Penang to probe land clearance near famed birdwatching haven

The cleared peat swampland next to the Air Hitam Dalam Educational Forest in Butterworth, Penang. Photographs courtesy of Phee Boon Poh.

GEORGE TOWN: The Penang government today vowed stern action on the culprits who cleared a large piece of land next to the Air Hitam Dalam Educational Forest in Butterworth.

State Environment Committee chairman Phee Boon Poh said the amount of land cleared had yet to be ascertained, but was believed to be “in many acres”.

The forest reserve is reportedly 11ha in size. The Perai, Jarak and Air Hitam rivers meet midway in the forest.

The Seberang Perai Municipal Council has also vowed to take stern action. Council president Rozali Mohamud said a stop-work order had been issued on April 19 but the order was ignored for three months until July 2, with four large lorries seized during the period.

“We have no choice but to block access of all vehicles to the site by creating a trench at its access road so that no heavy vehicles could come in.”

Phee said the cleared land, while not immediately in the protected area, was identified as a buffer zone to the forest and the state government was about to gazette it as a forest reserve.

He said the government was now assessing the indirect damage done, as the forest is famed among international birdwatchers.

“It is the second-largest birdwatching site in the Peninsula. People from all over the world have been going to the forest. I hear that these avid birdwatchers spend at least US$400 to be brought to the forest to watch migratory birds, on land and on nearby waters.

“We should prosecute those who cleared the buffer land and hopefully they are jailed for doing this,” he told FMT.

The state government action comes two days after The Star reported on illegal clearing of land.

The site is located 10km east of Butterworth town, close to borders of Sungai Dua and Tasek Gelugor constituencies. Experts say the land acts as a buffer to the peat swamp forest.

According to D Kanda Kumar, adviser to the Malaysian Nature Society’s Penang branch, the forest is a haven for birds such as the Asian openbill storks, Asian glossy starlings, mangrove pittas, racket-tailed drongos, crested serpent eagles, barn owls, and both collared and ruddy kingfishers have been spotted in the forest.