Collecting Epithema parvibracteatum, endemic to Batu Caves and critically endangered; Ruth Kiew is second from left; Nur Atiqah Abd Rahman is on the left. (SL Wong)

Discoveries Support Urgent Protection for Batu Caves

[First posted: 2 December, 2020]

Scientists make new findings, not necessarily all good, in the iconic Batu Caves, confirming its status as a natural treasure.

FOR THE millions of tourists who thronged Batu Caves in pre-Covid-19 times, and even for the residents who live nearby, the limestone hill is known only for its colourful Hindu temple and the Thaipusam festival.

Overshadowed is the hill’s scientific importance. Batu Caves is actually the best-studied limestone hill in Southeast Asia with many valuable natural history characteristics which are threatened.

In fact, is there even anything of scientific value left to conserve? The answer is a resounding “yes” according to a recent scientific expedition.

(Photo: Collecting Epithema parvibracteatum, endemic to Batu Caves and critically endangered; Ruth Kiew is second from left; Nur Atiqah Abd Rahman is on the left. Pic by SL Wong)

Solid evidence

Sixty-four researchers from 10 organisations have reconfirmed the limestone hill as a site of geological, paleontological and biological importance.

Additionally, they have confirmed the threats to these values, identified as manifold and immediate.

Their efforts showed that despite the many developments and encroachments on Batu Caves, there remains plenty of past, present and future scientific values to be protected.

The findings of the expedition were presented in a symposium in September.

Screenshot of the 2020 Batu Caves Scientific Expedition Symposium showing snail researcher Foon Junn Kit presenting species likely to be endemic to the site. (MCKC)

The discoveries include: new mammal fossils dating back to the Pleistocene period (66,000–33,000 years ago); a new yam species and 12 snail species believed to be endemic (restricted) to Batu Caves.

The expedition, led by NGO, the Malaysian Cave and Karst Conservancy (MCKC), also saw preliminary studies on cave morphology indicating the long history of Kuala Lumpur’s karst evolution.

In addition, scientists made the first ever Batu Caves checklists of respectively, mosses and liverworts, butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies and nocturnal animals.

Danger, danger

But the expedition also found many immediate threats to the ecosystems.

Researchers recorded many invasive species, from butterflies to dogs and plants. These, as well as human activities, have impacted or are threatening the limestone hill’s rich and unique geology and biodiversity.

“The basic message is you need a management authority which can do the enforcement and maintain the site,” said botanist Dr Ruth Kiew, one of the leaders of the expedition.

The scientifically-important limestone hill that is Batu Caves is completely surrounded by dense infrastructure; pictured here in 2016. (PT Ong)

A giant karst tower that soars up to 329 metres, Batu Caves covers 2.6 square kilometres and is completely surrounded by urban sprawl.

Since British colonial times, the hill has been an important Hindu religious site, a magnet for visitors and tourists, and a source of quarrying for limestone.

More recently, it has become a rock-climbing centre with an international reputation while educational recreational caving became popular in the 2000s.

Century-old research site

The site has drawn scientists and cavers from the time it was discovered by colonials. In fact, the first scientific study was conducted 130 years ago.

The records of the animals of a single cave, Dark Cave, are also the most comprehensive of any cave in the region, while botanically, it is the best sampled karst hill in the country.

Yet, the 2019 expedition continued to unearth new findings, attesting to there being much more to learn about the site.

  • Specialised: A limestone ecosystem is unique with many species that cannot grow or live in any other conditions. Beneath the surface, caves are highly specialised environments where life has adapted to thrive in the dark.
  • Fragile: Because Batu Caves is small, the number of many resident species are also small, making them rare and endangered. The tiniest change could push the populations to extinction . Endemic species are particularly vulnerable.
  • Type site: This is where many specimens were collected that were used to scientifically describe the species. Scientists who want to carry out further scientific work, for example on DNA or chromosomes, return here to get living species of the actual population on which the scientific name is based.

– Source: Ruth Kiew

In recognition of its natural history value, Batu Caves has been classified as an Environmentally Sensitive Area nationally, said MCKC.

However, it has never received protected area status of any kind nor had there been a management plan drawn up for it.

In fact, even its boundaries are unclear. Unsustainable development has decimated any buffer around it, raising concerns of public safety from rockfalls and threats to the hill’s fragile biodiversity.

But managing the site is tricky because of the multiple groups who have a stake in Batu Caves.

Keeping everyone happy

Batu Caves currently sits on state land and comes under the jurisdiction of the Selayang Municipal Council.

Other stakeholders include scientists, kampung communities, temple committee members, worshippers, recreational rock climbers and cavers and tour guides.

To have a chance at convincing the authorities and the many stakeholders to grant Batu Caves legal protection, there needs scientific evidence.

Dark Cave, already well researched for its fauna, yielded new information on geology. (Gauthaman Nair/MNS Selangor Photo SIG)

Fortunately, when MCKC embarked on this endeavour, conservationists rose to the occasion, said Kiew.

“MCKC is very small. But when we put out requests for people to join us (in the expedition), there was a very strong feeling from all the people we encountered that something has to be done about Batu Caves.

“We can’t let it carry on being chewed away.”

Groups who were involved included the Malaysian Nature Society Selangor Branch Special Interest Groups, Cave Management Group, River Of Life Public Outreach Programme, Damai Extreme Park, Department of Wildlife and National Parks Peninsular Malaysia, Treat Every Environment Special (TrEES), Eco Knights, Forest Research Institute of Malaysia and public universities.

  • Invasive animal and plant species
  • Fires
  • Urbanisation
  • Unregulated infrastructure development
  • Inappropriate tourism

– Source: MCKC

At least 20 expedition findings from the expedition will be published in a special issue of a local scientific journal. For the public, a guidebook has been produced too.

This comprehensive and updated science-based argument provides a solid basis for legal protection, said the MCKC president, Dr Zubaid Akbar Mukhtar Ahmad.

“With that, we can come up with a proper management plan to be presented to the state government to hopefully gazette the area as a protected area.”

Stakeholder buy-in

The government has already demonstrated support for the scientific research and findings. The Selayang Municipal Council backed the expedition, with some funding also coming from other Selangor state agencies.

In addition, the Menteri Besar of Selangor was represented at the symposium by his political secretary; the Menteri Besar is the district’s legislative state representative.

To ensure buy-in from the public, MCKC also ran 20 public awareness programmes, many targeting local communities.

Led by MCKC committee member and bat researcher Dr Nur Atiqah Abd Rahman, these included engagement with village heads through discussions, sharing sessions and educational caving trips, as well as on-site booths and public talks for locals and the public.

Local concern

“Village heads actually also care about encroachment on Batu Caves,” said Atiqah.

“And they actually knew very little about the biodiversity and geology of the hill. When we shared scientific knowledge with them, they said it was important to educate people who live around Batu Caves, especially the young generation.

“In fact, they approached us to do more educational activities”.

Zubaid Akbar Mukhtar Ahmad (left) giving a natural history briefing to Batu Caves’ village heads and villagers at Kampung Nakhoda. (Nuratiqah AR)

At the end of the day, the conservation of Batu Caves must make sense to all stakeholders.

Said Zubaid, “Gazetting cannot be top down. Local people must see the benefit. Most people don’t realise there is more to Batu Caves than the temple. It must benefit the state government and local people.”

MCKC is continuing local community outreach with plans to put up signboards with scientific information on site and selling the guidebook, said Atiqah. “Conservation is long term. And lots of parties play a role.”

A management plan and legal protection are on the cards. Covid-19 has thrown  a curve ball at timelines but MCKC is awaiting engagement with the government to bring the area’s conservation to the next stage.

[Edited by Yao Hua Law]

Related story: When Invaders Move In on Batu Caves (And They Have). Also, check out our Ecosystems section for interviews with Zubaid Akbar Mukhtar Ahmad and Foon Junn Kit on limestone creatures.

Disclaimer: SL Wong was involved in an early draft of the guidebook.

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