Colonial Colonial Station Becomes Malaysia’s Third Biosphere Reserve | Environment News

George Town, Malaysia – Dusk is fast approaching when a hiker spots a weird, hairy bump clinging to a tree trunk along a jungle trail on Penang Hill.

It is not a common macaque, but a rare Sunda colugo: similar to a mix between a fruit bat and a giant squirrel, this nocturnal mammal glides from tree to tree using a membrane that extends around its body and is one of the many unusual – and sometimes rare – species inhabiting the jungles of Penang Hill.

The central forested area of ​​interconnected peaks forms the largely unexplored and underrated green lung of Penang, the northwest island of Malaysia that was preparing to welcome more than eight million tourists before the coronavirus pandemic hit. stranded almost 18 months ago.

While George Town, the state capital nestled at the foot of Penang Hill and a World Heritage Site since 2008, has helped Penang become one of Southeast Asia’s premier cultural destinations, the natural wealth of the less well known is the island and its 130 million year old forests.

“The forest on Penang Island is amazing and is actually home to a great number of species such as endangered slow lorises, gliding squirrels, civets and mouse deer, which most people are not even aware of.” said Priscilla Miard of the Malaysian Primatological Society, who was the first to discover and study the ultrasonic communication of Sunda colugos on Penang Hill.

Among the island’s natural attractions, Penang Hill, known as Bukit Bendera (Flag Hill) in Malay, is arguably the most popular.

The rare Sunda colugo is one of the endemic animals of the Penang Hill Biosphere Reserve [Kit Yeng Chan/Al Jazeera]

Rising 833 meters above the city, it was first developed as a hill station by the British in 1787 when they were looking for a place to escape the tropical heat of the island they had. colonized.

In September, the hill and its surrounding forest were classified as a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO because of their ecological diversity.

Launched in 1971, the UNESCO designation promotes the conservation of wildlife and habitats, the encouragement of sustainable development and the support of long-term studies and research in each of the 714 biosphere reserves it protects in 129 countries.

The bid generated a lot of pride but also concern for the future given the inevitable return of mass tourism to a Malaysian state well known for its development aspirations and highly controversial planned megaprojects.

Small but unique

Penang Hill Biosphere Reserve (PHBR) is the third such site in Malaysia after Tasik Chini, a wetland near the town of Kuantan in the eastern part of the peninsula, and the Crocker Range from Sabah to Borneo in Malaysia .

The new biosphere comprises an unbroken link of 125 km² (48.2 km²) of land and water stretching from Penang Hill to the northwest coast of the island and to the sea. It includes the forest reserves of the ‘State, historic botanical gardens – first opened in 1884 and curated by British botanist Charles Curtis – Penang National Park, and its coastal and marine ecosystems.

“The Penang Hill Biosphere Reserve is unique in many ways,” Nadine Ruppert, senior lecturer at the School of Biological Sciences at Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) in Penang, told Al Jazeera.

“It is one of the smallest biosphere reserves in the world, but it includes four different ecosystems (marine, coastal, lake, forest) with rare and endemic species. It provides an altitudinal gradient from zero to 800 meters above sea level with different areas of human impact that allow researchers to study the effect of anthropogenic disturbances and climate change on its sensitive biodiversity ”, a- she added.

The Habitat is a nature reserve at the top of Penang Hill and was part of the collaborative effort to achieve biosphere reserve status for the region [Courtesy of The Habitat]

When the British first developed Penang Hill the only way to reach the top was a rugged track, but as interest grew it became possible to travel by horse-drawn carriage and in 1924 a funicular was open.

The rail link, one of the steepest in the world, was completely modernized in 2010 and in 2019 alone it attracted 1.38 million visitors to viewing platforms, restaurants, cottages colonial buildings and tourist facilities that now congregate around the upper station.

The submission process, a collaborative effort involving academics, state-owned Penang Hill Corporation and The Habitat, which manages a hilltop nature park of the same name, began in 2016.

Ruppert oversaw parts of the proposal to help draw attention to Penang’s rich but inconspicuous biodiversity.

“The results of our BioBlitz in October 2017 – a rapid assessment of biodiversity from forest soil to treetop in the Penang Hill rainforest involving a team of 117 local and international scientists and bioscience students – provided the science of basis for application, ”said Reza Cockrell, co-founder and director of The Habitat.

The group knew that Penang Hill’s environment was quite diverse, but their findings once again proved that despite the hill’s proximity to the city, its ecosystem is alive with rare species such as the dark-leaved monkey in endangered and the Sunda slow loris. It also has rare plants and at least 144 species of orchids.

“We hope that the inscription will attract more academics to conduct research and education activities in Penang Hill, which can then guide us towards effective preservation strategies,” said Cheok Lay Leng, general manager of Penang. Hill Corporation, which oversees the hill. Al Jazeera.

The funicular brought many more visitors to the hill, which is the site of a multi-million-year-old forest [Supplied/The Habitat]

The listing was also praised by Penang Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow, who said it could encourage eco-tourism within the state.

“We believe that Penang can strike a delicate balance between mass tourism and the conservation of this biosphere reserve, which means propelling Penang tourism through this victorious inscription without losing sight of the necessary conservation work,” Yeoh said. Soon Hin, Executive Councilor of the State of Penang. for tourism and the creative economy.

Balancing the future

Yet while there is much to celebrate with the inscription, environmentalists are cautious, noting Malaysia’s poor record in protecting its natural resources, despite being one of the 10 hotspots in the country. biodiversity in the world.

Tasik Chini, the second largest natural lake on the peninsula, was designated a biosphere in 2009 due to its unique humid environment. However, regardless of its protected status, there has been extensive conversion of the surrounding forests to agriculture and mining, resulting in siltation and pollution of the lake waters.

Pending UNESCO’s usual ten-year review, Tasik Chini risks losing his status by September 2022 if he does not comply with actions that UNESCO submitted to the relevant Malaysian authorities in May.

“Habitat destruction is [also] a serious threat to the hills of Penang, with various protests, quarrying, uncontrolled and unsustainable agriculture, residential development and mega transport projects, ”said local hiker expert Rexy Prakash Chacko, co-founder of Penang Hills Watch, a citizens’ initiative to monitor activities that affect the environment of Penang.

Local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and environmentalists are reporting ongoing projects the state government had planned for Penang Hill prior to listing. Facilities for visitors to the top station began undergoing an upgrade to 9.3 million Malaysian ringgit ($ 2.2 million) in March, while a 150m Malaysian ringgit cable car project ( $ 36 million) is expected to open within the next five years.

The iconic Penang Hill funicular train on the colonial viaduct near the top station [Kit Yeng Chan/Al Jazeera]

“Both are in the biosphere reserve’s transition zone, where human activity and sustainable development are not only allowed but encouraged,” Allen Tan, managing director of The Habitat Penang Hill, told Al Jazeera.

Cheok of Penang Hill Corporation added that many other national parks and UNESCO World Heritage sites also have environmentally friendly cable car systems, and the one in Penang “will help ease the pressure. [existing] funiculars ”, stressing that all trees felled for the project will be moved and replanted.

Unsung heroes

If sustainable human activity is to be encouraged, then the priority should be to broaden attention to the entire biosphere reserve as a connected ecosystem. This is especially important after 18 months of coronavirus-related travel restrictions, which have drawn thousands of Penang residents to the hiking trails that have long crisscrossed the region.

Even though the spike in local appreciation for Penang’s natural environment resulted in more garbage and vandalism along the trails – several boulders were disfigured with rainbow-style graffiti to create photo spots suitable for people. social media or the harsh surrounding of dozens of mature trees in early October – it is mainly thanks to local hikers that the hill and its surroundings have remained accessible and patrolled in recent years.

This was especially true before the historic 2008 elections, which saw the dismissal of the former Barisan Nasional government, whose neglect “resulted in hiking trails being left primarily to the backpacking community,” said Ng Seow Kong, the organizer of the Ultimate Trails of. Penang races.

Still, popular trails that are now part of the reserve – like the 90-minute hike from Penang National Park headquarters to popular Monkey Beach, which runs along the island’s northwest coast, taking hikers through rainforest trails, coastal boulders and palm-tree beaches – have been in ruins since long before the pandemic, with fallen trees and broken walkways.

“The authorities have spent millions to promote cycling, such as… the creation of special dedicated lanes on the island, but have not made any special allowance to improve and modernize the hiking trails, as far as I know.” said Suthakar Kathirvaloo, who has spent 10 years hiking all over Penang, adding that most improvements to existing facilities are only undertaken with donations from the public.

The popular Monkey Beach is one of the westernmost corners of the new Penang Hill Biosphere Reserve [Kit Yeng Chan/Al Jazeera]

“It would be prudent for the state government to reconsider its proposal to build the cable car,” said Rexy of Penang Hills Watch. “Resources [should] enhance the natural attributes and facilities of Penang Hill that would be preferred by tourists of the “new normal”… to make the most of Bukit Bendera’s natural and historical heritage, without compromising its fragile ecological integrity.

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