5 February 2023

The Rimba Project Story

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Conserving the green lungs of Klang Valley at Universiti Malaya

As the World’s populations grow, there is a need to expand our settlements to make space for everything we need: farms to grow our food, houses to shelter us from the elements and office buildings for us to work at. But, as result of this nigh-unending expansion, natural habitats are being destroyed, removing the homes of many different species and decimating entire ecosystems. And yet, even within our urban confines, there still exist pockets of nature, islands of green within a sea of grey. These pockets serve as reminder to us all, that we are all equally responsible for protecting nature as we are for destroying it. Here in Kuala Lumpur, Universiti Malaya (UM) has one such urban green spot – Rimba Ilmu (RI), Malay for “Forest of Knowledge”, a 60-hectare tropical botanical garden and National Heritage Site founded in 1974 that serves as the focal point of The Rimba Project. The Rimba Project is an initiative that primarily works on matters pertaining to biodiversity conservation and nature awareness.

Biodiversity policies and their stakeholders

Biodiversity is a critical part of maintaining our planet’s health, making biodiversity loss a major threat to everything on Earth. However, biodiversity loss is a rather complex issue with no simple solutions. Therefore, in order to understand The Rimba Project and what it does, we first need to understand biodiversity policies and the stakeholders involved in such.

Biodiversity policies are made with a simple idea in mind: to promote the protection, conservation and sustainable use of biologically diverse ecosystems and habitats, granting many benefits to the public, sectors and social wellbeing in the process.

Malaysia’s National Policy on Biological Diversity is one example. The first version of the policy was formulated in 1998. Since then, Malaysia’s population had grown exponentially and its transition into a developed, high-income nation has exerted more pressure onto its biodiversity. In light of this, the policy was revised for the 2016–2025 period to provide the direction and framework needed to conserve our biodiversity. This new policy follows five principles: Heritage (biological diversity is a national heritage that must sustainably managed, wisely utilised and conserved for future generations); Precautionary (the lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason to postpone measures to minimise biodiversity loss); Shared Responsibility (all sectors of society share responsibility for conserving and sustainably using our biodiversity); Participatory (planning and management of biodiversity must be carried out in a participatory manner) and Good Governance (good governance, including accountability and transparency, is crucial to biodiversity conservation).

The EU Biodiversity Strategy is based on two main pieces of legislation: The Bird Directive – which aims to protect all of the 500 wild bird species that occur naturally in the EU’s member countries) and; The Habitats Directive – which ensures the protection and conservation of a wide range of rare, threatened or endemic animal and plant species as well as some 200 rare and characteristic habitat types. The most recent version of the strategy follows the action plan set forward by the European Green Deal, aiming to cut down pollution, restore biodiversity and become climate neutral by 2050.

India’s first incarnation of its biodiversity policy was the “National Policy and Macro Level Action Strategy on Biodiversity” formulated in 1999. The Strategy was revised into the NBAP in 2008 to bring the biodiversity agenda with the National Environment Policy (NEP), 2006. This second generation of the policy was further updated with an Addendum 2014 in order to integrate the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity (SPB) 2011–20. Twelve National Biodiversity Targets (NBTs) were developed to be in line with SPB’s 20 Aichi Biodiversity Targets (ABTs) as well as the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These NBTs include raising knowledge and awareness of conservation, conservation of genetic diversity, sustainable management of agriculture, forestry and fisheries, protection of traditional knowledge, controlling invasive species and so on.

The National Policy on Biological Diversity lists several different stakeholders who will greatly benefit from biodiversity conservation and management and likewise suffer from biodiversity loss and degradation. Among them include fisheries (mangrove swamps provide habitats for several of our important commercial fishes and shrimps), the agriculture sector (many species of insects, birds and bats are pollinators and dispersal agents of fruits and other crops), the forestry sector (Malaysia’s forests provide timber and other products such as rattan and agarwood for domestic use and for trade) and the tourism industry (Malaysia’s tourism industry has successfully transform the country as a major ecotourism destination and thus, depends on the preservation of its outstanding biodiversity and scenic natural environments).

What is the Rimba Project?

The Rimba Project is a living lab focused on campus greening and biodiversity conservation. Founded by Dr. Sugumaran Manickam in 2014 and entering its seventh year, the project continues to champion the awareness and appreciation of urban biodiversity as well as biodiversity conservation and landscape management as part of the UM Sustainability and Living Labs Secretariat.

The Rimba Project is now led by Dr. Sarah Abdul Razak from the Institute of Biological Sciences, and has three main objectives. Firstly, to integrate campus greening, conservation and landscape management, to promote capacity building for citizen science and conservation and to support nature education outreach activities at Rimba Ilmu. As its contributions to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), the project aims to make urban spaces more liveable and sustainable (Goal 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities) and to sustainably manage, protect and preserve urban forests and halt biodiversity loss in urban green spots (Goal 15: Life on Land). The project also performs capacity building, instilling nature awareness in the UM student community and the general public; this capacity building follows two approaches – the physical approach, which involves direct contact and participation (e.g. guided walks, tree initiatives, exhibitions, fieldtrips & data collection etc) and the non-physical approach, which addresses people through indirect and non-contact means (e.g. educational modules, websites and social media, publications such as books, posters and pamphlets, media coverage etc).

Why is the Rimba Project important?

Malaysia, like all tropical countries, is home to a much greater variety of plants and animals than other places on Earth. It is, in fact, one of the 17 most biodiverse countries in the world. And yet 76.6% of Malaysians live in urban areas, usually far away from most major green spaces. Indeed, most Malaysian urbanites view nature and urban life as two separate paradigms on each end of the scale. This disconnect means that urban-dwellers often fail to recognize the critical role that urban green spaces provide, not just ecologically but psychologically and physiologically as well. Furthermore, these urban green spaces are often secondary forests and with primary forests becoming a rarity in this day and age. Therefore, it has become more important now than ever that these “second-generation ecosystems” are protected and preserved.

Universities like UM are often the most land-rich of urban actors, which in tandem with their status as centres of higher learning and knowledge, makes them uniquely positioned to preserve urban green spaces and provide urbanites with access to natural environments as well as having the means to educate them on the importance of nature in the city. And yet they often face difficulties and competing demands, which place pressure on their desire and ability to fulfil this role. In UM’s case, Rimba Ilmu relied on the Institute of Biological Sciences’ Heads of Department (ISB HoD) to guide and hold its missions, to set where its priorities lied and to provide funding for the related facilities. This reliance had led to problems when shifts in staff occurred and competing demands for ISB funding, especially from the department’s other facilities, arisen. As a consequence of this, major upgrades of RI facilities had been few and far in between and the garden had been maintained as a static resource for quite a long time.

The Rimba Project is a critical tool, not just in educating urban-dwellers on the importance of urban green spaces and providing environmentally-sound guidelines for construction and development bodies, but also in providing Rimba Ilmu with third-party support in order to address its prior short-comings and deficiencies. By acting as a go-between for collaborations with external parties such as NGOs, hobby groups, social enterprises and volunteers, The Rimba Project is able to garner much greater support and funding for Rimba Ilmu and its related facilities, leading to several successful programmes and improvements. Additionally, The Rimba Project runs studies relating to urban biodiversity. For example, a biodiversity survey was conducted in Section 12, a residential area close to UM that has been abandoned some time ago with nature taking its course, has shown some interesting findings.

Why are urban green spaces important?

It should be obvious that urban green spaces provide habitats for various species of plants and animals, as well as serving as “wildlife corridors” linking together other green spaces and allowing animals to move between habitats, preventing fragmentation and isolation of wildlife. For example, Rimba Ilmu houses over 1,700 species of plants on 150 acres of land, including medicinal plants, palms, citruses, ferns and bamboos. However, we too can greatly benefit from the presence of urban green spaces.

Cities are heavily plagued with many environmental problems. Concrete buildings and pavements will absorb energy from the sun and release it as heat leading to hotter temperatures, vehicle and industrial emissions pollute the air with soot and gases such as sulphur dioxide, and asphalt roads prevent the absorption of rainwater into the ground, causing floods. The presence of urban green spaces can help mitigate these issues. Trees provide shade from the heat of the sun and can even cool the air by using the sun’s energy to transfer water from their leaves to the atmosphere in a process called evapotranspiration. They can also remove pollutants from the air via catching particles on leaf surfaces and absorbing the gases through the pores in their leaves in addition to acting as a “green lung”, absorbing carbon dioxide and producing oxygen as a part of photosynthesis. Finally, trees and plants can intercept rainwater with their leaves (reducing the volume of surface run-off) and absorb groundwater through their roots.

Besides what they can provide for the environment and animals, urban green spaces can also provide benefits to our health and wellbeing. With mental health issues an ever-growing presence here in Malaysia, one of the best ways we can counter this is by bringing more people in close contact with nature via urban green spaces. Indeed the presence of green spaces in city centres has even been linked to positive psychological effects in studies on the Attention Restoration Theory (ART). This theory posits that people can concentrate better after spending time in nature or even after just looking at nature. Urban green spaces also provide a pleasant environment to exercise (i.e. jogging, hiking, cycling etc), relax and socialize in, improving physical health and promoting greater levels of social activity, especially for the elderly.

Success stories from the Rimba Project

The Rimba Project has had many success stories since its inception in 2014. In fact, the project had helped in the process getting Rimba Ilmu recognised as a National Heritage Site in 2020. Here are some other highlights in the Project’s illustrious history.

Section 12 is an abandoned residential area located along Jalan Universiti. In 2012, area was originally going to be demolished to make way for a Health Metropolis. However, the idea has received objections from many stakeholders, especially the residents. In 2014, the Rimba Project conducted a biodiversity survey of the area and made some amazing discoveries. 386 trees from 47 species were documented at the site and some of them had grown to be quite large however not quite as large to trees found in primary forests. Furthermore, about 88% of the trees documented had medicinal or commercial value. Many animals that you wouldn’t expect to live in the city had made their homes in the area including a species of solitary firefly (indicating the presence of clear water to breed in and snails to feed on), various types of frogs such as the Dark-sided Chorus Frog (indicating a high ground ‘water table’), three species of eagles (including the Brahminy Kite and the migratory Crested Serpent Eagle) and the Cave Nectar Bat (an important pollinator of well-known local fruit trees like durian and petai). These discoveries serve as evidence of how biodiverse an urban forest can be and why they deserve our protection. There is even a book on the Section 12 survey, “The Backyard Before You” by Benjamin Ong. Subsequently, later biodiversity surveys were conducted in Jalan Ilmu and Section 16.

The Rimba Project features tree initiatives as one of its activities including tree tagging and tree planting. Approximately 300 trees of 74 species were planted as a result of the project’s tree initiatives. One of these tree planting programs was the planting of 100 dipterocarp trees (forest species) in front of the UM Library. This was a big event that involved the participation of both students and staff. In addition to tree planting, the project also has a conservation nursery where trees of different local species are nurtured. The project organized field trips to places like Ulu Gombak, Belum, Fraiser’s Hill and Taman Negara Merapoh to find and collect seeds and seedlings for the nursery; over the years hundreds of plants from a total of 54 species were collected and raised. The saplings raised in the nursery are then either planted in Rimba Ilmu and around the campus or donated to other bodies (usually schools). In 2017, the project donated 61 saplings for tree planting initiatives to Sekolah Menengah Sains Perempuan Seremban, Bangsar Lutheran Church and 4th Residential College UM.

The Rimba Project also conducts guided walks through the Rimba Ilmu as part of its role as a nature park, taking the general public on a tour of the botanic garden and educating them on the importance of urban biodiversity and its conservation. These guided tours don’t just involve nature walks though, they also include a number of creative nature programs such as photography sessions and drawing activities for school children. In addition to the garden itself, there is also an exhibition hall, “Rainforests and its Environment” and the Rare Plants and Orchids Conservatory where visitors can learn more about the rainforest environment.

Though the Rimba Project’s members are knowledgeable in many aspects, there are some areas which they may not be familiar with. As such, the project members often worked closely with scientists who are experts in their field. One of these scientists is a bat researcher named Dr. Lim Voon-Ching who, together with the project members and volunteers, created an online documentary called “Bats in the City” which focuses on bats living in urban forest environments and highlights their importance in such an ecosystem.

Perhaps the biggest of the Rimba Project’s success stories, though, would have to be the Klang Valley City Nature Challenge, running in 2018 and 2019. The nature challenge was an international competition with the aim to increase participation and awareness across all levels of expertise and experience by involving the public in the collection of scientific data. During the event, participants took photos of plants and animals they found and uploaded them onto a phone app called iNaturalist where scientists around the world will help identify them. City Nature Challenge is a competition which has categories involved namely most observations, most participants, and the most number of species. In 2018 Malaysia won 4th place for Observation, with four Malaysians being in the Top 5 Observers worldwide and in 2019, had added the most new species onto iNaturalist.

Of course, none of these programs and events would have been successful were it not for the valuable aid of the student volunteers who worked closely with the Rimba Project to ensure that their activities all went according to plan. Indeed, much of the activities from tree planting to biodiversity surveys had been performed by student volunteers, many of whom initially were not familiar with the topics of biodiversity and conservation and thus learnt a great deal about those subjects through these programs.

Since 2014, the Rimba Project had achieved many successes, from playing a part in getting Rimba Ilmu to be recognised as a National Heritage Site to the discoveries made in Section 12. There is still a long road ahead and plenty more goals to achieve but the project is currently on the right track, with more in the UM student community becoming aware of the surprising biodiversity that can be found around the campus and beyond. For those of us living in the hustle and bustle of the city, urban green spaces can greatly enrich our quality of life. Whether it is providing shade from the heat or giving us a place to relax and exercise in, you cannot deny the benefits green spaces provide for us city-dwellers. And with that regard, it is vital that we are all aware of the importance of urban biodiversity and its conservation.

This article was published in UMR Bulletin, an internal publication of UM (Ed.)