Penang Hill Biosphere Reserve: Many Hearts and Minds Made It Possible

By Allen Tan

January 2022 COVER STORY
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Photo by: The Habitat Penang Hill
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IT WAS in October 2016 when the first tentative steps were taken to obtain the Unesco Biosphere Reserve (UBR) status and recognition for Penang Island under Unesco's Man and the Biosphere (MAB) Programme, according to Reza Cockrell, co-founder of The Habitat.

Its catalyst was in fact a symposium that discussed the importance of conserving Penang Hill's rainforests, organised by The Habitat and its partners, the School of Biological Sciences, Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM), the California Academy of Sciences and Tree Foundation. The event received wide press coverage, which roused keen public enthusiasm and support.

But the idea did not crystalise until the Penang State Government lent its support, through the appointment of Dato' Cheok Lay Leng, general manager of the Penang Hill Corporation (PHC), as the State's official representative and project manager for the UBR nomination.

United Under a Common Goal

An expedition was soon arranged to survey and record the biodiversity of Penang Hill's forests. This led to the landmark gathering of scientists, academics and luminaries from the conservation world. From USM's School of Biological Sciences, participating members included Dr. Siti Azizah Mohd Nor, Dr. Nadine Ruppert, Dr. Priscillia Miard and Dr. Rashidah Abdul Rahim; with dean Dr. Amirul Al-Ashraf Balakrishnan Abdullah and his deputy, Dr. Asyraf Mansor.

USM's scientists participating in the BioBlitz survey. Photo by: The Habitat Penang Hill

Also involved were authorities on conservation efforts, such as Irshad Mobarak of Junglewalla Natural History Tours in Pulau Langkawi and Dr. Saw Leng Guan, who was the 2016 recipient of the prestigious Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh Medal for his contribution to the understanding and conservation of Malaysian diversity in a career that spanned over three decades.

International support came from the Tree Projects in Tasmania, Australia; U. C. Berkeley and Tree Climbing Planet from the U.S; and Germany's Max Planck Institute. To establish the baseline science, the rapid assessment tool "BioBlitz" was used.

In April 2017, a second symposium titled "Initiating the BioBlitz: Canopy science and forest conservation in Penang" was held at the newly completed Curtis Crest Tree Top Walk on Penang Hill, with the goal of a BioBlitz survey planned for October that same year.

In attendance were Kanda Kumar and Tan Choo Eng of the Malaysian Nature Society (Penang Branch), two of the nation's stalwarts of the conservation community; as was Shah Redza, who on his appointment as director of the Perak State Parks Corporation, has worked tirelessly to save the remaining few Malayan Tigers in Peninsular Malaysia.

It was also during the symposium that the Cockrell family, who are founders of The Habitat and long-time residents of Penang Hill, announced the establishment of the non-profit, The Habitat Foundation, to progress environmental conservation, biodiversity research, environmental education, sustainability training and capacity building, specifically in the eco- and community-based tourism sector.

Special mention must also be made to Penang's then-director of the Forestry Department, Rusli bin Tahir, whose guidance was invaluable at critical junctures of the event's planning.

The BioBlitz Survey Unearths New Discoveries

The BioBlitz survey in October saw the assembly of 117 Malaysian and international scientists, with the participation of 75 secondary school students from Penang, Hong Kong and the U.S., facilitated by Jason Learning, an organisation that provides real life curriculum and learning experiences in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Over a period of two weeks, the team recorded over 2,500 species of flora and fauna in the forests of Penang Hill, including several species believed to be new to science. Thus, proving that there are wonders yet to be discovered in a place that has already been much explored and studied by scientists since the early 1800s.

The landmark gathering of scientists, academics and luminaries of the conservation world at the BioBlitz 2017. Photo by: The Habitat Penang Hill

But the BioBlitz survey was marred by flash floods and massive landslides in early November 2017. Almost 10,000 people in Penang were displaced and seven lost their lives during the heavy downpour, which was believed to equal that of a year's rainfall.

Penang Hill itself recorded over 300 landslides of varying magnitudes, including one that was almost 1km long. The Habitat was not spared either; two massive landslides destroyed 30% of the Nature Trail, and over 20 other smaller landslides wreaked devastation throughout the park. This unprecedented event was a wake-up call of the very real effects of climate change and renewed the team's resolve in doubling down efforts for environmental conservation.

Soldiering On

At the start of 2018, when Penang was still in the thick of recovery from the November floods, Cheok and his team at PHC called the Steering Committee for its first meeting. Its members included The Habitat Penang Hill and The Habitat Foundation, USM, the Penang State Forestry Department, the Department of Wild Life and National Parks, Chief Minister Inc., George Town World Heritage Inc., the Department of Fisheries, the Penang Water Supply Corporation, the Penang Island City Council, the Penang Geographic Information System, and numerous other government departments and agencies.

The Committee was tasked with determining the zonation for the proposed UBR. An area measuring 12,481 hectares on Penang Island was identified over the next 12 months, which included within it the hill dipterocarp forests of Penang Hill, coastal forests and marine ecosystems on and off the shores of the Penang National Park in Teluk Bahang. En masse, with its six forest reserves, two dams, major water catchment areas, the Penang Botanic Gardens and the Penang Hill, the proposed zonation area covers almost a quarter of Penang Island!

Its significance cannot be understated. Despite Penang being the second most populous Malaysian state and its Island highly urbanised, accessibility to its terrestrial and marine habitats is second to none; and as a Biosphere Reserve site, it is useful in the testing of different approaches to help reconcile critical questions of biodiversity conservation and the sustainable use of natural resources.

Photo by: Rexy Prakash Chacko

The team had made great advances within a relatively short timeframe and by July 2019, had readied their findings to be presented to the Penang State Government and the Federal Cabinet for approval. Unfortunately, due to external circumstances, the team was unable to meet the September 30 deadline for the UBR – delaying Penang Hill's nomination for another year!

It was a tough pill to swallow, but the team took it in stride and decided to comb through the dossier one last time for missed errors during earlier rounds of vetting. When the application was finally submitted in 2020, everyone on the team breathed a collective sigh of relief. We had done all we could, and now we wait.

Black Giant Squirrel (Ratufa bicolor). Photo by: Rexy Prakash Chacko
Highland Vampire Crab (Geosesarma faustum). Photo by: Rexy Prakash Chacko

In February 2021, with the world still in the grips of the Covid pandemic, news came through from the Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources, or KeTSA, that Unesco MAB had found Penang Hill's nomination to be promising. We received even more encouraging signs in June and by August, Penang Hill's designation as a Biosphere Reserve was confirmed by the Unesco MAB Secretariat.

We did it!

Significance of the UBR Designation to Penang

On September 15, 2021, at the meeting of the International Coordinating Council of Unesco's Man and the Biosphere Programme in Abuja, Nigeria, Penang Hill was officially recognised as a Biosphere Reserve.

With this designation, Penang Hill is now a member of the World Network of Biosphere Reserves celebrated for their exceptional biodiversity, distinct social landscapes and the ability to live in harmony with nature. There are at present over 714 Biosphere Reserves across 131 countries; together these Biosphere Reserves serve as platforms for international collaboration on important issues concerning sustainable development.

Having now two Unesco accolades, Penang solidifies its position on the world stage to impactfully dialogue and discuss sustainable development and environmental, social and corporate governance.

"Now the real work begins! " says Cheok.

Allen Tan

is a lawyer by training and an environmentalist by accident. He is proud to be working through The Habitat to prove that business can be a force for good.