Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Kuala Lumpur's Urban Rainforests

The tranquility of a rainforest as epitomised here in the Sungai Kanching Waterfall, Bukit Lagong Forest Reserve north of Kuala Lumpur.

Imagine stepping into the shadows of a thick green forest canopy, feeling the cool, damp air as it flows into your lungs and tuning in to the rhythms of the forest: the chirping of birds, the hisses of insects, the fluttering of wind-caressed leaves; And yes, the barely audible humming and honking from the traffic in distant roads. A faint reminder of us still within the urban zone. Welcome to Kuala Lumpur- minus the city!

Soft, warm beams of rays shines upon Bukit Kiara's secondary forests at sunset.

It is hard to imagine that the Malaysian capital, despite facing the onslaught of large scale crop estates, extensive mining operations and of course, the continuing urban sprawl, still has some rainforest tracts in its vicinity. These remaining green lungs of the metropolitan region have been of great aesthetic and scientific values in recent years. The exponentially growing support of many KL urbanites in retaining these valuable assets is a testimony to their importance. What is more surprising is to consider that just decades ago, these same people used to think of the rainforests as nothing more than a bane to the city, an obstacle that must be removed in the pursuit of modernisation. So what made KL's forests such an enviable feature of the city for the people?

 Some of the wildlife typical of KL's secondary forests include the native long tailed macaques (Macaca fascicularis) and introduced species such as the Eurasian Tree Sparrow ( Passer montanus) and Rock Pigeon (Columba livia) as seen here in Bukit Kiara.

Perhaps, it is because of the fact that they are located in one of the world's biodiversity hotspot and the sad irony of their imminent destruction by nondiscriminatory urban sprawl. Or is it because of the increasing appreciation brought by visiting foreigners? After all, it is no surprise to find that many KL visitors often quoted the uniqueness of this modern capital juxtaposed with evergreen hills of tropical rainforests. Or probably KL urbanites have come to terms with the importance of sustainable development which cares for the present and future generation economically, environmentally and socially?

A view of the majestic Bukit Tabur Quartz Ridge in Selangor State Park.

Either way, one thing is for sure: With "infrastructural development" high on the agenda of city planners and the die-hard old-school thinking of "environmental blitz" in the name of progress, these precious tracts of remnant forests are at the mercy of bulldozers and chainsaws. To add salt to the wound, urban sprawl has since spilled beyond the city's boundaries into the surroundings, resulting in a continuous tract of build-up area dotted with remnants of secondary rainforests and abandoned plantations.

Thus, it would be best for us to reflect on what is at stake in each of Kuala Lumpur's last bastions of tropical biodiversity:

Bukit Nanas Forest Reserve
Probably the only natural tropical rainforest in the heart of the city (literally!), this tiny 0.11 kilometres square (11 hectare) patch of vegetation holds a surprising number of large trees and some common forest wildlife including macaques and some forest birds. Fortunately, everlasting interest expressed by past city planners as well as today's tourists and locals have made it into an economic asset worthy for protection and thus, gazetted as a Forest Reserve in 1909. This forest might also be of great scientific value as it provides a perfect field for studying the effects of urbanisation around an isolated  patch of tropical rainforest.

Bukit Tunku-Taman Tasik Perdana-Bukit Persekutuan
The region bounded by this three hill areas has plenty of old secondary forest that are very photogenic and unique to Kuala Lumpur. It is the only area in the city centre where rainforest vegetation fringe the highways and is aesthetically pleasing to the passerby and local residents too. Hence, the highly sought-after residences within the area and is probably one of the factors that explains why there has not been plans to clear the forests for high density development to date. Although fragmented in nature, these forests have served as the only available habitat for native wildlife for miles in the metropolitan area. The headquarters of the Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) is located here and has an educational forest trail for visitors to experience the highly accessible rainforest.

Gombak Region Forested Hills
Hills such as these are often left forested as their steep slopes are deemed unfit for urban development. Although some of them are orchards or rubber estates many years ago, continuous succession of the forest structure has made them indistinguishable from old secondary or even primary rainforests. Recent reports have shown that they are important stopover points for migrating bird life and this has attracted many birdwatchers to the hill peaks especially during months of northern hemispheric autumn (mid September to November) and spring (mid February to April). Unfortunately, at the same time, proposals to destroy the forest for high density residential development have emerged, enraging growing circles of local residents in support of the hills' protection. Here is the official webpage of the petition to save one of the hills, Bukit Melawati: http://www.savetamanmelawatihill.com/home.html

Batu Caves
Literally an ecological island in a sea of buildings, this is the only limestone outcrop that is surrounded by the city. It is one of the important assets of KL covering cultural values (it being the location of the famous Batu Caves Sri Mahamariamman Hindu Temple), recreational values (Batu Caves is the prime location for rock climbing, caving and other speleological activities in Kuala Lumpur) and scientific values (with a dozen endemic species of flora and fauna including snails and cave insects as well as the rare Kambing Gurun or the Sumatran Serow, Capricornis sumatraensis. The geological massif is threatened by limestone quarries and pollution effects due to its proximity to build-up areas.

Bukit Lagong Forest Reserve and Kanching Forest Reserve 
This large tract of semi-continuous low altitude hill forests contains two of the three limestone outcrops of Klang Valley, Bukit Takun and Anak Bukit Takun (the other being Batu Caves), and has potential of harbouring many endemic species as is the case for most karstic formations. Nearby, a multi-tiered waterfall in the Kanching Forest Reserve receives high visiting numbers by locals and foreigners alike while Bukit Lagong is home to the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia (FRIM). Some endemic species found so far includes the reintroduced endangered plant Begonia aequilateralis in FRIM, diterocarp tree Hopea subalata in Kanching Forest Reserve and Lipthistius batuensis in Gunung Anak Takun.


Sungai Buloh Forest Reserve (currently RRIM and Kota Damansara Community Forest),
Bukit Lanjan and Bukit Kiara (from left to right)
Sungai Buloh Forest Reserve, being established in 1898, is the oldest forest reserve in Malaysia. Unfortunately, much of the 16.18 km square (1618 hectares) of rainforests have dwindled to a mere 3.47 km squares (347 hectares). The large block of greenery on the left of this image is a monoculture of para rubber trees operated by the Rubber Research Institute of Malaysia (RRIM) and thus, not really of significant biodiversity importance. The sole remnant secondary forest is Kota Damansara Community Forest on the centre-left of this picture. This is piece of forest is the focal point of forest stewardship in the city. For the past decade, residents of this region have formed committees and societies to garner support for the protection of the remaining secondary forest. The gazetting of Kota Damansara's forest as a community-managed forest conservation and education park as well as its endorsement by international agency- Global Environment Facility (GEF), is the hallmark of success in the Malaysian public's awareness of the country's biodiversity importance. Here's Kota Damansara Community Forest' official website: (http://kd.communityforest.net/)

Bukit Lanjan
An indigenous reserve, it is among the few remaining wildlife refuge in the northern Petaling district. It has an economic potential to be developed as an educational and research field by the indigenous (mostly Temuan tribe) residents to attract locals and tourists and guarantee a steady flow of income and social benefits to these  low-income communities. Sadly, the forest are threatened by hill slope development as lowlands have already been occupied by buildings.

Bukit Kiara
Bukit Kiara, meanwhile, has been enjoying very high visitor numbers by local and expatriate residents on a daily basis for its well-developed forest park concept and facilities provision. It is also a well-known venue for mountain biking too, as reflected by the many regional and national biking competitions held within the park's forest trails. In terms of forest structure, it is a rubber estate-turned-secondary forest. Surprisingly, it still holds many native flora and even a resident troop of long-tailed macaques (Macaca fascicularis). Unfortunately, the entire park is set to be cleared for landscape and development into an artificailly constructed large garden park (http://www.bu6wawasan.com.my/content/view/592/1/);
 while the southern portion of the hill has been cleared to make way for a golf course.

Rimba Ilmu, Univerity Malaya
This is geographically a southern extension of Bukit Kiara. It is within the grounds of University Malaya and is an educational forest set up for public use and university research purposes, thus safely protected from any urban development so far. It also houses the university's herbarium which contains 1600 species of tropical flora. It is popular among locals and tourists who wanted to get a quick glimpse of the rainforest and its floral wealth. Here's the website of Rimba Ilmu: (http://rimba.um.edu.my/)

Bukit Gasing
Another green lung that has captured the interest and enthusiasm of the local population, this regenerating secondary forest serves not just as a wildlife refuge but also a recreational area that has experienced increased popularity beyond the surrounding communities and even among foreigners. As in the case of its northern neighbours, Bukit Kiara and Bukit Lanjan, this cherished piece of greenery is disappearing fast due to development of apartments on its eastern portion (which is under Kuala Lumpur's jurisdiction). The only hope left is the western portion of the hill which is declared a protected educational forest for the community by the state government of Selangor. This blog features the environmentalism movement of the Bukit Gasing Community: (http://savebukitgasing.wordpress.com/)

Ayer Hitam Forest Reserve
Yet another forest that faces the same scenario as those above, Ayer Hitam is unique in its crucial role for forest-based research conducted by the nearby Univerity Putra Malaysia. It is also one of the largest remaining forest completely surrounded by urban functions, thus it houses a great deal of wildlife and plantlife representative of the Klang Valley's extremely rare lowland forests. Furthermore, a study has indicated that there is 33 endemic and 30 new records out of 319 species of trees surveyed in just a 5 hectares plot. Mammals that are reported to inhabit this 12.48 km square (1248 hectares) rainforest includes rats, squirrels, rarely seen moonrats (Echinosorex gymnurus) and the charismatic Slow Loris (Nycticedus coucang). The Orang Asli (Indigeneous people) of the Temuan tribe frequents the forest for its natural products while local residents often conduct hiking trips there as well. The biggest threat facing this forest is the rapid deforestation for residential zone expansion although it is unlikely that the entire forest will be destroyed anytime soon as the forest has been leased to the univeristy for the next 64 years.

Saujana Utama-Bukit Cahaya, Shah Alam
These forests are important water-shed areas but seemed to have experienced extensive urban and agricultural developments in recent years that are encroaching towards the reservoirs within the forests. This is particularly pronounced in the southern portion belonging to Bukit Cahaya and the north-eastern portion. Ironically, Bukit Cahaya is home to the Malaysian Agricultural Park and has parts of it featuring the forest itself. However, there is only a small pool of local residents who voiced out their concerns and enthusiasm about the forest, rendering it harder to conserve the region's shrinking forests.

Cheras Region Forested Hills
The Cheras geography is characterised by majestic green hills and a large, unbroken chain of forested
mountains in its backdrop. This area has been, like most other rainforests in KL, the weekend haunts of many local residents. Hills such as Bukit Permai and Bukit Putih (Apek Hill) features several very popular waterfalls and trekking trails and has attracted hoards of people from all across Kuala Lumpur. However, foreign tourists have not frequented the area to date. Although no research has been conducted in its forest so far, it definitely holds some mammalian megafauna such as wild boars and macaques as anecdotal and photographic evidence have provided for years. Again, the disregard of local residents as important stakeholders when developing the hills have resulted in conflict and concerns for the safety of the hill slopes.

Ampang Region Forested Hills
Another region of similar geography as Cheras, this area also features some waterfalls and are as popular as those in Cheras. But the most important feature of this part of the city is the frequent occurence of landslides ranging from minor to fatal. Perhaps the two most well known are the Bukit Antarabangsa 1999 landslide and the Taman Bukit Mewah landslide.
(Link to a satellite picture comparison of the landslide of 2008: http://www.crisp.nus.edu.sg/coverages/landslide20081206/index.html)
They are grim reminders of the disasters caused by inconsiderate development on geologically unstable hills.

Central section of Selangor State Park. Note the linear Bukit Tabur Quartz Ridge and the Klang Gates Reservoir visible at the bottom left corner of this image.
Selangor State Park
One of the most distinctive feature that dominates the landscape of eastern Kuala Lumpur, The Bukit Tabur Quartz Ridge is located within this new state park. This ridge is made entirely of quartz crystals and is said to be the longest of its kind in the world. Hence, efforts have been made to include it as a UNESCO World Heritage Zone. Along with the intact forests that dominates behind the ridge, forming the catchment area of the Klang Gates Reservoir, this park serves as the source of KL's drinking water and is home to many rare and endemic flora especially along the ridge. Given its proximity from the capital, effort has been taken to attract tourists. It is currently a favourite weekend haunt for locals particularly along the Quartz Ridge and the various waterfalls. Sadly, there is a danger that parts of the ridge may collapse as hill cutting and deforestation on its slopes continues unabated. Moreover, ad hoc plans to destroy parts of the ridge to make way for roads and buildings often surfaces to the anger of the public. Here is the link to their official blog: (http://selangorstatepark.blogspot.com/)

The above list of forest are but the tip of an iceberg of significant areas worthy of preservation in KL and its surroundings. There are many more smaller but equally interesting tracts of forest remnants scattered across the city. All these forests faces the same issue of encroachment and destruction and ought to be saved in view of its economic, social and even political benefits that could be gained from such a move.

The rare and relatively unknown ground dwelling plant, Thismia sp.,  is usually described as habitat specific and sensitive to disturbance, hence only found in primary rainforests. However, the surprising discovery of it living in the Bukit Lagong Forest Reserve have shown that Kuala Lumpur's rainforests, however small and isolated, are important reserves for tropical species including rare and endemic ones.

Already, modern cities across the world are setting aside and creating tracts of important habitats as wildlife refuges and for recreational and educational purposes. Some examples include  Australia's Adelaide's Urban Forest Programme, Brazil's Sao Paulo City Greebelt Biosphere Reserve and Canada's Ottawa Greenbelt. (Check out this link for more information: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Green_belt) It is almost an unstated rule of thumb that cities should integrate with its environment and not the other way around.

Of course, this must also be accompanied by responsibly planned urban development that seeks to control urban sprawl if the forest were to remain untouched by developers. 

Malaysia and it's capital's economy are largely build upon by the natural bounty of the land. Kuala Lumpur will not be as modern and developed as in the vision and hopes of the Malaysian people if little or no acknowlegment of the importance of biodiversity is given in the form of the provision of wildlife refugia. 

"I would feel more optimistic about a bright future for man if he spent less time proving that he can outwit Nature and more time tasting her sweetness and respecting her seniority." 
~Elwyn Brooks White, Essays of E.B. White, 1977.

Some Further Reading:
1. Mak K.W., 2004. A River Gone to Waste, The Star Metro, 14 September 2004. (http://www.gecnet.info/newsmaster.cfm?&menuid=6&action=view&retrieveid=74)

2.Tsai L.M., Nazim Yaacob T. M., Jeyaraj K., 2000. Importance of Ayer Hitam Forest Reserve in Klang Valley and the Multimedia Super Corridor, Pertanika J. Trap. Agric. Sci. 23(1): 57 - 61 (2000) (http://psasir.upm.edu.my/3301/1/Importance_of_Ayer_Hitam_Forest_Reserve_in_the_Klang_Valley_and_the.pdf)

3. Abd. Ghani A. N., Bawon. P., Hj. Othman M. S., S. Mohamed R. M., Faridah Hanum I., Zakaria Husin M., 1999. Direct Uses of Ayer Hitam Forest Reserve, Puchong, Selangor. Pertanika J. Trap. Agric. Sci. 22(2): 203 - 206 (1999) (http://psasir.upm.edu.my/3749/1/Direct_Uses_of_Ayer_Hitam_Forest_Reserve,_Puchong,_Selangor.pdf)

4. Jusoff K., 2010.  Individual Species Crown Mapping in Taman Rimba Ilmu, University Malaya
Using Airborne Hyperspectral Imaging. American Journal of Applied Sciences 7 (4): 493-499, 2010 (http://www.scipub.org/fulltext/ajas/ajas74493-499.pdf)

5. Faridah Hanum I., Philip L., Awang Noor A.G., 2008. Sampling Species Diversity In a Malaysian Rainforest: The Case of a Logged-over Forest. Pak. J. Bot., 40(4): 1729-1733, 2008. (http://www.pakbs.org/pjbot/PDFs/40(4)/PJB40(4)1729.pdf)

6. Zakaria M., Silang S., Mudin R., 2001. Species Composition of Small Mammals at the Ayer Hitam
Forest Reserve, Puchong, Selangor. Pertanika J. Trap. Agric. Sci. 24(1): 19 - 22 (2001) (http://psasir.upm.edu.my/3365/1/Species_Composition_of_Small_Mammals_at_the_Ayer_Hitam.pdf)

7. Khalid S., 2008. Efforts Being Made to Preserve Bukit Persekutuan. The Star Metro, 28 January 2008. (http://thestar.com.my/news/story.asp?file=/2008/1/28/central/20116510&sec=central)

8. Loh D., 2003. Developer Rapes Cheras Forest Reserve. The New Straits Times, 23 June 2003. (http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1P1-82801150.html)

9. Adams L.W., 2005. Urban Wildlife Ecology and Conservation: A Brief History of the Discipline. Urban Ecosystems, 8:139-156, 2005. (http://www.springerlink.com/content/f91665g2l22h3rl7/

10.Radzi Abas M., Ahmad-Shah A., Nor Awang M., 1992. Fluxes of Ions in Precipitation, Throughfall and Streamflow in an Urban Forest in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Environmental Pollution,Vol. 75, Iss. 2., p209-213, 1992.