Another Unesco Listing on the Cards for Penang?

loading Tree Top Walk at The Habitat on Penang Hill.

Penang’s cultural heritage has attracted much global attention in recent times. Now, the island’s natural endowments are set to take things to the next level.

Penang is appreciated for its history, culture, architecture and street food. But did you know that the island is home to a 130-million-year-old undisturbed rainforest older than the Amazon, home to flora and fauna species yet to be discovered – all within a stone’s throw from George Town, on the emerald slopes of Penang Hill?

The Hill at a Glance

Penang Hill (or Bukit Bendera) is the oldest hill station established during the British colonial era and the most developed peak in Penang with an elevation of 2,411 feet (or 735m) above sea level. The Hill comprises of several tops, namely Strawberry Hill, Halliburton’s Hill, Flagstaff Hill, Government Hill, Western Hill and Tiger Hill.

The Penang Hill funicular train is the main mode of transport to the top. Built by the British in 1923, it is one of the oldest such systems in the world. The Hill was extremely popular among the colonialists who used it as a retreat to escape the debilitating heat: the climate of the hill is indeed considerably cooler than the lowlands, which prompted the British to build bungalows on the summit for their civil officers.

The Hill covers 468ha and is mostly covered by pristine rainforest, with half that area designated for water catchment. To date, no comprehensive biodiversity surveys have been conducted there, and species of flora and fauna may still be awaiting discovery.

This is what created the impetus for a research programme on the Hill.

Much More than a Colonial Artefact

Quiantly dotted with Tudor-style bungalows, Penang Hill in fact holds great potential to be listed as a Unesco Biosphere Reserve.

A biosphere reserve is an area consisting of terrestrial, marine and coastal ecosystems.

The three main reasons to classify a territory as such a treasure are conservation, economic development, and research and education. It serves as a special place for testing interdisciplinary approaches to understanding and managing changes and interactions between social and ecological systems, including conflict prevention and management of biodiversity.

Bird's eye view at The Habitat.

In order to be considered for the Unesco Biosphere Reserve designation, an area should be a major biogeographic region that consists of different ecological systems, and be of significance for biological diversity conservation. It should also provide opportunities for exploring and demonstrating approaches to sustainable development. And finally, the area should be of an appropriate size with three key zones: a core zone with strictly protected and completely undisturbed ecosystems; a buffer zone where the area surrounds or adjoins the core zone and only limited human activity is allowed; and a transition zone (the outermost part of the biosphere reserve) where the greatest activity is permissible, allowing economic and human development that is socio-culturally and ecologically sustainable.

Presently, there are about 669 biosphere reserves in the world. Asia and the Pacific alone have 142 of them, spread across 24 countries in the region. Two of these are found in Malaysia: Lake Chini in Pahang and the Crocker Range south of Mount Kinabalu in Sabah.

Penang Hill has very strong potential to qualify for this status. Its unique characteristics tick all the boxes: its ancient rainforest, close proximity to George Town and urban Penang, and its rich history.

The research on Penang Hill will cover a large portion of the Hill and also part of The Habitat, an ecotourism spot spread around 10 acres on the Hill. This research is not solely to acquire the Unesco Biosphere Reserve status but also about sustainable management of natural reserves and biodiversity conservation.

The Parties Involved

An application to have Penang Hill declared a Unesco Biosphere Reserve is planned, and will be based on findings from the research programme initiated by the Penang state government in partnership with Penang Hill Corporation (PHC), The Habitat, and Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM). PHC has been appointed by the state to be the project leader.

Presently, the exact parameters and details of the programme, such as the zonation of the reserve, are being drafted by PHC.

The Habitat, which will be primarily funding the programme, is committed to becoming a world-class research and educational centre for biodiversity conservation. It offers a number of attractions such as a nature trail, canopy walk and butterfly bank, and aims to promote environmental consciousness through education, research and sustainable ecotourism.

The lush hills contain a variety of flora and fauna, such as the long-tailed macaque.

According to Allen Tan, The Habitat’s managing director, “The research project to turn Penang Hill into a Unesco Biosphere Reserve is important to us as it aligns with the mission and vision of The Habitat – to protect and sustainably manage natural reserves.” The Habitat will also play key roles in the coordination and organisation of the research alongside the state government and PHC.

The biodiversity surveys will be carried out by a team led by USM’s School of Biological Sciences senior lecturer Prof. Dr Siti Azizah Mohd Nor, with assistance from Prof. Dr Margaret D Lowman, who has been appointed for that role by The Habitat. Lowman (also known as Canopy Meg) is an expert on the science of canopy ecology, having designed methods for treetop exploration including tree climbing methods for students who use wheelchairs. USM is also responsible for the preparation of a comprehensive dossier for the Unesco Biosphere Reserve application.

At this point, the research programme is still at a very early stage. The first attempt to survey the flora and fauna will be done through a Bio Blitz event to be held in October this year, organised and fully funded by The Habitat and involving local and foreign scientists. Its primary aim is to identify as many species as possible in several specific areas in the rainforest over a period of two weeks.

Besides support from PHC, the programme will also receive assistance from other state agencies such as the Penang Forestry Department and the Wildlife and Parks Department. The submission to Unesco will ideally take place by 2018, and the application for the listing will largely depend on the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry that has the authority to apply for the Unesco Biosphere Reserve status.

One of its key objectives is also to turn Penang Hill into a Centre for Excellence for Rainforest, Conservation and Academia, with world-class research facilities. The long-term goal is to transform the Hill into a hub for local and international scientists and students to carry out ecological and biodiversity surveys and studies. Endowed with both impressive cultural heritage and primordial nature, Penang is set for further global fame.

Sri Vaitheki Ramasamy is a senior analyst at Penang Institute. Her research interests include life cycle analysis, carbon footprint analysis, green manufacturing and sustainability engineering.

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