The city is wild, and The Rimba Project wants you to document its biodiversity

Biodiversity is not just about untouched forests.

The Rimba Project is headed by Project Officer Benjamin Ong and Project Assistant Nurul Fitrah Marican. — Photo by Wong Yok Teng

For urbanites, there is a tendency to see spaces in extremes – the sterile urban space versus lush forests.

The Rimba Project is out to correct this perception, while encouraging regular citizens to be a part of conservation efforts by documenting their surrounding biodiversity.

“There’s a general understanding that ultimately, if you want people to buy into conservation, they need to be able to access conservation efforts and be able to relate to plants and animals. And the best place to start is actually the urban space,” says The Rimba Project founder Benjamin Ong.

Wildlife in the city

Even never before documented wildlife could be closer than city-folk think. It could be the insect with the weird wings you saw before you boarded the train this morning, or the bird with the suspiciously long beak digging in the drain outside your window, or even the wildflowers taking over the abandoned playground nearby.

Urban ecology in recent years have been highlighting not only the migration of wildlife into cities around the world, but also of certain species undergoing physiological changes. That means city environments are driving evolution around the world.

To add to that, tropical countries like Malaysia have a much wider variety of plants and animals than in temperate regions and are more likely to have undocumented species too.

Citizen science as the way forward

Founded in late 2013, The Rimba Project bases itself in University of Malaya’s Rimba Ilmu building. Their activities and research categorise them as a “living lab” that is established under the UMCares initiative, and have been funded by the Sustainability Science Research Cluster and Deputy Vice-Chancellor’s Office since 2015.

Currently it is run by ecologist by training, Benjamin, who is the project officer of the operations, along with project assistant Nurul Fitrah Marican, who is a trained microbiologist.

Biodiversity is their cause, but what sets them apart from other initiatives is their focus on “citizen science”.

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The Rimba Project is headed by Project Officer Benjamin Ong and Project Assistant Nurul Fitrah Marican. — Photo by Wong Yok Teng

Citizen science is the practice of having research include the participation of nonprofessional scientists. The public participation aspect allows for a wider reaching observation, however, its obvious shortcoming is managing the varying levels of competency.

“I think it may well be the most promising way forward… to quote that old slogan, it has to be a case of power to the people,” says Benjamin.

He says Malaysia may be behind compared to some neighbouring countries when it comes to national policy and resources dedicated towards biodiversity. So, a solution for catching up, he says, would be to decentralise resources and efforts.

“We can’t out-offer Singapore. If hypothetically there is a butterfly expert we are competing to hire, they’re going to choose to work at NUS (National University of Singapore). Given that, we need to start reducing our dependence and start training up a competent base of public scientists,” he says.

“And this is what I would like to emphasise — competence.”

“We don’t have to be experts, but we need to know the basics. Then we need to train people to take pictures that can be used by other people. Now with the internet, it’s easy to send your photograph to an expert in the Netherlands, and they can help you identify,” he adds.

The Rimba Project carried out its first biodiversity survey, commissioned by UM itself, to assess the surrounding area for the proposed UM Health Metropolis in Section 12. It gave them the opportunity to document the houses, flora and fauna in one of the lushest green areas in Petaling Jaya.

The findings were used to encourage the developers to consider incorporating the existing flora into its designs, and gave recommendations on how we can learn to confront and explore the fauna in the vicinity.

Observations from the survey led to the publication of the book The Backyard Before You in 2017, which highlights the bottom-up approach through participatory research and further emphasises just how much we can explore in the urban environment.

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The iNaturalist app has been a great tool for organising efforts to document urban biodiversity. — Screenshot from iNaturalist app

Klang valley citizens in action

This year, Benjamin and Nurul Fitrah led Kuala Lumpur (Klang Valley) as the only Southeast Asian city participating in the City Nature Challenge 2018. The City Nature Challenge saw 68 countries primarily using the mobile app iNaturalist to compete in documenting the most observations of wildlife in urban spaces over four days, which took place between April 27-April 30, 2018.

The Klang Valley as a whole ended up ranking fourth in number of observations out of the 68 cities, with four out of the top five users to have made the most observations being from Malaysia.

On top of that, the Klang Valley added the most new species to the iNaturalist platform for the region, with 1,392 observations.

This goes to show that there’s so much to contribute with just observations almost literally of our own backyard.

“The urban space is not a sterile space where nothing grows. In our gardens, our trees and even our drains, they can actually support more life than you would expect,” he says.

“I guess the challenge for us now is to actually find out what is here living in our midst.”

For more information on The Rimba Project and to stay up to date with their activities, check out The Rimba Project Facebook Page.

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