An online gazetteer for limestone outcrops in Malaysia can be used to locate limestone outcrops of interest (Liew Thor Seng)

Mapping Every Hill

Interviewed: Dr Liew Thor Seng, biologist [thorseng@ums.edu.my]

IF YOU don’t know where all the limestone hills are, how will you know which to protect, which to quarry? Moreover, if you want to protect them, which ones do you begin with?

Well, decision-makers now have at their fingertips, Malaysia’s most comprehensive database and map of limestone hills.

(Photo: Screen capture of the online gazetteer showing details of limestone outcrop of interest in Malaysia | Courtesy of Liew Thor Seng)

A total of 1,393 hills throughout the country can now be accurately located in a voluminous 7-part e-book, ‘Conservation of Limestone Ecosystems of Malaysia’. And it is free for all under a Creative Commons licence.

Says lead researcher Liew, “We really need a reliable resource to bring all the stakeholders together to discuss the future of the limestone outcrops in Malaysia.”

Limestone is a precious resource particularly for cement, which powers construction.

At the same time, limestone ecosystems are classified as vulnerable in the National Policy on Biological Diversity 2016—2025, needing adequate protection and restoration.

Liew talks about bringing stakeholders together.

To compile the resource, Liew and his team-mates plucked data from published scientific papers. They also verified sites in Peninsular Malaysia with satellite images, drones and field surveys.

In fact, over two years, team members travelled 22,000 km to verify the 911 hills in the peninsula.


Enlarge to see all limestone hills in this online gazeteer and click on any of the points to uncover painstakingly-gathered and verified information on them. (© Thor-Seng Liew, Junn-Kitt Foon, Gopalasamy Reuben Clements [2021] licenced under CC BY 4.0)


The bulk of ground verification was done by Foon Junn Kitt, who also flew drones to photograph every single hill and survey its surroundings.

In addition, he collected information such as roads, forests, plantations, settlements, religious edifices, and tourist attractions.

The team kept their passions at bay for this research. Even when ground surveys revealed threats to the ecosystem, it was crucial to maintain scientific integrity and prioritise objectivity.

Keeping a firm eye on the goal was critical to completing the project, says Liew.

The integrity of the data is so solid, Liew stakes his reputation on it, he says with a laugh. That’s not to say that their work is perfect and final – “I’m pretty sure there are limestone (hills) that we missed.”

Already, the data has been shared with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Water, Perak state biodiversity committees and scientists. Liew hopes others will build on the data.

Of the 911 hills, only a fraction has ever been researched for their biodiversity.

The team compiled 4,592 published biodiversity records and found that fewer than 100 hills have been surveyed (only 43 have significant numbers of species).

“We know nothing about the biodiversity of limestone hills in Malaysia.”

Liew cannot emphasise enough the importance of planning for managing limestone hills, be it for quarrying or conservation.

Decisions are not made well now, points out Liew.

[Edited by YH Law]

‘Conservation of Limestone Ecosystems of Malaysia’ (2021) by Thor-Seng Liew, Junn-Kitt Foon, and Gopalasamy Reuben Clements is published by the Institute for Tropical Biology and Conservation, Universiti Malaysia Sabah under the Creative Commons Attribution International License (CC BY 4.0). It was developed under Rimba’s Project Limestone from 20122018 and under Universiti Malaysia Sabah with a grant from National Conservation Trust Fund for Natural Resources, Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources, Malaysia from 2018–2021.

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