Penang: An unexpected biodiversity destination

Mention that you are heading to Penang and you are inevitably met with the same question:

“Penang? Like the curry?”

You are forced to face the collective ignorance of your community when you realize that you, your friends, your family, and the guy who talked you into taking a middle seat on a transcontinental flight only know your destination from the menus of pan-Asian restaurants back home.

Those familiar with Southeast Asia do tend to know Penang as a food destination, though it has garnered this reputation due to the vast diversity of offerings (take a look here for a small sampling of the options), not from a single dish.

Beyond its food scene the island is also known for its rich history during the spice trade and colonial era – both of which led to the designation of its largest city, George Town, as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008.

What you will probably not hear about when it comes to Penang is the forests – quite the contrary, in fact. When I told some of the researchers I’d met in Sabah (one of the two Malaysian states on the island of Borneo) that I was heading Penang for a conference to discuss biodiversity and forest conservation, they seemed confused. With almost disappointed skepticism, one responded, “Why go? So small. Nothing there.”

Mist settling after the rain in the Dipterocarp forests of Penang Hill.
Mist settling after the rain in the Dipterocarp forest on Penang Hill, the highest point on the island.

When the reputation of a place is based on certain things – food or history, for example – it can be easy to discount the other available offerings. This effect is compounded when the features you seek to highlight are better known elsewhere.

Penang is indeed small – at 113 square miles (293 km2) it’s about twice the size of Staten Island, if that offers you any point of reference. The area capable of being protected is of course much smaller, especially when compared to the forested lands of Malaysian Borneo. Sabah, for example, is 28,000 square miles (72,500 km2 – if geography of New York boroughs doesn’t work for you, that’s just a touch larger than Ireland) and is currently exceeding its goal of having half the state forested. When compared to this, the area in Penang available for conservation can seem negligible.

However, at a time when we are losing tropical forests at a faster pace than ever before, we’re not exactly in a position to overlook any amount of undeveloped, forested land. Focusing conservation only on the idolized remote and pristine habitats is becoming increasingly unrealistic, and it also undermines the need for spaces in or adjacent to urban centers.

These were some of the many issues brought up at the 1st Symposium on the Study of Biodiversity at Penang Hill. The theme for this symposium was Canopy Science and Forest Conservation, so I joined a small group of canopy researchers presenting their work from forest canopies all over the world, as well as local scientists and stakeholders highlighting ongoing and upcoming projects.

Kevin McLean Symposium on Biodiversity Penang Hill
Giving my presentation in one of two mildly presentable shirts that I packed. Photo courtesy of Steve Pearce of The Tree Project.

Representatives from The Habitat, a new environmental discovery center at the top of Penang Hill, spoke about the new features they will be unveiling soon. As the highest point on the island, Penang Hill provides views of both the city and the forest, and the canopy walkway and zip lines planned will bring visitors right into the treetops. We also got a sneak peak of the new circular treetop platform, which provides a 360-degree view of the surrounding forests.

The Tree Top Walk at The Habitat on Penang Hill. An interesting vantage point to view the forest landscape, birdwatch, and spot other canopy wildlife.
The Tree Top Walk at The Habitat on Penang Hill provides a vantage point to see the forest landscape, birdwatch, and spot other canopy wildlife.

A team from the Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) presented a proposal currently in preparation to for a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in Penang, which they hope will help build public interest in conservation. The World Heritage Site designation for George Town raised the profile of the Penang as a center of cultural significance, and the team behind the Biosphere Reserve proposal believes it will do the same for natural lands.

Me trying to hang with the other scientist/photographers – I may need a bigger lens.
Me trying to hang with the other scientist/photographers – I may need a bigger lens.

A critical part of establishing any protected area is conducting a biodiversity survey – in order to protect resources, you have to know what you have. Shockingly a survey like this has not been done before in Penang. The USM team guided a discussion amongst the presenters, public officials, and private stakeholders on the strategic planning of this survey.

In the spirit of kicking things off, just after the Symposium I set up a few cameras in the trees at The Habitat. A few weeks later I returned to collect the cameras, which offered a preliminary glance at the canopy mammal community.

The staff at The Habitat received tree climbing training, which came in handy when I needed some extra help in the trees.]
The staff at The Habitat received tree climbing training, which came in handy when I needed some extra help in the trees.

I spent a day collecting the cameras (see gallery below) before catching a morning flight back to Sabah. This made for a short night as spent the evening scrolling through all the camera trap photos instead of going to bed. At 5am my Uber driver was less-than-pleased to find out that I wanted to go all the way to the airport (which is admittedly a bit out of the way – but where else do people go that early on a Sunday?).

After a few minutes of uncomfortable silence, he asked me what I was doing in Penang. When I told him I had been there to survey some of the wildlife he scoffed and said, “Wildlife? No wildlife here. You have to go to Sabah.”

I of course started prattling on about all the different species of mammals, birds, insects, and amphibians that you can find on the island, not to mention all the different trees and orchids you can find in the forests. In an act of poor judgment on my part I encouraged him to crane his neck away from the road and toward my phone to see some of the images I’d collected.

It was early – too early for any level of enthusiasm, certainly not the amount I was expressing. His response, the last words he decided to speak to me, was short:

“Oh. I didn’t know. Never seen them here.”

And really, that’s sort of the point.

A Dusky Leaf Monkey showing its teeth to the camera. What looks like a grin is actually a threat display.

Changing Planet

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Kevin McLean is an ecologist studying wildlife in tropical forest canopies using motion-sensitive cameras (camera traps). As a Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellow he will travel to Malaysian Borneo and the Ecuadorian Amazon to survey canopy wildlife in two of the most biodiverse areas of the world. As he collects his scientific data, he will use writing, photos, and videos to provide a view of some of the least-known species in the forest. His research and stories will be made available to the public through a museum exhibit that will highlight canopy wildlife and the conservation threats they face. Kevin studied Earth Systems at Stanford University and recently completed his PhD in Ecology and Biodiversity Conservation at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.