Colonial hill station turns into Malaysia’s third biosphere reserve

George Town, Malaysia – Dusk is quick approaching when a hiker spots a wierd and furry bump clinging to a tree trunk alongside a jungle path on Penang Hill.

It is not any frequent macaque, however a uncommon Sunda colugo: akin to a mixture between a fruit bat and an enormous squirrel, this nocturnal mammal glides from tree to tree utilizing a membrane that extends round its physique and is without doubt one of the many uncommon – and generally uncommon – species inhabiting the jungles of Penang Hill.

The central forested space of interconnected peaks constitutes the largely unexplored and underrated inexperienced lung of Penang, the northwestern Malaysian island that was making ready to welcome greater than eight million vacationers earlier than the coronavirus pandemic grounded travel nearly 18 months in the past.

While George Town, the state capital nestled on the backside of Penang Hill and a World Heritage web site since 2008, has helped Penang emerge as one in every of Southeast Asia’s main cultural locations, the island’s pure bounty and its 130-million-year-old forests are much less well-known.

“Penang Island’s forest is amazing and actually hosts a wide number of species such as the threatened slow loris, gliding squirrels, civet and mouse deer, which most people are not even aware of,” mentioned Priscilla Miard of the Malaysian Primatological Society, who was the primary to find and research the ultrasound communication of the Sunda colugos on Penang Hill.

Of the island’s pure points of interest, Penang Hill, referred to as Bukit Bendera (Flag Hill) in Malay, is arguably the most well-liked.

The uncommon Sunda colugo is among the many endemic animals discovered inside Penang Hill Biosphere Reserve [Kit Yeng Chan/Al Jazeera]

Rising 833-metres above the town, it was first developed as a hill station by the British in 1787 as they regarded for a spot they may escape the tropical warmth of the island that they had colonised.

In September, the hill and its surrounding forest have been named a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO given its ecological variety.

Launched in 1971, the UNESCO designation promotes the conservation of wildlife and habitats, the encouragement of sustainable improvement, and the assist of long-term research and analysis in every of the 714 biosphere reserves it protects throughout 129 international locations.

The nomination sparked a lot satisfaction but additionally a priority for the long run given the inevitable return of mass tourism in a Malaysian state that’s well-known for its improvement aspirations and much-debated deliberate megaprojects.

Small however distinctive

Penang Hill Biosphere Reserve (PHBR) is Malaysia’s third such web site after Tasik Chini, a wetland habitat near the town of Kuantan within the japanese a part of the peninsula, and the Crocker Range of Sabah in Malaysian Borneo.

The new biosphere contains an unbroken hyperlink of 125sq km (48,2sq miles) of land and water stretching from Penang Hill to the island’s northwestern shoreline and sea. It consists of the state’s Forest Reserves, the historic Botanical Gardens – first opened in 1884 and curated by British botanist Charles Curtis – Penang National Park, and its coastal and marine ecosystems.

“Penang Hill Biosphere Reserve is unique in many aspects,” Nadine Ruppert, senior lecturer on the School of Biological Sciences at Penang’s Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM), instructed Al Jazeera.

“It’s one of the smallest biosphere reserves worldwide but comprises four different ecosystems (marine, coastal, lake, forest) with rare and endemic species. It provides an altitudinal gradient from zero to 800 metres above sea level with different zones of human impact that allow researchers to study the effect of anthropogenic disturbance and climate change on its sensitive biodiversity,” she added.

The Habitat is a nature reserve on the prime of Penang Hill and was a part of the collaborative effort to safe a biosphere reserve standing for the realm [Supplied/The Habitat]

When the British first developed Penang Hill, the one solution to the highest was by a tough observe, however as curiosity grew it grew to become potential to travel in a horse-drawn carriage and in 1924 a funicular railway was opened.

The prepare hyperlink, one of many steepest on the planet, was utterly upgraded in 2010 and in 2019 alone whisked 1.38 million guests to the viewing platforms, eating places, colonial cottages, and vacationer services that now congregate across the Upper Station.

The strategy of submission, a collaborative effort involving lecturers, the state-run Penang Hill Corporation and The Habitat, which runs a namesake nature park on the hill’s summit, started in 2016.

Ruppert oversaw elements of the proposal to assist focus consideration on Penang’s wealthy but understated biodiversity.

“The results of our BioBlitz in October 2017 –  a rapid forest floor to tree-top biodiversity assessment of the Penang Hill rainforest involving a team of 117 local and international scientists and biosciences students – provided the baseline science for the nomination,” mentioned Reza Cockrell, the cofounder and director of The Habitat.

The group knew that Penang Hill’s surroundings was fairly various, however their findings proved as soon as once more that regardless of the hill’s proximity to the town, its ecosystem is alive with uncommon species such because the endangered dusky leaf monkey and Sunda sluggish loris. It additionally has uncommon vegetation and a minimum of 144 species of orchids.

“We hope that the inscription will attract more academics to carry out research and education activities at Penang Hill, which can then guide us towards effective preservation strategies,” Cheok Lay Leng, the overall supervisor of  Penang Hill Corporation, which oversees the hill, instructed Al Jazeera.

A dusky leaf monkey in Penang Botanical Gardens [Kit Yeng Chan/Al Jazeera]

The inscription was additionally welcomed by Penang Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow, who mentioned it may encourage eco-tourism inside the state.

“We believe that Penang can achieve a delicate balance between mass tourism and the conservation of this biosphere reserve, which means propelling Penang’s tourism via this victorious inscription without losing sight on the necessary conservation works,” mentioned Yeoh Soon Hin, the Penang State Executive Councillor for Tourism and Creative Economy.

Balancing the long run

Still, whereas there may be a lot to have fun with the inscription, environmentalists are cautious, noting Malaysia’s poor observe document in defending its pure sources regardless of being one of many world’s 10 biodiversity hotspots.

Tasik Chini, the peninsula’s second-largest pure lake, was designated a biosphere in 2009 as a consequence of its distinctive wetland surroundings. However, no matter its protected standing, there was in depth conversion of the forests surrounding the realm to agriculture and mining, resulting in silting and air pollution of the lake’s waters.

Pending the customary 10-year evaluation by UNESCO, Tasik Chini dangers shedding its standing by September 2022 if it fails to adjust to the actions UNESCO submitted to the related Malaysian authorities in May.

“Habitat destruction is [also] a serious threat to the hills of Penang, with quarrying, uncontrolled and unsustainable agriculture, residential development, and mega transportation projects being various manifestations,” mentioned knowledgeable native hiker Rexy Prakash Chacko, a cofounder of Penang Hills Watch, a citizen-orientated initiative for maintaining watch on actions that have an effect on Penang’s surroundings.

Local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and environmentalists level to ongoing tasks that the state authorities had deliberate for Penang Hill earlier than the inscription. The Upper Station’s customer services began present process a 9.3m Malaysian ringgit ($2.2m) improve in March, whereas a 150m Malaysian ringgit ($36m) cable automobile challenge is ready to open inside the subsequent 5 years.

The iconic Penang Hill Funicular Train on the colonial viaduct near the Upper Station [image by Kit Yeng Chan/Al Jazeera]

“Both are within the Transition Zone of the Biosphere Reserve, where sustainable human activity and development is not only allowed but encouraged,” Allen Tan, normal supervisor of The Habitat Penang Hill, instructed Al Jazeera.

Cheok of Penang Hill Corporation added that many different nationwide parks and UNESCO World Heritage Sites even have environmentally sustainable cable automobile techniques, and Penang’s will “help ease the strain off [existing] funicular services”, stressing that each one the timber eliminated for the challenge might be relocated and replanted.

Unsung heroes

If sustainable human exercise is to be inspired, the precedence then needs to be to widen the eye to the whole biosphere reserve as a linked ecosystem. This is very essential after 18 months of coronavirus travel restrictions, which attracted 1000’s of Penang residents to the climbing trails which have lengthy crisscrossed the realm.

Even although the spike of native appreciation for Penang’s pure environment resulted in additional garbage and vandalism alongside the paths – a number of rocks have been defaced with rainbow-style graffiti to create social-media-friendly photograph spots or the extreme girdling of dozens of mature timber in early October – it was basically due to native hikers that the hill and its surrounding space have remained accessible and patrolled for the previous few years.

This was very true earlier than the landmark 2008 elections, which noticed the removing of the previous Barisan Nasional authorities, whose neglect “resulted in the hiking trails being left mostly to the hiking community,” mentioned Ng Seow Kong, the organiser of the Ultimate Trails of Penang races.

Still, widespread trails that are actually a part of the reserve – such because the 90-minute trek from Penang National Park’s headquarters to the favored Monkey Beach, which skirts the island’s northwesternmost coast, taking hikers throughout rainforest paths, coastal boulders, and palm-backed seashores – have been in a shambles since lengthy earlier than the pandemic, with fallen timber and damaged footbridges.

“The authorities have spent millions to promote cycling, such as … creating special dedicated lanes on the island, but have not set aside a special allocation to improve and upgrade hiking trails, as far as I know,” mentioned Suthakar Kathirvaloo, who spent 10 years climbing throughout Penang, including that the majority upgrades to current services are undertaken solely with donations from the general public.

The widespread Monkey Beach is without doubt one of the westernmost corners of the brand new Penang Hill Biosphere Reserve [Kit Yeng Chan/Al Jazeera]

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