The Many Values of the Penang Hill Biosphere Reserve

From hill to sea, Malaysia’s newest biosphere reserve in Penang promises opportunities to test, engage, and manage ways to live sustainably with nature.

Text by SL Wong, images by David ST Loh.

Published: October 12, 2021

In September, the Penang Hill Biosphere Reserve joined seven other new Asia-Pacific listings in UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere programme. The programme aims to improve livelihoods and protect ecosystems by acknowledging “innovative approaches” to developing the economy in ways that are “socially and culturally appropriate and environmentally sustainable”.

The Penang Hill Biosphere Reserve spreads over 12,481 hectares in Penang island’s north-west. About 58% of the reserve is on land and 42% sea. The terrestrial area, which makes up a quarter of the island, consists largely of forests as well as farms, dams, private residences and Malaysia’s oldest botanical gardens. The reserve serves many functions: water catchment, biodiversity cradle, research, tourism, recreation, agriculture, and fisheries.

The reserve’s forests are dominated by lower montane forest, and hill and lowland Dipterocarps. The majority are protected as permanent forest reserves and as Malaysia’s only federally gazetted national park. These forests provide water for the island, stabilise soil and store carbon. Their rich wildlife include the endemic Pinang Island Rock Gecko (Cnemaspis affinis) and over 2,000 plants, 4 of which are Critically Endangered species.

Mangroves, mudflats, sandy beaches and wetlands make up the reserve’s coastal ecosystems. While all host myriad life, mangroves are critical to prevent beach erosion and coastal pollution and serve as a nursery for fish. Birds also abound, and at the iconic colonial-era lighthouse on the northernmost tip of Muka Head, eagles are frequently spotted. (Pictured on mudflats is the Black-crowned Night Heron Nycticorax nycticorax)

Reaching 1.5 nautical miles out to sea, the biosphere’s ocean ecosystem provides huge scope for research, within and beyond its boundaries. Coral patches dot the seafloor and green turtles (Chelonia mydas; pictured above in the Fisheries Department’s turtle conservation centre) and Olive Ridley turtles (Lepidochelys olivacea) nest on the beaches. The sea is also important for bivalves and fish on which artisanal fishers depend.

The biosphere will be managed by an office under the Penang Hill Corporation (PHC), a state statutory body. But stakeholders and jurisdictions are numerous: 24-odd state and federal agencies, academic, private and non-governmental institutions, and communities. PHC general manager Cheok Lay Leng hopes the working relationship moving forward will be an extension of how all the parties united to put together the application.

Among strategies moving forward for the biosphere would be a focus on research, hands-on approach by all parties and adopting best practices from the global biosphere network, says Cheok. “How do we define where the economic activities can harmonise with the environment in a sustainable way… it’s a complex topic that is evolving as the technology and science behind doing things evolve.”

One of the economic thrusts is tourism. Penang Hill is already a huge tourist draw, with 1.86m visitors travelling up its 99-year-old funicular railway in 2019. A cable car is being planned, which alarms conservationists. Says Meenakshi Raman, president of Sahabat Alam Malaysia, “The cable car plan threatens the concept of a biosphere as it would increase the number of people going to the hilltop, undermining the integrity of the area.”

Concerned that the notion of the biosphere reserve is not fully understood, PHC’s Cheok avers that tourism and other economic activities are part of the strategy, and are already in controlled areas and well-managed. At the same time, “we need to understand the forests that we have, coastal marine life that we have, .. research better methods of farming and aquaculture .. and educate residents and community to do things in a sustainable way”.

The biosphere reserve designation is a pledge to ensure that natural areas are safely stewarded, says Justine Vaz, general manager of conservation group The Habitat Foundation. “To achieve this, we need to make steady improvements in learning to live in balance with nature – to learn to enjoy without destroying, and to partake of resources without exhausting them.” (Pictured is the Habitat rainforest discovery centre).

About the photographer: David ST Loh is a photojournalist, aerial landscape artist and publisher based in Penang. He is creator of the best-selling ‘Over Penang’ and ‘Simply Penang’ pictorial books and is planning a book on the Penang Hill Biosphere Reserve. He has worked in various media, including 20 years with Reuters. He also has a BSc in Biology.

[Edited by YH Law]

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