George Town, Malaysia – Dusk is fast approaching when a hiker spots a strange and furry bump clinging to a tree trunk along a jungle trail on Penang Hill.
It is no common macaque, but a rare Sunda colugo: akin 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.
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The central forested area of interconnected peaks constitutes the largely unexplored and underrated green lung of Penang, the northwestern Malaysian island that was preparing to welcome more than eight million tourists before the coronavirus pandemic grounded travel nearly 18 months ago.
While George Town, the state capital nestled at the bottom of Penang Hill and a World Heritage site since 2008, has helped Penang emerge as one of Southeast Asia’s leading cultural destinations, the island’s natural bounty and its 130-million-year-old forests are 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,” said Priscilla Miard of the Malaysian Primatological Society, who was the first to discover and study the ultrasound communication of the Sunda colugos on Penang Hill.
Of the island’s natural attractions, Penang Hill, known as Bukit Bendera (Flag Hill) in Malay, is arguably the most popular.
Rising 833-metres above the city, it was first developed as a hill station by the British in 1787 as they looked for a place they could escape the tropical heat of the island they had colonised.
In September, the hill and its surrounding forest were named a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO given its 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 study and research in each of the 714 biosphere reserves it protects across 129 countries.
The nomination sparked much pride but also a concern for the future given the inevitable return of mass tourism in a Malaysian state that is well-known for its development aspirations and much-debated planned megaprojects.
Small but unique
Penang Hill Biosphere Reserve (PHBR) is Malaysia’s third such site after Tasik Chini, a wetland habitat near the city of Kuantan in the eastern part of the peninsula, and the Crocker Range of Sabah in Malaysian Borneo.
The new biosphere comprises an unbroken link of 125sq km (48,2sq miles) of land and water stretching from Penang Hill to the island’s northwestern coastline and sea. It includes 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 at the School of Biological Sciences at Penang’s Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM), told 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.
When the British first developed Penang Hill, the only way to the top was by a rough track, but as interest grew it became possible to travel in a horse-drawn carriage and in 1924 a funicular railway was opened.
The train link, one of the steepest in the world, was completely upgraded in 2010 and in 2019 alone whisked 1.38 million visitors to the viewing platforms, restaurants, colonial cottages, and tourist facilities that now congregate around the Upper Station.
The process of submission, a collaborative effort involving academics, the state-run Penang Hill Corporation and The Habitat, which runs a namesake nature park at the hill’s summit, began in 2016.
Ruppert oversaw parts of the proposal to help focus attention on Penang’s rich yet 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,” said Reza Cockrell, the cofounder and director of The Habitat.
The group knew that Penang Hill’s environment was pretty diverse, but their findings proved once again that despite the hill’s proximity to the city, its ecosystem is alive with rare species such as the endangered dusky leaf monkey and 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 carry out research and education activities at Penang Hill, which can then guide us towards effective preservation strategies,” Cheok Lay Leng, the general manager of Penang Hill Corporation, which oversees the hill, told Al Jazeera.
The inscription was also welcomed by Penang Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow, who said it could encourage eco-tourism within 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,” said Yeoh Soon Hin, the Penang State Executive Councillor for Tourism and Creative Economy.
Balancing the future
Still, while there is much to celebrate with the inscription, environmentalists are cautious, noting Malaysia’s poor track record in protecting its natural resources despite being one of the world’s 10 biodiversity hotspots.
Tasik Chini, the peninsula’s second-largest natural lake, was designated a biosphere in 2009 due to its unique wetland environment. However, regardless of its protected status, there has been extensive conversion of the forests surrounding the area to agriculture and mining, leading to silting and pollution of the lake’s waters.
Pending the customary 10-year review by UNESCO, Tasik Chini risks losing its status by September 2022 if it fails to comply with the actions UNESCO submitted to the relevant 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,” said expert local hiker Rexy Prakash Chacko, a cofounder of Penang Hills Watch, a citizen-orientated initiative for keeping watch on activities that affect Penang’s environment.
Local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and environmentalists point to ongoing projects that the state government had planned for Penang Hill before the inscription. The Upper Station’s visitor facilities started undergoing a 9.3m Malaysian ringgit ($2.2m) upgrade in March, while a 150m Malaysian ringgit ($36m) cable car project is set to open within the next five years.
“Both are within the Transition Zone of the Biosphere Reserve, where sustainable human activity and development is not only allowed but encouraged,” Allen Tan, general manager 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 sustainable cable car systems, and Penang’s will “help ease the strain off [existing] funicular services”, stressing that all the trees removed for the project will be relocated and replanted.
If sustainable human activity is to be encouraged, the priority then should be to widen the attention to the entire biosphere reserve as a connected ecosystem. This is especially important after 18 months of coronavirus travel restrictions, which attracted thousands of Penang residents to the hiking trails that have long crisscrossed the area.
Even though the spike of local appreciation for Penang’s natural surroundings resulted in more rubbish and vandalism along the trails – several rocks were defaced with rainbow-style graffiti to create social-media-friendly photo spots or the severe girdling of dozens of mature trees in early October – it was essentially thanks to local hikers that the hill and its surrounding area have remained accessible and patrolled for the past few years.
This was especially true before the landmark 2008 elections, which saw the removal of the former Barisan Nasional government, whose neglect “resulted in the hiking trails being left mostly to the hiking community,” said Ng Seow Kong, the organiser of the Ultimate Trails of Penang races.
Still, popular trails that are now part of the reserve – such as the 90-minute trek from Penang National Park’s headquarters to the popular Monkey Beach, which skirts the island’s northwesternmost coast, taking hikers across rainforest paths, coastal boulders, and palm-backed beaches – have been in a shambles since long before the pandemic, with fallen trees and broken 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,” said Suthakar Kathirvaloo, who spent 10 years hiking all over Penang, adding that most upgrades to existing facilities are undertaken only with donations from the public.
“It would be prudent for the state government to reconsider its proposal for building 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 the ‘new normal’ tourists … to make the best of the natural and historical heritage of Bukit Bendera, without compromising its fragile ecological integrity.”