Did you know that in certain urban areas, over 80% of tree species may have commercial or medicinal value?
Or that birds like the Oriental honey-buzzard, pied triller and green-billed malkoha, fully protected under the Wildlife Conservation Act 2010 (Act 716), are found in our urban backyards?
There is a treasure trove of diverse plants and wildlife co-existing with our cities’ steel, glass and concrete structures – but not many people know this, and therein lies a problem: a lack of data. Add to that the still ongoing and rapid development of most of Malaysia’s major urban areas, and it all adds up to species being threatened with extinction, according to Benjamin Ong, founder of the Rimba Project, an education and outreach programme in urban ecology and conservation based at the Rimba Ilmu Botanic Garden, Universiti Malaya (UM).
“The obvious candidates would be the endemic species. For example, Aleisanthia rupestris and four other plants occur only on the Klang Gates Ridge (Bukit Tabur) in Ampang (in Selangor) and nowhere else on the planet,” he says.
“However, the problem with urban species is that they tend to be less ‘spectacular’ than species found in the wild. Therefore, many urban species are not studied in sufficient depth, and many so-called ‘common species’ may well be disappearing right under our noses.”
Botanists have noticed that some forest dwelling plants like Porterandia sp (cempaka hutan), Tacca sp (black lily) and Codonoboea are becoming increasingly rare in the city because urban forests are declining at an alarming rate, says Ong.
“Some people will argue that there are still plenty of these species in forests far from the city, and that there is fantastic biodiversity in places like Taman Negara, Belum-Temenggor and Endau-Rompin. But given that 75% of Malaysians now live in urban areas (according to a 2016 World Bank report), there is a need to conserve flora and fauna in and near cities, so that the human experience of nature and wildlife does not go extinct,” emphasises Ong, who is also a research assistant at Rimba Ilmu Botanic Garden.
One of the challenges conservation faces is the lack of data, which is needed to make informed decisions.
“Documentation efforts are few and far between. We lack baseline data for urban biodiversity; it is not something that is regularly documented unless it’s done as part of environmental impact assessments or as scientific studies undertaken on a case-by-case basis,” says Ong, adding that these studies are seldom, if ever, made available to the public.
This, then, is the reason for the City Nature Challenge (CNC). The international project encourages people to find and document plants and wildlife in cities across the globe.
The bioblitz-style, mobile app-based competition involves cities competing to see which can gather the most observations of nature, find the most species, and which can engage the most people. (Bioblitz is an event that focuses on finding and identifying as many species as possible in a specific area over a short period of time.)
The first CNC was held in 2016 as an eight-day competition between Los Angeles and San Francisco in the United States. Over 20,000 observations were made by more than 1,000 people in a one-week period, cataloguing approximately 1,600 species in each location.
In 2017, the CNC spread across the United States, and this year, it will be held as an international event across 60 cities.
In Malaysia, Rimba Project will be co-organising the Klang Valley City Nature Challenge (KV CNC) over this coming weekend, from Friday to Monday, with Water Warriors, an environmental project in UM set up to protect and conserve water bodies on campus.
The Klang Valley is the first Malaysian and first South-East Asian urban area to participate in the challenge.
The event is not site-specific and any observations made in the Klang Valley’s 10 local authority areas during the four-day challenge may be included in the project. The 10 areas are Kuala Lumpur, Klang, Kajang, Subang Jaya, Petaling Jaya, Selayang, Shah Alam, Ampang Jaya, Putrajaya and Sepang.
The KV CNC will help establish a publicly-accessible biodiversity baseline.
“Biodiversity loss is one of the most urgent environmental issues today. Nations and communities worldwide face the challenge of keeping accurate and consistently up-to-date records of wildlife. Knowing what species exist in our cities and where they are helps us conserve and protect them,” says Ong.
The CNC is also an example of a citizen science initiative where members of the public collaborate with scientific experts in the collection and interpretation of data.
“There are citizen science initiatives in Malaysia, but as far as we know, none on urban wildlife and biodiversity. We hope that by introducing this concept through the CNC, we can provide the public with an alternative, hands-on entry into the world of conservation science.
“The KV CNC is no silver bullet or quick-fix formula, and we won’t have a complete understanding of urban ecology after the event. But it is a much-needed first step and will, we hope, get the ball rolling for a more substantial discourse on urban conservation over the next few years,” says Ong.
How the KV CNC works
You can participate as an individual or a group in your own backyard, local park, on a school or university field trip, or on a hike – as long as it is within the Klang Valley. The necessary training and capacity building will be provided by Rimba Project if required.
Using the iNaturalist app, take a picture of a plant or animal (or record a sound), and identify the species and location.
While the main objective is to document nature where you are (home, school, workplace, etc), the group welcomes participants keen to join the KV CNC organising committee at selected sites listed on their website.