Penang Hill was designated as a Unesco Biosphere Reserve in September 2021, the result of years of concerted effort spearheaded by The Habitat Penang Hill and The Habitat Foundation.
Penang is known for many things, but not much is known about the island’s rich natural biodiversity. This may change especially since the International Coordinating Council (ICC) of Unesco’s Man and the Biosphere Programme formally inducted the Penang Hill Biosphere Reserve into the World Network of Biosphere Reserves. With this listing, the Penang Hill Biosphere Reserve joins a distinguished global network of 714 Biosphere Reserves in 129 countries including 21 transboundary sites.
The Habitat Penang Hill, an environmental discovery centre that opened in January 2016, and its NGO arm The Habitat Foundation were key in spearheading this historic initiative. A key figure behind this is Reza A. Cockrell, co-founder of both organisations, and director and chairman respectively. Cockrell and his family recognised how special it was to have Penang Hill‘s virgin primary rainforest so close to major human habitation. They were the first to introduce the idea of a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve under UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere (MAB) Programme for Penang at a symposium called The Launch: Canopy Science and Forest Conservation in Penang in October 2016.
The Penang Hill Corporation (PHC) was then appointed by the Penang State Government to represent the state in the preparation of the dossier for submission to Unesco. The Penang Hill BioBlitz, a complete forest floor to forest tree-top survey of the biodiversity of the rainforest on Penang Hill, was implemented over a period of two weeks in October 2017. Then, 117 scientists and bio-sciences students from USM, the California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco as well as Singapore, Brunei and Hong Kong recorded more than 2,500 species of flora and fauna including species believed to be new to science. That BioBlitz confirmed that Penang Island’s forests were indeed rich in biodiversity and the findings formed the baseline science that was included in the dossier for submission to Unesco for the UBR nomination.
This designation confirms Penang Hill‘s rich biodiversity and simply reaffirms that the island’s pristine natural heritage and cultural landscapes are truly world-class and should be protected and celebrated. The Unesco listing means that Penang has the opportunity to lead the way, at least in Peninsular Malaysia, to demonstrate that tangible socio-economic benefits can arise from protecting, valuing and celebrating nature rather than just exploiting it.
Penang and Malaysia as a whole, being one of a handful of mega diverse countries in the world, with amazing and bountiful biodiversity assets, have a bright future as far as ecotourism is concerned. In Penang, the Unesco MAB platform will give access to a global network of 714 Biosphere Reserves. Coupled with the already existing Unesco World Heritage Site status for George Town, Penang will be able to promote its rich heritage, culture and now, its rich natural heritage and biodiversity on the world stage.