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A colonial hill station will be part of Malaysia's third biosphere reserve

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The second UNESCO nomination for Penang has sparked a debate about how to strike a balance between conservation and post-pandemic tourism.


A hiker discovers an odd and fuzzy lump clinging to a tree trunk along a jungle trail on Penang Hill as dusk approaches.

This nocturnal creature, which looks like a cross between a fruit bat and a gigantic squirrel, glides from tree to tree using a membrane that wraps around its body and is one of the many unique – and occasionally rare – species that inhabit the forests of Penang Hill.


Penang's middle wooded area of interconnecting peaks is the island's mostly untapped and underappreciated green lung, which was prepared to welcome more than eight million tourists when the coronavirus outbreak stopped traffic about 18 months ago.

While George Town, the state capital at the foot of Penang Hill and a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2008, has helped Penang establish itself as one of Southeast Asia's most popular cultural destinations, the island's natural beauty and 130-million-year-old forests are less widely recognised.


"The forest on Penang Island is amazing, and it actually hosts a wide variety of species that most people are unaware of, such as the endangered slow loris, gliding squirrels, civet, and mouse deer," said Priscilla Miard of the Malaysian Primatological Society, who was the first to discover and study the Sunda colugos' ultrasound communication on Penang Hill.

Penang Hill, also known as Bukit Bendera (Flag Hill) in Malay, is undoubtedly the most popular of the island's natural attractions.


It was first established as a hill station by the British in 1787 as a way to escape the tropical heat of the island they had colonised. It rises 833 metres above the city.

Because of its natural complexity, UNESCO designated the hill and its surrounding forest as a Biosphere Reserve in September.


The UNESCO designation, which was established in 1971, encourages species and habitat conservation, sustainable development, and long-term study and research in each of the 714 biosphere reserves it protects in 129 nations.

The award elicited both pride and fear for the future, given the probable return of mass tourist in a Malaysian state known for its growth ambitions and hotly contested planned megaprojects.


Edited by ASEAN NOW Content Team
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