Penang’s Rich Nature is Free for All to Perceive – and Preserve

By Dato' Dr. Saw Leng Guan, Dr. Sazlina Salleh, Dr. Ng Shin Wei, Tan Choo Eng, Allen Tan

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MODERN HUMANS ARE very guilty of taking Mother Nature and her offerings of ecosystem services for granted. Industrialisation and urbanisation, despite having given Penang significant financial wealth, have also had adverse effects of whittling down its rich biodiversity.

There is urgent need for the Penang State Government to intervene before it is too late, by institutionalising and strengthening efforts, for example through the set-up of a Biodiversity Centre to draft environmental policies and coordinate actions for the holistic guarding of Penang’s diverse ecosystems of hills, coasts, marine environment and urban settings.

This Centre may also double as a biodiversity database for Malaysia’s Northern Region, to enhance science-based approaches in decision-making and to attain outcomes that are increasingly “ecosystem-friendly”.

The Waterbirds and Animals of Penaga

With an area of about 200 hectares, the coastal mudflats and mangroves at Penaga with its vast landward paddy fields are designated as an Important Bird and Biodiversity Area (IBA).1 It is home to about 200 bird species, and is an important wintering ground for about 15,000 waders and shorebirds.

A flock of mixed shorebirds. Photo by: Tan Choo Eng

An additional few thousand resident and migratory waterbirds also roost in the extensive coastal mangroves, including the Little Egret (Egretta garzetta), Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis), Purple Heron (Ardea purpurea), Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea), Black-crowned Night-Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax), Chinese Pond-Heron (Ardeola bacchus) and the Little Cormorant (Microcarbo niger).

Recently, big flocks of the Asian Openbill (Anastomus oscitans) were also sighted here with nesting materials. This stork species is known to prey on the Golden Apple snails, a pest that was unintentionally introduced for biological control of the paddy fields.

Among the eight globally threatened bird species found at Penaga are the critically endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper (Calidris pygmaea), Great Knot (Calidris tenuirostris), Chinese Egret (Egretta eulophotes), Nordsmann’s Greenshank (Tringa guttifer) and the Asian Dowitcher (Limnodromus semipalmatus); the latter two species make up but one percent of the IBA’s entire bird population. Other globally threatened animals found here include the critically endangered Painted Terappin (Batagur borneoensis), the Hairy-nosed Otter (Lutra sumatrana) and the Silvery Lutung (Trachypithecus cristatus).

A Bar-tailed Godwit. Photo by: Tan Choo Eng

Penaga, or more precisely the area from Teluk Air Tawar to Kuala Muda, is one of the three most important wintering and transit grounds for migratory waders and shorebirds in West Malaysia. The two others are Perak’s Matang-Kuala Gula Coast and the North Central Selangor Coast.

In fact, Penaga has great potential as a premier eco-tourism site, especially for bird-watching and photography.

At present, there are eight Ramsar sites in Malaysia2 and only one flyway site,3 the Bako-Buntal Bay, near Kuching, Sarawak which is also a Ramsar site. It regularly supports an estimated 15,000 migratory waders and shorebirds, and 5,000 herons and egrets. An additional 3,000 waders and shorebirds utilise the coastal mudflats at the mouth of Sungai Muda, at Kota Kuala Muda, Kedah, just north of Seberang Perai. The birds are able to fly freely across the river mouth that borders both states.

A Pacific Golden Plover. Photo by: Tan Choo Eng

The Seagrass of Pulau Gazumbo

In many coastal fisheries, seagrass ecosystems are essential drivers of productivity. But these are often threatened by natural and anthropogenic processes. Light limitations from high turbidity and sedimentation upset their photosynthetic capabilities (Strydom et al., 2017), but a recent study on seagrass has shown them to still be able to adapt to low environmental quality, with efficient photosynthetic capacities (Jonik, 2020). Meanwhile, cases of human overexploitation, habitat destruction, pollution and sedimentation have led to a decline in their high biodiversity (Short et al., 2011).

The seagrass Halophila is endemic to Penang’s coastal areas of Batu Uban and Pulau Gazumbo, where it forms extensive monospecific meadows, extending from 0.5 to 5 metres in depth. Halophila ovalis is the most common seagrass species in the tropical region, but other species such as the Halophila ovata, Halophila beccarii, Halophila spinulosa and Enhalus acoroides can also be found here (Abdullah and Anscelly, 2016; Shau Hwai et al., 2018).

Gleaning activities for molluscs and invertebrates are a common fishing practice that have provided sustainable livelihoods for Penang’s coastal fishers. The habitat here is home to many benthic faunas such as crustaceans, gastropods, bivalves and sea anemones. A total of 22 species from 20 genera of molluscs have been recorded at the seagrass bed (Shau Hwai et al., 2018).

Management and conservation of this habitat with its high diversity of flora and fauna are essential for the provision of ecosystem services and in mitigating future climate changes. Seagrass recourses especially can ease climate change pressures due to their exceptional carbon storage ability.

The seagrass of Pulau Gazumbo. Photo by: Tan Choo Eng

The Plants of Penang

Natural vegetation in Penang is found mainly on Penang Hill and in small pockets of lowland dipterocarp forests, i. e. at the Bukit Mertajam Forest Reserve and the Bukit Panchor State Park in Seberang Perai. These forests have in them rare endemic plants, including the palms, Licuala mirabilis and Iguanura corniculate; and the ginger, Haniffia cyanescens var. penangiana.

On Penang Island where the forests are larger, the vegetation is also more varied. Beach strand vegetation tends to grow on sandy beaches along the coast, but most of these areas have become urbanised; and on the thin-soiled hilly rocky terrains grow the tree species Syzygium grande, S. zeylanicum, Hibiscus tiliaceus, Tristaniopsis merguensis, Vitex, Ficus, Terminalia catappa, Millettia pinnata, Garcinia celebica, Oncosperma tigillarium, etc.

Mangrove vegetation like the Nypa fruticans (Nipa) and Bruguiera cylindrica (Berus) can be found in nearby mudflats. But this vegetation, like the beach strand variant, is limited in distribution on Penang Island since these areas too have either been developed or used for agriculture. One would be hard-pressed to find the Rhizophora or Bakau on Penang Island as the large mudflats are unsuitable for the genus. What remains are small pockets of mangroves at small river mouths in the Penang National Park.

Further inland is the coastal hill dipterocarp forest, boasting a most diverse ecosystem, with species ranging from herbaceous plants on the forest floor to understory palms, rattans, lianas and saplings of forest trees. Emergents found here can tower at over 45 metres in height, and include species from the family Dipterocarpaceae, Fabaceae and Burseraceae. But the most notable of them are the seraya on the hill ridges, with their glaucous or whitish cauliflorous crowns. The main canopy and understory trees are however from the species Lauraceae, Myrtaceae, Rubiaceae, Phyllanthaceae, Euphorbiaceae, Sapindaceae, etc.

Towards the summit area, the lower montane forest, where the trees are shorter and smaller in stature, replaces the coastal hill dipterocarp forest. Some coniferous species such as the Agathis borneensis, Podocarpus neriifoius and Dacrydium elatum can be found in clusters here, with more species from the family Myrtaceae, Lauraceae and Fagaceae, with Schima wallichii, Alstonia angustifolia and Campnosperma auriculata. The giant rattan, Plectocomia elongata (rotan mantang), is also a common vegetation found around the summit.

Previous experiences with nature conservation have taught us that there is inherent value in preserving Penang’s natural ecosystems and the biodiversity therein that sustains life and which provides us with myriad benefits that quite frankly are priceless and irreplaceable. We are all stewards of the natural world and through our actions, we should contribute to its continued existence and survival. We should definitely not contribute to its destruction.




Dato' Dr. Saw Leng Guan

is a biodiversity expert with particular interest in Malaysian plants and ecology. He was formerly from the Forest Research Institute Malaysia and curator of the Penang Botanic Gardens.

Dr. Sazlina Salleh

is a senior lecturer with the Centre for Policy Research and International Studies. She has a solid teaching portfolio and a research background in marine ecology, biodiversity and primary productivity.

Dr. Ng Shin Wei

is a Project Manager at the Penang Green Council. She has more than 13 years of experience in climate change and sustainable development policies.

Tan Choo Eng

is Chairman of the Malaysian Nature Society (Penang Branch) and of the Bird Conservation Council, MNS; and is an Advisor to the Penang National Park. He was appointed as a City Councillor for the Seberang Perai City Council in 2020-2021.

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.