Conserving our planet's botanical resources and ecosystems

Penang Hill

Site Description: Penang Hill

by Nadine Ruppert 17.07.2017 & Allen Tan 07.08.2017

Penang Hill (N05.407865; E100.277659) is situated on Penang Island (in the state of Pulau Pinang / Penang, Malaysia) on the West coast of the Northern Peninsular Malaysia. It is situated about 6 km west of Penang’s capital city, George Town.

There is no one hill known as Penang Hill and what is known as Penang Hill is actually made up of a range of hills. Consisting of granitic mass, most of the peaks of Penang Hill are higher than 700 metres. Its main peaks include Laksamana Hill, Tiger Hill, Government Hill, Flagstaff Hill, Government Hill and the highest peak, Western Hill at 833 metres above sea level (Gardner 2011). Penang Hill is also known by its Bahasa Malaysia / Malay name Bukit Bendera, which actually refers to Flagstaff Hill, the most developed peak.

Being habitat to a 130-year old virgin rainforest (Bukit Kerajaan / Government Hill Permanent Forest Reserve), the vegetation type of Penang Hill is hill dipterocarp forest with submontane oak-laurel, coniferous trees and tree ferns at higher altitudes (Gardner 2011). Annual average temperatures range between 20°C and 27°C with a mean minimum temperature of 21°C (Go 2011). It is generally 5 degrees cooler than George Town. A number of small rivers and streams originate from Penang Hill. Sungai Pinang (Malay for Penang River) is the largest of the rivers, and it starts from a number of tributaries in the area.

Penang Hill has a long history of naturalistic studies. In 1786, Penang Island became the first British acquisition on the Malay Peninsula and for over a century, Penang Hill served as a retreat where colonialists could escape the hot, humid, coastal lowlands. A number of early naturalists (i.e. Cantor 1847; Flower 1896, 1899; Stoliczka 1870, 1873) collected amphibians and reptiles. Notable among these are the skinks Eutropis novemcarinata, Lygosoma albopunctatum, and Sphenomorphus anomalopus (Grismer et al. 2011). Foreign botanists also collected plant specimens from Penang Hill and sent them back to their respective countries as herbarium specimens and living collections. They helped identify many local plant species and introduced plants from elsewhere for commercial purposes (Burkill 1966). It is an area rich in biodiversity with a considerable number of endemic and endangered species, including the parasitic plant Exorhopalia ruficeps, the Penang slipper orchid Paphiopedilum barbatum and the witch hazel Maingaya malayana. The significance of Penang Hill for naturalistic studies is also reflecetd in the names of many organisms that are named after Penang, such as the moth Phyllonorycter penangensi, the toad Ansonia penangensis, the frangipani vine Chenomporpha penangensis, the fern Pronephrium penangianum, the orchid Ania penangiana, or the timber tree Alstonia penangiana, only to name a few.

Penang Hill has the oldest British hill station in Southeast Asia, dating back to the late 1700’s. There are also a total of 52 bungalows located on Penang Hill and most of them are more than 100 years old with the oldest built in1789. The current fourth generation of the Penang Hill Railway funicular train service, which is the main means by which people access the summit, began operation in 2011. The first Penang Hill train service started in October 1923, almost a hundred years ago. In 2016, Penang Hill Corporation (PHC), the Penang State Government agency which operates the train, recorded over 1.6million visitors to the Hill using just the funicular train service with numbers expected to continue growing year to year by between 3-4% which has been the trend since 2011.

Needless to say, this proximity to a major population base (the population of Penang is estimated to be around 1.6million as of 2016) and the relatively ease with which people can access the Hill since the new train service started in 2011, has put tremendous pressure on its natural environs. In an effort to ensure that the natural heritage of Penang Hill is not forgotten and indeed to help ensure that it is protected for the future, the Cockrell Family, long time residents of the Hill and lovers of its natural beauty and heritage, embarked on the development of The Habitat Penang Hill (www.thehabitat.my) in early 2013. Some three-plus years later they have managed to realise their vision of turning Penang Hill into a world-class eco-tourism destination with a focus on conserving biodiversity through education, research and sustainable eco-tourism. Their core-mission, is to reconnect people with nature and to educate as many people as possible, particularly students and children, about the value of conserving nature for the benefit of our common and shared future.

A key pillar of The Habitat’s mission is to promote scientific research with a focus on Penang Hill and with the long term goal of turning the Hill into a centre of excellence for rainforest research, the prevention of habitat loss and general environmental research. To this end, the Cockrell Family, through The Habitat and also through their future foundation, The Habitat Foundation, is working with the Penang State Government through PHC and Universiti Sains Malaysia Penang to list Penang Hill as part of a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve under UNESCO’s Man and Biosphere Program. Much of the data collected through the Penang Hill BioBlitz in October 2017 will be utilised as part of a dossier on the biodiversity of Penang Hill to be submitted to support the application to UNESCO for the listing. Going forward, The Habitat and The Habitat Foundation will work with PHC to develop a Rainforest Research Centre on Penang Hill to further the goal of promoting rainforest research activities on the Hill.

References
Burkill IH (1966) Botanical collectors and collections and collecting places in the Malay Peninsula. Folia Malaysiana 3:79–152.
Gardner S, Sidisunthorn P & May LE (2011) Heritage Trees of Penang. Penang: Areca Books, ISBN 978-967-5719-06-6.
Go R et al. (2011) Biodiversity and Conservation 20: 2263. doi:10.1007/s10531-011-0087-z.
Grismer LL et al. (2011) Peninsular Malaysia’s first limbless lizard: a new species of skink of the genus Larutia (Böhme) from Pulau Pinang with a phylogeny of the genus. Zootaxa 2799: 29-40.
http://www.penanghill.gov.my/index.php/en/
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Penang_Hill