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Malaysia’s latest Unesco biosphere reserve, Penang Hill, with its million-year-old rainforest and marine and coastal ecosystems, offers visitors another side to the island.

Unesco biosphere reserve status for Penang Hill, Malaysia, a chance to draw visitors away from its cookie-cutter attractions to explore rainforest a million years old

  • The reserve covers million-year-old rainforest, as well as Penang Botanic Gardens, coastal and marine ecosystems on the island off peninsular Malaysia
  • Of 40 countries in the Asia-Pacific region with Unesco biosphere reserves, China has the most – 34 – including the highly biodiverse forest of Mount Huangshan

Penang Hill in Malaysia was this month recognised as the Southeast Asian country’s third biosphere reserve, the others being Tasik Chini, a wetland habitat near the city of Kuantan, and the Crocker Range of Sabah, in Malaysian Borneo.

As well as the million-year-old forests of Penang Hill, the 12,481-hectare (48.2 square mile) reserve includes the Penang Botanic Gardens, opened in 1884, and the coastal and marine ecosystems of Penang National Park.

The inscription of the biosphere reserve represents a good opportunity to highlight the natural side of an island that’s known by tourists mostly for its capital city, George Town.

Developed by the British colonial powers as the first hill station in Malaya – respite from the tropical heat has been sought here since the late 18th century – Penang Hill (known in Malay as Bukit Bendera, or “Flag Hill”) has become a tourist hotspot thanks to its funicular railway.

The Curtis Crest Tree Top Walk in The Habitat Penang Hill offers breathtaking views of the new biosphere reserve.

Opened on January 1,1924, it has carried millions of visitors to the top of the hill, where viewing platforms, restaurants and souvenir stalls stand next to colonial bungalows and heritage buildings, most of which are now empty. There are hopes the Unesco accolade will draw tourists away from the cookie-cutter attractions around the Top Station and towards Penang Hill’s interconnected jungle-clad hills.

Penang Hill’s acceptance as a biosphere reserve, announced on September 15, came as a result of a “bioblitz”, says Reza Cockrell, the co-founder and director of The Habitat, a nature park situated on top of 833-metre Penang Hill that promotes its ancient rainforest with educational guided tours.

Geosesarma faustum, the vampire crab, is a newly discovered species in the Penang Hill Biosphere Reserve.

The Habitat conducted “a forest-floor to treetop biodiversity survey of the Penang Hill rainforest” that concluded in October 2017, says Cockrell. The survey supplied the data necessary for the International Coordinating Council of Unesco’s Man and the Biosphere Programme (MAB) to consider an application for designation as a biosphere reserve.

“The newly designated biosphere reserve in Penang is unique in many aspects,” says Nadine Ruppert, senior lecturer at the School of Biological Sciences, Universiti Sains Malaysia, who helped prepare the MAB submission dossier. “It’s one of the smallest biosphere reserves worldwide but comprises four different ecosystems (marine, coastal, lake, forest) with rare and endemic species.”

By including terrain that rises from sea level to over 800 metres, it offers the opportunity to study the effects of various human activities and of climate change on its sensitive biodiversity, she added.
Participants of the BioBlitz 2017, a project that saw 117 researchers from Universiti Sains Malaysia and around the world document the biodiversity of Penang Hill.

Launched in 1971, the MAB is an intergovernmental programme aimed at enhancing the relationship between people and their environments, and promoting rational and sustainable use and conservation of their resources through scientific methods.

There are currently 727 biosphere reserves in 131 countries, including 22 sites that straddle national borders. There are 168 in the Asia-Pacific region, scattered across 40 countries. Spain has the most biosphere reserves in the world, with 52, followed by Russia (47), Mexico (42) and China (34).

The newest one in China is the Mount Huangshan Biosphere Reserve in eastern Anhui province, designated in 2018. Huangshan (“yellow mountain”) has been a Unesco World Heritage site since 1990, and earned the second title thanks to its highly biodiverse forest ecosystem, which has remained almost unchanged since the last ice age.

Japan’s Kobushi mountain region is the nation’s latest biosphere. Photo: Kyodo News Stills via Getty Images
Bunaken Tangkoko Minahasa in Indonesia is a biosphere reserve with a volcano, mangrove forests, jungle and coral reefs. Photo: Getty Images

The nearest Chinese one to Hong Kong is the Dinghushan Biosphere Reserve in Guangdong province, which covers some of the Dayunwu Mountain Range.

Japan’s newest biosphere is Kobushi, an important watershed and source for major rivers, which includes most of the Kanto Mountains. These have a wealth of geological formations, and harbour almost 40 per cent of Japan’s recorded butterfly species, 24 of which are endangered.  

Indonesia has the second-highest number of biosphere reserves in Asia-Pacific, with 19. Among them is Bunaken Tangkoko Minahasa, in off-the-beaten-track North Sulawesi, which encompasses a mosaic of diverse ecosystems – from coral reefs to islands, coastal habitats and mangrove forests – that are home to 130 mammal species.

Mongolia is home to the Great Gobi, one of the largest biosphere reserves in the world, and last year celebrated the inscription of Toson-Khulstai, a transition zone between forest steppe and grassland in the country’s northeast.

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In Sri Lanka, the Sinharaja Biosphere Reserve has been protecting the largest evergreen rainforest left in the island nation’s lowlands, and its staggering range of endemic plants and animals, since 1977.

To retain the title of biosphere reserve, these environments must continuously fulfil the programme’s three principles: the conservation of wildlife and habitats; the encouragement of sustainable development; and the support of long-term study and research.