SURROUNDED by highways and increasingly dense development in an area of Kuala Lumpur bordering Petaling Jaya in Selangor, the University of Malaya (UM) sits right smack in the city — a relatively green campus with groups of buildings clustered in various locations on its undulating landscape.
Unknown to many, just behind its sports complex lies Rimba Ilmu (Forest of Knowledge) — a tropical botanical garden modelled after a rainforest which occupies an area of 60 hectares managed by the Institute of Biological Sciences under UM’s Faculty of Science.
Partly buffered by old rubber plantings, Rimba Ilmu is an important repository for many types of plants, including conservation collections of rare and endangered plants, and special collections of useful plants and their wild relatives.
Within the garden, the Rimba Project operates.
Founded and headed by ecologist Benjamin Ong in 2014, the initiative is an urban biodiversity conservation under the UM Living Lab Grant Programme that serves as a knowledge/action research platform for the Department of Development and Estate Maintenance to solve sustainability issues relating to its infrastructure and practices in waste management, water and energy management, and greening and biodiversity.
The Rimba Project covers three areas: the first as an internal consulting body advising the Department of Development and Estate Maintenance on best conservation practices; the second, supporting the Rimba Ilmu Botanic Garden in nature education and outreach; and the third, undertaking research into areas such as urban ecology and urban conservation.
“Rimba Ilmu conducts education programmes like guided nature walks and talks for schools and the public — Malaysians and visitors from abroad — to reach out to the people,” said Ong, who has a BSc in Biology (Ecology and Biodiversity) from UM, and MSc in Sustainable Development from the University of St Andrews, Scotland.
Rimba Project lead guide Vanessa Ting, who is pursuing a MA in Literature and the Environment, writes nature articles for the public.
“For my master’s programme, I am researching into how the arts can draw people to nature. Science explains things but the arts give a sort of affinity — a feeling of closeness — to nature. I organise nature- and conservation-related workshops such as the recycling of old exam notes, and combining the mulched leaves and flowers to make paper,” she said.
With a first degree in pharmacy and current literature studies, Ting makes the guided walks for first-time tropical forest visitors particularly enjoyable by relating the species in the garden to references in fiction and non-fiction works on plants and animals.
Ong, meanwhile, regards himself a reconciliation ecologist whose interest is to encourage biodiversity in human-dominated ecosystems. As there are not enough areas for all of Earth’s biodiversity to be saved within designated nature preserves, humans should increase biodiversity in human-dominated landscapes.
“A lot of times, we don’t associate the city with nature and wildlife. But you don’t need to go to a forest reserve such as Taman Negara or a park like Lake Gardens to experience nature. Sometimes you can discover a lot of wildlife in built-up spaces such as school compounds and residential estates.
“So, we are trying to create more of such awareness. We answer questions like ‘What wildlife and biodiversity can the city support?’ and ‘Where can they be found outside areas such as parks?’.”
To answer these questions, Rimba Project carries out biodiversity mapping at an abandoned residential area in Section 12, Petaling Jaya. The alumni-led and student-powered initiative documents wildlife and nature.
Here, MSc Microbial Ecology student Nurul Fitrah Marican, who runs the Rimba Project conservation nursery, plays her role.
“I’m a ground worker. I manage the conservation nursery. We collect the seeds and seedlings of plant species that we discover in the biodiversity mapping project and plant them in the conservation nursery to bring the wild species into urban areas. We also conduct tree planting within the UM campus,” she said.
The Rimba Project hopes to help urban communities reconnect with nature. “Increasingly, there is a disconnect between people and nature, and we try to create a space for them to encounter nature, even in the city.
Ong said: “City children spend their weekends in malls. Our fun programmes for schools take them into the botanical garden to get their hands dirty.”
The project highlights the importance of taking conservation seriously in an urban setting. “Malaysia is one of the world’s mega-biodiverse countries and foreign researchers go to Taman Negara to do research because of its wealth of biodiversity.
“Seventy-five per cent of Malaysians live in urban areas. Can we make nature conservation happen in the urban space?”
Countries, which are more urbanised, are starting to introduce the nature-in-the-city concept such as bringing life back into rivers. “What kinds of wildlife are making rivers their homes with us in the city and what do we do about them? Can we work towards co-existence or is our relationship doomed to end up in pest control?
“When the city encroaches into forested areas, wildlife finds its way to encroach into our space as well — whether it’s birds making nests in the roof or rats at food stalls.
“Encroachment happens both ways. We are making our homes where animals used to make theirs. And animals are making their homes where we have our residences now. How can we make it sustainable in a way that won’t make it detrimental in the long run?”
To find answers, Rimba Project works closely with student volunteers in the biodiversity mapping at Section 12.
“It is not our official task but it is meaningful to us and we see a value to it. With the budget cut in higher education funds, universities are hit hard. Biology students are not getting enough field training.
“For our wildlife surveys on UM campus, we teach student volunteers, especially first-year undergraduates, to spot birds, track bats and catch insects. When they are in the second and third year of studies, they find that they have an advantage over their coursemates and they are able to conduct their own research.”
Findings from the survey carried out in the abandoned residential area of Section 12 were published and served as evidence to support the cancellation of a mega project in the vicinity.
“We made the case that the place is a valuable green lung. And the findings and a follow-up study resulted in a book,” said Ong.
And from the work of student volunteers in the Rimba Ilmu botanical garden, two trails were created: the Wild Fruits Trail and the K.M. Botanist Trail.
“There are several trails at Rimba Ilmu but mainly on concrete paths. Some volunteers wanted a more challenging trail in the forested areas. We provided technical support and the volunteers worked closely with botanists to identify species and worked out the trail. Students initiated and led the trail. This is an example of a meaningful collaboration between researchers/experts and students. Visitors, who like off-road trekking, find the trail can be challenging,” added Ong.
In terms of partnerships, the Rimba Project is expanding out of UM. It is in a collaboration with the United Nations University Institute of Global Health which has interest in urban health and well-being. “We are researching into green spaces and how they contribute to well-being.”
The Rimba Project is also exploring possibilities with the social enterprise EPIC, which builds affordable homes.
“In this endeavour, we are looking at how to revitalise the Section 12 space. We hope to make it visitor-friendly so we can explore nature in a different setting — in a fairly public area, not a park.”
Ong and his associates are working with architects to merge conservation with landscaping such as planting trees on campus.
“Generally conservationists and biologists operate in one circle and architects and town planners in another. There is potential in the city for the two groups to work together. When an area is developed, provisions can be made for urban habitats for wildlife. Ideally, we would like to make conservation landscaping a reality.”
Next month, the Rimba Project will be organising the four-day City Nature Challenge. Initiated in the United States, the event will see more than 60 cities competing to see which can make the most observations of nature in the city, find the most species and engage the most people. Kuala Lumpur is the only city participant from Southeast Asia.
“We are at the capacity-building stage, reaching out to schools and community organisations, and recruiting parties to participate.
“The challenge covers 10 municipalities in the Klang Valley. There’s an app to be downloaded. Take pictures of animals and plants, and upload them with details on location and dates.”
In the west, Ong said the event made more people interested in nature and the data collected was of sufficient standard to guide town planning and policy decisions.
“Some of the data derived from the activity were interesting. The movement of butterflies can indicate climate change in the city. Some insects, like the firefly, indicate clean water.
“The challenge has encouraged the crowdsourcing of data and citizen scientists by mobilising people and using technology. Over time the data gets better and will complement the work of professional scientists to enhance conservation work.”