Using USM as a Garden for Studying Nature

By Noor Adelyna Mohammed Akib (Centre for Global Sustainability Studies, Universiti Sains Malaysia)

January 2022 VOICES OF USM
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Photo by: EcoHub@USM facebook page
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UNIVERSITI SAINS MALAYSIA (USM) introduced in 2001-2002 the concept of "University in the Garden" to explore the mutual cohabitation between humans and the campus environment as a vital component in the global ecology. Interestingly, the UN in 2021 also launched a similar initiative with its first-ever online campaign to celebrate International Biological Diversity Day, under the theme "Our solutions are in nature".

A few years later, in 2008, then-USM's vice-chancellor Tan Sri Dzulkifli Abdul Razak initiated the EcoHub@USM. This "green jewel" spans four acres and sits at the eastern side of the main campus. It is intended to serve as a world-class repository centre for the preservation of genetic resources from plants, animals and insects found in USM. The EcoHub is currently managed by the Centre for Global Sustainability Studies (CGSS), to study the ecological environment and its interaction with invasive species, and for research collaborations with other universities.

There are two main ecosystems found at the EcoHub: an orchard of fruit trees and medicinal and ornamental plants, and a secondary forest named Durian Valley. The orchard mostly grows local commercial fruit trees such as rambutan, jackfruit, sapodilla (ciku), mangosteen, rambai, and pulasan; with a few rare fruit trees such as seralat, saipan mango (kuinin) and setoi / sentul. The saipan mango fruit is delicious when eaten alone or when made into sambal. Its tree extract also contains quinine, a useful remedy to treat malaria.

Sapodilla (ciku). Photo by: EcoHub@USM facebook page
Saipan mango (kuinin). Photo by: EcoHub@USM facebook page

Of the 50 or so species of ornamental plants found in the EcoHub, 15 are from the genus Hoya, known for producing exceptionally pungent-smelling flowers. The herbaceous plants Phaleria macrocarpa (Mahkota dewa), Orthosiphon aristatus (Misai kucing), Clinacanthus nutans (Belalai gajah) and Gynura pseudochina (Sambung nyawa) are also found here; these are "living labs" for those of USM's ethnobotany students who also study the plants' medicinal properties to treat diabetes and high blood pressure, among other ailments.

Hoya mitrata. Photo by: EcoHub@USM facebook page

The Durian Valley serves as an eco-trail for those wanting to commune with nature. In this forest are found about 150 species of trees, such as the Ixora javanica, Mallotus paniculatus, Antidesma cuspidatum, Vitex pinnata and Tetracera indica. It is also a bird sanctuary housing about 115 species, including the Brahminy Kite, Asian Koel and Asian Glossy Starling. These rather rare species can be commonly spotted around the EcoHub.

Malayan Night-Heron. Photo by: EcoHub@USM facebook page
Crested Goshawk. Photo by: EcoHub@USM facebook page

A type of edible mushroom, the seasonal Termitomycetes fungi, or "kulat tahun" in Malay, has also been observed to have grown within the EcoHub a number of times.

The EcoHub also has a kelulut (stingless) bee farm, maintained in collaboration with the Division of Industry & Community Network (BJIM). Here, extraction of honey uses the unique "Mustafa-Hive" technology that generates a suitable nesting environment for the bees. From harvesting, packing to delivery, the production of Minden Honey Madu Kelulut is subject to stringent quality control measures to reduce the danger of contamination; and because the bees feed on surrounding flowering trees and plants, the taste of their honey varies from sweet to sweet-sour.

The UN's Environment Programme has warned that "we are losing species at a rate 1,000 times greater than at any other time in recorded human history" and that "one million species are now facing extinction". At USM, we are proud to have the EcoHub as a green space and as a natural laboratory for ecological and social research, and for the careful preservation of traditional knowledge. To quote David Boyd, UN's Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, "Nature is not a commodity for humans to exploit but rather a community to which we are so fortunate to belong."

PM
Noor Adelyna Mohammed Akib (Centre for Global Sustainability Studies, Universiti Sains Malaysia)