GEORGE TOWN: Penang Hill will be designated a Unesco reserve in the next few years, thanks to a joint effort by Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM), an American biological expert and the owners of an eco-tourism attraction there.
Leading the team is USM Biology School senior lecturer Prof Dr Siti Azizah Mohd Nor, who today revealed that the 500ha hill range was a perfect candidate for the Unesco Biosphere Reserve status, owing to the unique flora and fauna found there.
She said research so far had revealed a plant, ant and spider species unique to the hill range.
“And this is what we found in two surveys within a short span of time. Imagine what we can find in a longer period,” Azizah said at the sidelines of the 1st Penang Hill Biodiversity Study Symposium at USM today.
The Penang Hill range is home to a lush, undisturbed forest, including virgin jungle reserves made up of a hill dipterocarp forest, submontane oak-laurel, as well as coniferous trees.
Currently, there are only two Unesco reserves in the country — Tasik Chini in Pahang and the Crocker Range, south of Mount Kinabalu in Sabah. They were accorded Unesco reserve status in 2009 and 2014 respectively.
Kedah, too, is planning to list its 3,000ha Sungai Merbok Mangrove Forest under the Unesco biosphere reserve.
Meanwhile, Azizah said the site would be listed in “two or three years” and would largely depend on the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry, who have the authority to apply for the Unesco status on their behalf.
Azizah also thanked renowned and award-winning American biologist Prof Dr Margaret D Lowman for her cooperation in the project.
In her keynote address, Lowman said Penang had a unique and important tropical forest, but was largely unstudied.
“I will make a case for urgent priority to discover, understand and conserve the species and interactions that exist in the forest canopies, especially in Penang.
“Penang’s canopies can provide incredible economic as well as ecological legacies for both visitors and local communities,” she said.
Lowman, who has been called the “Einstein of Treetops” by the Wall Street Journal, will work with a team led by Azizah on an eco-tourism site on the hill called “The Habitat”. She is currently attached to the California Academy of Sciences.
Also lending a hand to designate Penang Hill as a Unesco reserve was the Penang Hill Corporation, which runs the funicular rail service up the hill, as well as the Penang Forestry Department.
The team is to gather next year to showcase their experiences in the jungles of Penang Hill, the data of which will be used as a proposal to Unesco.
Penang Hill is one of the island’s most important tourist attractions and natural forest sites.
It comprises a group of peaks located in Air Itam, and is also known as Bukit Bendera, which refers to Flagstaff Hill, the most developed peak.
Its highest point is at Western Hill, 833 metres above sea level and which was used as a retreat during the British colonial period.
The top of the hill is a popular tourist destination which is accessible via the funicular rail service from its base station in Air Itam.
According to Unesco, biosphere reserves are areas comprising terrestrial, marine and coastal ecosystems.
There are currently 669 biosphere reserves in 120 countries, including 16 trans-boundary sites. They are distributed as follows:
- 70 in 28 countries in Africa
- 30 in 11 countries in the Arab States
- 142 in 24 countries in Asia and the Pacific
- 302 in 36 countries in Europe and North America
- 125 in 21 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean