the RIMB project
1. Where, and why, Section 12?
Section 12 is a residential estate in Petaling Jaya, Selangor, although here we’re specifically referring to the 30 houses lining Jalan Universiti - all of which are former University of Malaya staff quarters.
It has been three years since the area was rezoned to be developed into the UM Health Metropolis. As ongoing protests from residents continue to stall development plans, the houses sit abandoned, with other forms of life taking over.
Some commuters see it as a quiet, convenient spot for free parking. Nearby residents continue to walk their dogs down lanes that will cease to exist once the Metropolis is built. And as the houses slowly decay, Nature’s experiment to create a self-sustaining forest within urban surroundings is showing some unexpected results.
Late morning view of the houses of Section 12.
2. So what is RIMBA’s Section 12 Project?
It all started when Deputy Vice-chancellor of Development, Prof Faisal Rafiq Mahamd Adikan, granted The RIMBA Project one month to find out exactly what happens when humans leave a plot of land—in this case, Section 12—to its own devices.
That said, it’s not what—it’s who are RIMBA’s Section 12 Project!
The RIMBA Project, an alumni-led and student-powered initiative championing campus biodiversity, is always up for a chance to flex its one-of-a-kind approach to biodiversity documentation. So when Prof Rafiq threw his challenge our way, we took it and never looked back.
Although lacking time, manpower and real experience, we wouldn’t have traded anything for our energetic student volunteers who planned the biodiversity survey of Section 12.
The Flora team, headed by first-year Ecology and Biodiversity student Nor Afiza Abdul Rahman, mapped and documented all the trees in Section 12. The identification of tree species was made possible by the expertise of Dr M. Sugumaran, botanist and coordinator of Rimba Ilmu Botanic Garden.
Flora team volunteers, with Dr Sugumaran (back row) after a tree-mapping session.
The Fauna team, organised by Siti Syuhada Sapno, also a first-year Ecology and Biodiversity student, investigated the animal wildlife in Section 12, with advice from Mr Thary Gazi, research assistant at UM’s Museum of Zoology.
Their coursemate Sofwan Badrud’din, lepidopterist-in-training, provided back-up on butterfly species identification and UM herpetologist Mr Daicus Belabut was consulted on the identification of amphibians.
The Fauna team hard at work catching frogs at night.
Both teams were supported by Goh Shang Ming and Ain Nurjannah Radzuan, who coordinated logistics and equipment—no easy feat! They also actively participated in the field work, inspiring other students to volunteer for RIMBA’s Section 12 Project.
Valuable muscle-power, grit and sheer dedication were provided by loyal volunteers Ainaa Farah Abu Safian, Amira Aqilah Muhammad, Belicia Yeap Qiao Bei, Fairuz Fatini Mohd Yusof, Loo Yong Xin, Mohd Ikmal Shafiq Rosli, Muhammad Afiq Azri Hashim, Muhammad Najmi Mohd Ayob, Muhammad Nazri Ishak, Muna Najihah Hj Mokht, Nor Amirulshafiq Nor Azman, Noraikim Mohd Hanafiah, Nur Najihah Khairul Aswat, Nurhalimah Mohd Saad, Shazfatin Faizah Roslan and Yang Jia Xin.
3. What did RIMBA’s Section 12 Project actually do?
The success of the project boiled down to good old fieldwork. The Flora team, working in groups of four or five, measured the girth of trees and meticulously recorded the location and species of trees on maps. Weaver ants (kerengga) were often part of the mix. Tree seedlings that we encountered along the way were also identified and mapped.
Flora team volunteers Ikmal and Shang Ming measuring tree girth.
The Fauna team, not knowing what to expect, conducted both day and night fieldwork to comprehensively document the area’s animal wildlife. Childhood skills were employed, and new techniques learnt, during sessions encompassing insect and frog catching, as well as keeping alert for animal sounds and movement.
We collected results in the form of data, specimens and photographs.
Fauna team volunteers Sofwan, Najmi and Yong Xin photographing specimens.
4. Trees are trees—what’s so interesting about them?
We never notice them until they’re gone. At eye-level, we enjoy the shade as we go about our daily doings, and the sounds of wildlife rustling and twittering ahead. We enjoy walking on soft, damp ground that doesn’t radiate heat back towards us.
Trees provide a cooling microclimate that filters light and allows air movement. They’re also a habitat for wildlife, and create a water retention area. Compare this with many urban places. Highways, for example, expose us to blinding sunlight in a greenhouse of a car, or flash floods after many a tropical storm.
A Rain Tree (Albizia saman) shelters a Section 12 house driveway.
5. So how many trees are there in Section 12?
It wasn’t easy to scramble up slopes which were often slippery with rain or loose dirt, or to hack our way with parangs through dense secondary forest, but we mapped nearly 400 trees across at least 47 species in the compounds and back alleys of the abandoned Section 12 houses. Many of the tree species are tropical timber, fruit or medicinal trees.
Details of tree species identified in Section 12
6. What animal wildlife? Section 12 is a housing estate!
Not knowing what to expect, the Fauna team did a general insect sweep and animal survey of the area.
We found many butterflies, and identified a number of forest-edge and primary forest species. This shows that the suburban residential area of Section 12 can rehabilitate itself into a healthy forest ecosystem!
Butterfly species sampled in Section 12 and identified by the Fauna team.
By night, Section 12 is alive with fireflies and frogs, indicating clean water and undisturbed leaf litter is in abundant supply.
We also stumbled across bats snoozing in some abandoned houses, and caught sight of eagles, owls and kingfishers making a habitat in Section 12.
An Oriental Honey Buzzard (Pernis ptilorhyncus) making base in Section 12!
7. What does “indicator species” mean?
Plant and animal species can be used as markers or ‘indicators’ to collect information about the state of an environment. Indicator species are usually the most sensitive species that respond to diseases or pollution, and are used to measure environmental conditions. As they are also an integral part of the food web, they also show whether other species can survive or thrive in the area.
Learn more about indicator species here.
8. Why were butterflies and frogs chosen as indicator species?
Due to their short life cycles, butterflies are affected more rapidly by environmental changes, compared to birds and plants. Many species also have specific larval foodplants and close reliance on weather and climate conditions. Learn more about the consequences of butterfly extinction here.
Different species have different habitat types, such as garden, forest-edge or primary forest. The 15 species of butterflies found in Section 12 favour all these habitats, hinting at the forest potential of the area!
A selection of butterflies of Section 12.
As frogs utilise both land and aquatic conditions as habitats, and their skin is permeable to pollution, they are extremely sensitive to changes in the environment. Section 12 is absolutely singing with frogs during the night, indicating that the area is a high ‘water table’, meaning the ground level is saturated with water. If the ground is built over with impermeable material, rainwater runoff has nowhere to go—should we expect flash floods to be a norm?
Dark-sided Chorus Frogs (Microhyla heymonsi) inhabit secondary vegetation.
9. So, what happens when we leave a plot of land to its own devices?
Section 12 is a valuable, albeit unintentional, case study of nature’s ability to regenerate itself in built-up land—in this case, land used for residential housing purposes. A functional ecosystem is able to sustain apex predators (organisms with no natural predators, which means they sit on top of the food chain) with their high metabolic rates and need for expansive habitats. The Crested Serpent Eagles spotted in Section 12 cut a magnificent sight, as well as proving that the area’s ecosystem is healthy enough to be their habitat!
Unfortunately, Section 12’s location in prime property means that this forest will not be left alone to realise its full potential.
Morning light streams through tree creepers in Section 12.
10. What’s the future for Section 12?
As of now, the future of Section 12 still lies in uncertainty, as residents continue to protest UM’s plan to build its Health Metropolis. In the meantime, UM’s Department of Development and Estate Maintenance (JPPHB) is considering converting the area into a pay-per-use carpark, while still finding a way to showcase Section 12’s special brand of biodiversity, as inspired by RIMBA’s The Section 12 Project.
11. So is that all for RIMBA’s Section 12 Project?
Hardly! We’re harvesting tree seedlings for replanting, whether in other parts of UM or anywhere needing a bit of greenery and shade. UM’s Department of Development and Estate Maintenance (JPPHB) is enthusiastically working with The RIMBA Project to maintain large trees in the area by building around rather than removing them. We’re aiming for a ‘Park in a Car Park’, protecting some elements of Section 12’s biodiversity by conserving spaces of greenery and wildlife habitat in a strategy that involves rethinking the use of urban spaces.
Bintangor Laut (Calophyllum inophyllum) seedlings waiting to be harvested.
12. What can I do for RIMBA’s Section 12 Project?
There are a lot of young tree seedlings in Section 12 and we need just as much volunteer power to harvest them! If you’re interested in getting down and dirty with new life, register now! The seedling harvesting drive will take place from 26th February to 3rd March 2015. If you can't make these dates, email us to volunteer for long-term caring of the seedlings, or to adopt one for your garden or neighbourhood park.
The buzz created by RIMBA’s Section 12 Project has led UM’s Department of Development and Estate Maintenance (JPPHB) to suggest another ambitious project—documenting the biodiversity of the Jalan Elmu houses, also formerly UM staff quarters earmarked for development. Volunteer with us and learn all about tree identification, insect sweeping, frog catching and more! Email us or ping us on Facebook for more details, or to get updates about future RIMBA projects.