Designation of the Penang Hill Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO: a fitting recognition of the unique natural and cultural heritage of Penang Island and its people  

(15 September 2021)

The map of the Penang Hill Biosphere Reserve. The total area of the biosphere is 12,481 hectares with 7,285 hectares inland and 5,196 hectares in marine waters.

The official designation of the Penang Hill Biosphere Reserve by the International Coordinating Council of UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere Programme in Abuja, Nigeria yesterday is certainly a cause for celebration for all of us in Malaysia. With this designation, the Penang Hill Biosphere Reserve, which comprises 12,481 hectares of marine and terrestrial ecosystems in the north-western part of Penang Island will be counted among a distinguished global network of 714 Biosphere Reserves across 129 countries. 

Biosphere Reserves the world over are celebrated for their exceptional biodiversity and distinct social landscapes as well as for their potential to demonstrate innovative ways of living in harmony with nature.  

This designation is a recognition of the rich natural and cultural heritage of Penang Island and an opportunity to be part of the Man and the Biosphere programme which is a unique platform for international collaboration. 

Participants of the BioBlitz 2017, organised by the Habitat Group. 117 researchers from Universiti Sains Malaysia and from around the world gathered to document the biodiversity of Penang Hill and the findings from this BioBlitz was a primary component for our application to be accepted into the UNESCO Man and the Biosphere Programme.

At this time, almost four years ago, together with the state government and Universiti Sains Malaysia, we were preparing for the Penang Hill BioBlitz 2017, a rapid assessment to document the biodiversity of Penang Hill. Our intention was to stimulate interest in nature and emphasise the importance of conserving our living biodiversity heritage. It was also during this time that the idea of establishing a Biosphere Reserve was seeded. We could not be prouder to see this idea blossom into something much larger than our original vision. 

A view of the Penang National Park and The Habitat Penang Hill from atop the Penang Hill Special Area Plan (refer to Map). Seen in the photo is the Langur Way Canopy Walk, the longest double span stressed ribbon bridge in the world and the only one of its kind in a rainforest.

Under the leadership of the Penang Hill Corporation, with the contribution of many State and Federal government agencies involved in the preparation and eventual submission of the nomination dossier, the Penang Hill Biosphere Reserve now features not only the timeless forests of Penang Hill but also encompasses the State’s Forest Reserves, the historic Penang Botanical Gardens, Penang National Park, and coastal and marine ecosystems in an unbroken link from the hill to the sea. 

Together with the communities that live alongside these areas, the Biosphere Reserve truly represents the best of us, and sets forth a challenge to all of us to steward it well.

Enjoy the breath-taking views of The Penang Hill Biosphere Reserve from atop the Curtis Crest Tree Top Walk, the highest publicly accessible viewing platform in Penang, set within The Habitat Penang Hill.

On behalf of all of us from The Habitat Penang Hill and The Habitat Foundation, my family and I would like to extend our sincere appreciation and congratulations to the Chief Minister of Penang, the Penang Hill Corporation and the Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources on this momentous occasion. It has been a pleasure and a privilege to work with you all on this historic initiative and to have supported it from conception to the happy announcement today. 

The UNESCO designation today is confirmation that all our joint efforts have been well-invested and we are optimistic that with the history of close collaboration among all key agencies, it will signal the beginning of an exciting and meaningful journey towards our common vision. 

The Geosesarma faustum or more affectionally referred to as the Vampire Crab is a newly discovered species in the Penang Hill Biosphere Reserve (2017).

Going forward, The Habitat Group remains committed to showcasing nature on Penang Hill and realising the potential Penang Island has to become an important global centre for tropical research and conservation, environmental education, and best practice in sustainable natural resource management at a time in our planet’s history where the healing power of nature, and environmental leadership have never been more important. 

Dato’ Harry A. Cockrell, Co-Founder & Chairman of The Habitat Group
A. Reza Cockrell, Co-Founder & Executive Director of The Habitat Group

About The UNESCO Biosphere and Man Programme

The MAB programme is an intergovernmental scientific programme that aims to establish a scientific basis for enhancing the relationship between people and their environments. It combines the natural and social sciences with a view to improving human livelihoods and safeguarding natural and managed ecosystems, thus promoting innovative approaches to economic development that are socially and culturally appropriate and environmentally sustainable.

What is a Biosphere Reserve

Biosphere reserves are ‘learning places for sustainable development’. They are sites for testing interdisciplinary approaches to understanding and managing changes and interactions between social and ecological systems, including conflict prevention and management of biodiversity. They are places that provide local solutions to global challenges. Biosphere reserves include terrestrial, marine and coastal ecosystems. Each site promotes solutions reconciling the conservation of biodiversity with its sustainable use.

In October 2017, The Habitat, with the Penang Hill Corporation (PHC) organized a BioBlitz involving 117 scientists and students who conducted a study of the biodiversity of flora and fauna on Penang Hill. Partners included Universiti Sains Malaysia’s School of Biological Sciences, Penang Forestry Department, Department of Wildlife and National Parks the California Academy of Sciences and other local and international institutions including the Malaysian Nature Society and WWF Hong Kong. Significantly, the BioBlitz also involved the participation of 75 high school students from Malaysia and the U.S. who took part in a series of facilitated field expeditions which were recorded and broadcast live online through the STEM Education platform Jason Learning bringing the expedition to an even wider audience.

View profiles of the scientists & researchers supported by The Habitat Foundation to participate in the Penang Hill Bioblitz 2017 here.

The surveys really opened people’s eyes to the astounding breadth of diversity right at our doorstep! The species records from the BioBlitz even included several species that may be potentially new to science. Work is now underway to establish the Penang Hill Rainforest Research Centre which will strengthen Penang’s capacity to host scientists and researchers studying biodiversity and rainforest ecology.

Download a copy of THE BIODIVERSITY OF PENANG HILL: Findings of the Penang Hill BioBlitz 2017.