Discovering Penang through Its Rich Biodiversity

loading The Penang Hill Vampire Crab (Geosesarma faustum). This species can only be found at Penang Hill at an elevation of 700m and above. It is so named because some species in this group have spooky yellow eyes and they are only active at night! Photo: Ahmad Zafir

A study in 2012 revealed that this Banded Bent-toed Gecko (Cyrtodactylus pulchellus) is a new species, unrelated to the banded geckos found in other parts of Peninsular Malaysia. Photo: Husni Che Ngah

MORE THAN TWO centuries ago, with the arrival of Captain Francis Light and the East India Company, Penang Island became the first British settlement on the Malay Peninsula. The Island was also one of the first places to delight early European explorers who combed its forests to discover tropical riches.

The forests did not disappoint and yielded marvelous specimens of birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles and invertebrates that were eventually immortalised in drawings and paintings. Plant collections were shipped to herbaria and living collections overseas where there was a keen demand fuelled by a curiosity about discoveries from the New World.

Today, despite bearing the second highest population density in Malaysia, Penang’s natural heritage continues to define the State. But perhaps, it is time that we once again remind ourselves of the Island’s original identity as a paradise for naturalists and a cradle of early rainforest research in Southeast Asia.

Species Endemic to Penang

To date, 2,456 plant species have been documented in Penang. The pulai tree (Alstonia penangiana) and the tropical shrub Beilschmiedia penangiana (Lauraceae) which are listed as Critically Endangered in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species are found in its forests. The forests are also home to Endangered dipterocarps such as Keruing pipit (Dipterocarpus fagineus), Resak (Vatica maingayi) and Red balau (Shorea ochrophloia).

Read also: Penang's Ultimate Challange to Hikers

Other plant species endemic to Penang are the Penang Hill ginger (Geostachys penangensis), walking stick palm (Licuala acutifida) and susum (Hanguana malayana), locally known as Bakong ayer.

The Island was also one of the first places to delight early European explorers who combed its forests to discover tropical riches.

As for the fauna, more than 550 terrestrial and marine species have been identified in Penang. Some of these threatened animals include sea turtles and dolphins, the Sunda Pangolin (Manis javanica), the Sunda Slow Loris (Nycticebus coucang) and the Dusky Langur (Trachypithecus obscurus).

There are also animals that are native to the Island. The semiterrestrial Highland Vampire Crab (Geosesarma faustum), discovered in 2016, can be found in Penang Hill at elevations of 700m and above. This unusual crab lives between the fronds of plants or holes in trees where rainwater accumulates. Other endemic animals on Penang Island are the Penang Stream Toad (Ansonia penangensis), Banded Bent-toed Gecko (Cyrtodactylus pulchellus), Penang Rock Gecko (Cnemaspis affinis) and the Hill Stream Crab (Stoliczia stoliczkana).

Conserving Biodiversity

The Habitat Penang Hill establishment is a major player in environmental work in Penang. Recognising the importance of protecting the biodiversity of Penang, it has been supporting the Penang State Government and the Government of Malaysia in nominating a large block of pristine ecosystems on Penang Island as a Biosphere Reserve under UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere Programme. This represents an unbroken continuum of natural areas stretching from the Forest Reserves of Penang Hill all the way to the unique coastal and marine ecosystems contained within the Penang National Park.

In total, the nominated area measures 12,481 hectares – 7,285 hectares of land and 5,196 hectares of marine ecosystems. It is an initiative that celebrates Penang’s distinctive natural and social landscapes, and emphasises an ongoing commitment to balance between environmental conservation and human activities. If successful, this would accord the State international recognition of its rich natural heritage to complement George Town’s current celebrated cultural heritage status under UNESCO.

Over a period of two weeks in October 2017, The Habitat, with the support of the Penang Hill Corporation (PHC), organised the Penang Hill BioBlitz 2017 biodiversity survey. This brought together 117 local and international scientists and students to participate in documenting the species diversity of the Hill.

Colugos (Galeopterus variegatus) are tree-living animals that excel at gliding between trees to move around the forest. They are found only in Southeast Asia. Many Malaysians are oblivious to their presence because of their masterful camouflage abilities. They become active at dusk and during the night. Photo: Ethan Pang

Penang Rock Gecko (Cnemaspis affinis) is a microhabitat specialist that favours living under large boulders. Photo: Jonathan Lau

Institutional partners that took part in the expedition included Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM)’s School of Biological Sciences, the California Academy of Sciences, the Penang Forestry Department, the Department of Wildlife and National Parks, the Malaysian Nature Society and WWF Hong Kong.

Importantly, the Jason Learning Project also enabled a dozen students from the US, as well as over 60 students from local high schools to participate in the BioBlitz, in addition to broadcasting the expedition live online to a worldwide audience.

Through its not-for-profit arm, The Habitat Foundation, The Habitat Penang Hill has been supporting several research and conservation initiatives. In Penang these projects include research on the nocturnal mammals of Penang Hill; public education and awareness on Dusky Langurs; research on the diversity and ecological characteristics of terrestrial freshwater crabs on Penang Hill; the ethnomycological study of local wild edible and medicinal fungi; and a study on the diversity of cyanobacteria on Penang Hill.

The PHC, The Habitat, the School of Biological Sciences USM and the Southeast Asia Rainforest Research Partnership (SEARRP) are also working to develop a Rainforest Research Centre on Penang Hill modelled loosely on SEARRP’s facility in Danum Valley, Sabah. This Research Centre will help build an ecosystem to attract academics and funds for research, for the benefit of the State and the country.

The Habitat Penang Hill holds environmental education projects focused on communication, education and raising public awareness, and conducts exhibitions, talks and programmes on topics related to nature and the environment.

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