas, rich heritage and tasty food – not many think of it as a biodiversity hotspot. The truth is, away from its sprawling suburbs and bustling ports, Penang does hold vestiges of its beautiful green past.

According to statistics from the Penang State Forestry Department, about 7.4% of Penang is covered in lush tropical rainforests, out of which slightly more than 80% fall within a network of protected areas1. The remainder fall in a patchwork of privately owned land as well as state land. In fact, Penang has a network of 16 permanent forest reserves and one national park within its boundaries. Eleven of these permanent forest reserves are on the island alongside our sole national park while the other five are spread out across the three districts of Seberang Perai. And soon, the Pulau Jerejak Permanent Forest Reserve, which is in the process of being gazetted, will join this network of protected areas.

A tall Meranti Seraya (Shorea curtisii) tree in the Penang National Park. A large population of Meranti Seraya trees are an indication of a healthy primary forest.

Size Matters Not

Penang’s largest protected reserve, the Bukit Kerajaan Forest Reserve, originally gazetted in 1967, spans an area of 2,287 hectares and protects a huge swath of forest from the hills in the periphery of Balik Pulau all the way north to Batu Ferringghi. In contrast, the state’s smallest, the nine-hectare Bukit Genting Permanent Forest Reserve, covers only an area equivalent to 12 football fields on the peak of Bukit Genting.

On an international scale, Penang has the smallest national park in the world – the Penang National Park, in the north-west end of the island. Its rolling green hills, 130-million-year-old forest, unique meromictic lake and golden beaches make it much more significant than its geographically “small” status. Size aside, Penang can pride itself on being one of the pioneer states in protecting its forests; merely 13 years after Malaya’s first protected area, the Sungai Buloh Forest Reserve, was established, Penang’s very own Bukit Relau Forest Reserve was created in 1911.

Caretakers of Our Forests

Protected areas in Penang come under a network of three distinct statuses: firstly, forest reserves and state parks are under the jurisdiction of the Penang State Forestry Department. Most of these are entirely preserved as they naturally are, while others have been opened up to limited recreational activity and ecotourism. Penang’s sole state park, the Bukit Panchor State Park within the larger Bukit Panchor Permanent Forest Reserve in the south-east corner of Seberang Perai South, is one example of this. Two other immensely popular recreational parks include the Teluk Bahang Recreational Forest on the island and the Bukit Mertajam Recreational Forest in Seberang Perai. Both of these are well-equipped with necessary facilities and are excellent spots for weekend picnics and walks.

Secondly, the Penang National Park comes under the purview of the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (Perhilitan). As a national park, it is accorded the highest level of protection and has been opened up and promoted for ecotourism and recreation. Its beautiful beaches and scenic hikes make it a must-go destination among travelers who love the great outdoors.

The Penang Waterfall in the Penang Botanic Gardens. One of the oldest catchments in Malaysia, it has been supplying water to Penangites for over 200 years.

An opening in the forest at the Pasir Panjang Forest Reserve.

The last category consists of water catchment areas, which come under the watchful eye of the Penang Water Supply Corporation. Catchment areas are parts of the land which form the source for rivers that feed dams and reservoirs. A majority of catchment areas tend to be inside forests and may overlap gazetted forest reserve lands. As water from these catchment areas is often used for human consumption, most forests in catchment areas tend to be restricted zones in order to protect this most important of resources. The famed Penang Waterfall in the Penang Botanic Gardens is an example of a catchment stream and has continuously been tapped for human consumption since the early 1800s. It also houses Malaysia's first water treatment plant, built in 1805.

Together, these three categories come together to form the foundation of Penang's protected areas.

Looking eastward from Bukit Laksamana to the hills of Bukit Kerajaan Forest Reserve.

Bushy Tales

Walking through the protected areas of Penang, one can immediately grasp the sheer beauty of its trees and plants. These areas are home to a whole host of dipterocarps like the Meranti Seraya (Shorea curtisii), Balau (Shorea albida) and Cengal (Neobalanocarpus heimii), which dominate the canopy and give the rainforest its sheer majesty and height.

The Meranti Seraya (Shorea curtisii) with its greyish blue leaves is very interesting to note: its presence in a forest is a fair indication of the maturity of the primary rainforest as it is rarely found in secondary growth. This species also has a distinctive characteristic of growing together in large numbers as a “community” and their greyish blue leaves which give an illusion of glowing under the sun mean that they are an easy species to spot from kilometres away. On a sunny day, one can quite easily spot them growing on the hilly backdrop behind Batu Ferringghi (part of the Bukit Kerajaan Forest Reserve) or on the hillslopes of Penang National Park. If you are a big fan of tall trees, paying a visit to the Bukit Mertajam Permanent Forest Reserve is a must, as on its trails you will see a Tualang tree (Koompassia excelsa), which ranks as one of Penang’s tallest trees. In fact, standing beside the huge buttresses of the “Bukit Mertajam Big Tree”, as the locals call it, is enough to make you feel like a dwarf.

Faunal life is a key part of any ecosystem. Penang's protected areas are home to a wide variety of mammals, reptiles, birds, amphibians and insects. The easiest place to spot wildlife is either on Penang Hill or in the national park. The bushy and large black giant squirrel (Ratufa bicolor) can occasionally be spotted in the higher, hilly northern portion of the island.

The most common wild animal one can come across is definitely the monkeys. Penang is home to two species of monkeys: the more boisterous long-tailed macaque (Macaca fasicicularis) and its shyer and less obvious counterpart, the dusky leaf monkey (Presbytis obscura). To those more interested in Penang’s nocturnal fauna, an overnight stay at the Penang National Park’s campsites at Pantai Kerachut or Teluk Kampi provides an excellent opportunity; among the creatures you will see are bats, colugos, civets and mousedeer.

Often located close to town, Penang’s protected areas are an easy getaway from the pandemonium of the city. Every weekend, locals of all ages make a beeline to hiking spots like Station 5, 46 and Penang Hill for a weekend workout. These protected areas play a significant role in purifying the air, and in safeguarding our water resources. To be sure, about 80% of our water comes from Sungai Muda in Kedah, while the protected areas in the state provide the rest. The waters of Sungai Kelian, Sungai Batu Ferringghi and Sungai Air Terjun, all of which originate from the state’s forests, have provided clean water since colonial times and continue to do so even today. With the threat of logging affecting the catchment areas of Sungai Muda in Kedah, Penang’s own catchment areas have an even more important role to play in the future in ensuring water security.

While official protection may mean that the protected areas in Penang will remain pristine for years to come, it is also important that the people get to know them and educate themselves on their importance.

So be it in the form of forest reserves, state parks, national parks or water catchments, these areas are an ever-present reminder that here, we are never too far away from our green heart.


Rexy Prakash Chacko is an electronic engineer by profession and a nature lover by passion. While he spends his weekdays earning a living at the Bayan Lepas Free Trade Zone, his weekends are spent reflecting and recharging on the green hills of Penang.

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