Penang applies to Unesco for Penang Hill Biosphere Reserve recognition

A general view of the funicular railway station at the top of Penang Hill October 2, 2020. — Pictures by KE Ooi
A general view of the funicular railway station at the top of Penang Hill October 2, 2020. — Pictures by KE Ooi

GEORGE TOWN, Oct 5 — Penang has finally submitted its dossier to Unesco in its application to get Penang Hill Biosphere Reserve recognition after years of research and compiling documentations for submission.

Penang Hill Corporation (PHC) General Manager Datuk Cheok Lay Leng said the dossier was submitted to Unesco on September 30.

He said it took four long years of collaboration with various state and federal government agencies, bodies, The Habitat Foundation, private institutions and non-governmental organisations to complete the dossier for submission.

The area for the Penang Hill Biosphere Reserve application not only covers Penang Hill but is spread out to cover the Penang Botanic Gardens, the Penang National Park at Teluk Bahang, the Teluk Bahang Dam, the Ayer Itam Dam and the Penang Marine Park off the coast of the national park.

“The biosphere reserve covers a total land area of 12,681 hectares which is about 25 per cent of Penang island,” Cheok said during an interview with Malay Mail.

Out of the 12,681 ha, a total of 7,285 ha are inland with 468 ha of it under the Penang Hill Special Area Plan while 5,196 ha are marine.

He said this meant that the biosphere reserve will be jointly managed by various state and federal agencies including the Department of Wildlife and National Parks Peninsular Malaysia (Perhilitan), the Forestry Department, Penang Botanic Gardens and PHC.

“PHC will be the catalyst to work with different government agencies and to facilitate various activities and programmes if we are successful in our application,” he said.

Cheok said the Unesco biosphere reserves recognition will allow Penang to receive research funds to conduct more awareness programmes and at the same time create economic spillovers. 

Various types of fauna, such as the dusky leaf monkey, can be seen at the Penang Hill October 2, 2020.
Various types of fauna, such as the dusky leaf monkey, can be seen at the Penang Hill October 2, 2020.

The biosphere reserve will be divided into three zones; the core zone covering about 6,304 ha which consists of the Penang National Park (2,622 ha), permanent forest reserve (3,559 ha), water catchment area (3,304 ha) and the two dam (122 ha).

The buffer zone is 50m inside and around the core zone for inland, which covers about 526 ha, and 0.5 nautical miles outside marine boundary which covers about 1687 ha of marine area.

There will be a transition zone between the core zone and buffer zone which covers mostly the water catchment areas and about 80 per cent of the area is private lands.

Cheok said if Unesco was to approve the biosphere reserves listing, it would spur an interest in Penang Hill and create awareness on the importance of protecting the biodiversity of the hill and its surrounding areas.

“We will not be building theme parks or turning Penang Hill into Disneyland, what we want is sustainable activities and to promote eco-tourism,” he said.

The recognition will also mean that Penang island will have two Unesco sites, the George Town world heritage site and Penang Hill. 

With the hill’s close proximity to George Town, Cheok said PHC can work with George Town World Heritage Incorporated (GTWHI) to complement each site.

“We can work together to enhance the image and status of Penang island as Unesco sites,” he said.

GTWHI general manager Ang Ming Chee said George Town is closely linked to Penang Hill as during the colonial era, the British had set up summer homes on the hill. 

The hill has 37 heritage bungalows in which five are category I heritage buildings while the remaining are category II heritage buildings.

Ang said the recognition is important as it will allow the state government to put in place a mechanism to protect the site, much like how George Town was protected due to its Unesco listing.

She stressed that Unesco has never stopped tourism activities within Unesco sites as the human component of spurring economic activities in these sites are also important to maintain the sites.

“Unesco recognises the need for development, we only need to make sure it is sustainable with rules and check and balance,” she said.

She said a second Unesco listing for Penang will not only spur more tourism to the island state but also increase economic activities which will help the local communities.

“Locals will then be proud of our own culture and identity,” she said.

The total area of Penang Hill is approximately 12,481 hectares.
The total area of Penang Hill is approximately 12,481 hectares.

The idea to nominate Penang Hill as a Unesco biosphere reserve was first mooted back in 2016 when the first Bioblitz programme was held at The Habitat together with researchers from Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) on the hill. 

The Habitat Managing Director Allen Tan said the Bioblitz programme was a research programme where 117 scientists from USM and all the world converged at The Habitat for two weeks to collect data on the biodiversity of the hill.

“We first broached the idea in 2016 after the programme and it was immediately picked up by the state and PHC had worked hard to push for it,” he said, adding that USM had also contributed in terms of collecting the biodiversity data needed for the application. 

Now, The Habitat is working closely with PHC to rehabilitate Fernhill, one of the heritage bungalows on the hill, to be turned into a rainforest research centre in preparation for the listing. 

He said Penang Hill can be a hub of biodiversity and rainforest research and the centre can be used by visiting scientists and researchers.

He said if Penang was to get the biosphere reserves recognition, it can create another economic sector for the state.

“It can create an economy centred on scientific research where we can bring scientists and researchers here at their own expenses to conduct tropical rainforest research,” he said.

He said the state can organise more scientific expositions and research programmes to attract scientists from all over the world.

Malaysia only has two Unesco biosphere reserves listed, Tasik Chini which received the recognition in 2009 and Crocker Range in Sabah which received it in 2014.

According to the Unesco site, some of the main characteristics of biosphere reserves include achieving interconnected functions of conservation, development and logistic support, putting in place appropriate zoning schemes, focusing on multi-stakeholder approach with emphasis on involvement of local communities, integrating cultural and biological diversity, demonstrating sound sustainable development practices and policies and acting as sites of excellence for education and training. 

The closing date for submission of the application for listing this year was initially on September 30 but it was extended to the end of the year so results of the application will only be known after middle of next year.

A map of the Penang Hill Biosphere Reserve.
A map of the Penang Hill Biosphere Reserve.

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