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Malaysia is located in Southeast Asia and is peninsular with adjacent islands[1]. With its dynamic topography, Malaysia contains diverse terrestrial ecosystems such as rainforests, montane grasslands and mangrove forests. The tropical ecosystem is limited by soil fertility, wind, and narrow temperature and rain ranges. Because of Malaysia's numerous niche habitats, there are many places for a diverse range of flora and fauna to flourish. There is evidence for inhabitants in Malaysia at least 40,000 years ago as their agricultural techniques and resource and river management have contributed to Malaysia's current formation. Despite the practices of Indigenous peoples in Malaysia, the land faces threats such as palm oil, land conversion and mining.


Figure 1- Malaysia Temperature & Precipitation 1991-2020

Biomes and Ecoregions

Malaysia falls in the IndoMalayan realm, which falls across most of South and South East Asia. Malaysia has three different areas of their country known as Borneo, Peninsular and Islands. The main biome in Malaysia is the tropical and subtropical moist broadleaf forest biome. This can be found in Borneo and Peninsular Malaysia. Two fifths of Malaysia's land is considered dense evergreen forest, which has over 2000 tree species and in every acre of forest over a hundred species of plants [1]. Within these forests, they are limited by light because of the thick canopy. The physiognomy of Malaysia’s tropical forest can be divided into five layers: overstory canopy with emergent crowns, medium layer of canopy, lower canopy, shrub level, and understory [2]. The vegetation makeup is diverse with “as many as 100 different species of trees, as well as shrubs, herbs, lianas, and epiphytes" [3]. As expected of a tropical rainforest, the mean annual temperature of Malaysia is 26.37 Celsius and the mean annual precipitation is 30001.98mm. To be considered a tropical rainforest it needs to be above 25 Celsius and 2000mm of precipitation. (Fig.1)

Another ecoregion of Malaysia is the montane forests and grasslands which are found on Mount Kinabalu in Borneo. Whereas a montane forest is similar to a tropical forest just with variation along the changing altitude, generally dominated by “ferns, mosses, liverworts, orchids, and bromeliads among others”[4]. Montane grasslands are high elevation grasslands and shrubs.

Malaysia also has mangrove forests, this can be found in Peninsular and Borneo. They are called Indochina mangroves, Myanmar coast mangroves and Sunda Shelf mangroves. Mangrove physiognomy has a complex root system with many specialty roots such as buttress roots or knee roots.

Biophysical limits

Soil Fertility

Fertile soil, which is beneficial for both natural ecosystems and agriculture, is not in abundance in Malaysia [5][6][7]. Tropical humid areas typically have only small areas or pockets of fertile soil, as much of the nutrients readily washes away, especially in upland areas[5]. Soil that has been weathered takes upwards of 10 years to recover [8]. The soil in upland Malaysia consists primarily of two types: Ultisol and Oxisol [8][5] (Fig. 2). Both have low fertility and much of the local nutrients are stored in vegetation rather than the soil [5][9][10]. These soil types limit the type of plants that can grow in the area due to the availability of nutrients. Globally, around 15.6% of the land area (not covered in ice) has these low nutrient soils, while they cover 72% of Malaysia's land area[8][9][10]. These soils are perfectly suited for tropical humid forests to thrive, but are very poor soil conditions for many types of agricultural use, especially those done by low-income independent farmers who are unable to afford the proper means to add limestone and other fertilizers to the soil [8].

Figure 2- A cross section of what Ultisol soil looks like, demonstrating its high clay content.

The rapid expansion of urban areas as well as other anthropogenic acts that clear vegetation is leaving soil stability on slopes vulnerable [11]. The degradation of soil stability on slopes results in an increase in potential for landslides with the capability to harm humans and the rest of the ecosystem. This removal of vegetation is also contributing to a loss of available nutrients in the system, further contributing to the infertility of the land in the context of agriculture [5][11].

Climatic limits


Malaysia has a very consistent average monthly temperature with a range from 24.9°C in January to 31.3°C in May, varying only about 6°C from the coolest temperature to maximum temperature over the entire year[12][13]. On average, the annual daily temperature will only fluctuate by 2 degrees (inland) and 3 degrees (coastal) throughout the year[13]. The nights can be as cold as 21°C and colder nights are predictive of hotter days[13].


Malaysia usually has fairly low wind speeds with no commonality in direction, but the prevailing winds are in correspondence with the four seasons: northeast monsoon, southwest monsoon, and two transitional monsoon seasons that are each shorter in duration separating the main monsoons[13]. The northeast monsoon is from November to March and the southeast monsoon is from May to September[13]. Each monsoon is named in relation to the prevailing winds. (Fig.3)

Figure 3- Prevailing winds at each season. From the Department of Meteorology Malaysia.[14]


Average monthly precipitation is always over 180mm and there is no dry season, instead there are two monsoon seasons across the country[12]. In peninsular Malaysia, October and November have the highest rainfall and February has the lowest rainfall[12][13]. Malaysia’s highest rainfall is on Borneo in the interior of Sarawak, where it receives over 5000mm a year[13]. Malaysia’s region on Borneo which is called East Malaysia, receives considerably more annual rainfall than the peninsular region, or West Malaysia[15].

Biogeographic limits

Since Malaysia has both peninsular and island components, there are clear defined abiotic barriers within the country that are the oceans. West Malaysia is the peninsular region and East Malaysia is on Borneo[15]. West Malaysia has been connected to various other regions (that are now called Indonesian islands) multiple times throughout history, but East Malaysia has not been connected to the mainland since Gondwanaland roughly 200 million years ago[16].

There were portions of the last 66 million years that much of Borneo has experienced dry conditions, mainly 34-23 million years ago (Ma), 5.3-2.6 Ma, and 2.6-0.01 Ma, but the north eastern portion of East Malaysia in the state of Sabah remained constantly wet meaning that its region of rainforest has persisted this entire time[17]. This rainforest is continuous across the whole island, but there are many species only found in this one part where the ecosystem has remained constant for so long[17].


Patterns of Biodiversity

Malaysia has a high degree of biodiversity and ranks 12th in the world for most biodiverse on the National Biodiversity Index (NBI) when considering only vascular plants and vertebrates[18]. The diversity and complexity of Malaysia's flora and fauna distribution exists across both terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems at small and large scales. An integral part of its biodiversity is the many habitat types; on small islands such as Pulau Tioman, an array of these habitats exist and allow for a wide range of biodiversity[19]. The majority of Malaysia's forest cover is dominated by dipterocarp forests (86.4%) which are known to be one of the most diverse rainforests globally due to their multilayered forest structure and uneven ages in vegetation[20][21]. The remaining 13.6% of forest cover is comprised of alluvial, peat, and mangrove forests. The epicenter of biodiversity in Malaysia lies within its tropical rainforests. Mount Kinabalu, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and one of the highest mountains in South East Asia at 4095 meters contains over 5000 plant species within a 30 x 40 square kilometre area[22]. Like its terrestrial ecosystems, Malaysia's aquatic biodiversity is also impressive. Part of Malaysia's exclusive economic zone (EEZ) lies within the Coral Triangle and supports approximately 77% of known coral species. Malaysia's coast is also dominated by mangrove and eelgrass bed ecosystems which support local and migratory fish, birds, and marine mammals[23].

Figure 4- Number of species of butterflies and birds vs land use in Malaysia[24]

Biogeographic and Evolutionary Impacts on Local Diversity

Malaysia's geological history shows numerous speciation events[25][16]. Alternating changes in global sea levels (primarily caused by global glaciation) made mountains into islands, creating allometric pressure to drive the increase of speciation. As the sea levels dropped, land bridges formed and connected formerly isolated lands[16]. Evidence of leopard fossils from the Pleistocene and phylogenetic relationships between leopards in Southeast Asia [26] indicate that land bridges have existed and been used to connect taxa between islands in Malaysia [16]. Furthermore, as the climate cooled during the previous ice age, many mobile species emigrated towards peninsular Malaysia. With the advent of the land bridge, some species crossed to places that are current islands [16][26]. Biodiversity is changing and much of that change is driven by the rapid increase of oil palm plantations. Koh & Wilcove (2008) illustrates how biodiversity differs between oil palm mono-crops and other land uses (Fig.4) [24]. Land that is used for palm oil has 77% and 73% fewer observed species of birds than primary forests or logged forests[24].

table with agriculture, river management and resource management practices following Indigenous Knowledge systems in Sabah, Indonesia
Figure 5- Indigenous knowledge systems present in Sabah, Malaysia.

Human influences

Bone and artifacts have been found as evidence that humans have inhabited what is known today as Malaysian territory since at least 40,000 years ago[12][3].  Malays (partly defined by following Islam) - colloquially called bumiputra and indigenous peoples of Malaysia, called pribumi today they make up 61.7% of the population, although Malays make up 50%[3].

In peninsular Malaysia indigenous peoples are collectively known as Orang Asli, in Sarawak they are known as Dayak or Orang Ulu, and in Sabah they are known as Anak Negeri[27]. There are 18 subgroups of Organg Asli, with three main classifications being Jakum, Semang and Senoi. In east Malaysia in the state of Sarawak live the Iban people and other 14 indigenous groups, while in Sabah there are 39 ethnic groups part of the Anak Negeri[27].

Traditionally ecology was maintained through people's synchronization with food and resource availability. For example only harvesting mature plants, and making sure enough fruit and seeds are left for future propagation[28]. Shifting cultivation on hills is a method commonly used historically for rice farming, to aid with soil rejuvenation[28]. River Management is another indigenous way of engaging with ecological processes[28]. This can be seen through the ceremony of managal, where some parts of the river are proclaimed no fishing zones if low fish populations are observed[28] (Fig. 5).


Palm Oil

Malaysia is the second highest producer of palm oil behind Indonesia with India, China, and the Netherlands being the major importers [29]. Malaysia accounted for 34.3% of the world’s palm oil exports in 2020 alone[30]. The palm oil industry is a lucrative business and its increasing demand is demonstrated by Malaysia’s recent palm oil stocks hitting its highest in nearly 3 years at the end of September 2022 [31]. The biodiversity impacts are staggering as deforestation maps from 2002-2012 show that Malaysia had the highest deforestation rate in the world [32]. Consequently, Malaysia has had a 29% decrease in tree cover since 2000 [33]. These have far reaching impacts on biodiversity as the conversion of primary forests to oil palm plantations results in invasive species and reduction in species richness (as much as a 34.9% of species richness reduction in oil palms) [32].

A destructive byproduct of palm oil production is the haze which is driven by slashing and burning practices. These forest fires cause smoke haze and the worsened air quality leading to acid rain that contains harmful levels of nitric and sulphuric acid [34]. This acidifies the soil and water, thus making bodies of water uninhabitable for marine wildlife. Similarly, trees and flowering plants are altered through the acidified soil and worsened air quality which impacts the wildlife's consumption of resources [34]. Wildlife rescue centres have reported finding upper respiratory tract infections amongst their native orangutang population that can be directly linked to the air pollutants.

The startling increase and reliance on palm oil is concerning as the expansion of oil palm plantations is linked to deforestation, mass biodiversity loss and has infringed upon indigenous land rights [35]. The present and future implications of palm oil is a pertinent issue as these harmful changes and interactions are complex and the impacts are not fully realized.

Other Concerns and Regional Case Studies

Malaysia's 4,675 kilometre coastline has an extensive network of mangroves. However, mangrove area has been reduced by deforestation and various economic activities [36]. In the state of Johor, the loss of mangroves has occurred due to an increase of aquaculture (such as shrimp farming), the building of ports and infrastructure (which drains and degrades the wetland), oil palm plantations, and increasing urbanization pressures.[36]

Research looking at the political ecology in East Malaysia, specifically Sabah, has found that governmental policies such as land acquisition and state land classifications are the main drivers behind forest loss[37]. In the 1970's, demand of Sabah timber rose dramatically with the majority being exported to Japan. The industry grew at an unsustainable pace and different management tools have since been introduced. However, large logging remained a primary part of Sabah's economy until the 2000's[37]. Other factors, such as shifting cultivation have played a lesser role in forest loss.[37] The forces behind forest losses are related to rapid economic growth through timber and agriculture exports, as well as the structural policies mentioned above.[37]

Mining is also an activity of environmental concern. Malaysia is the 15th greatest exporter of minerals and in the top 5 global exporters of limestone for the production of cement[38]. Inadequate limestone mining results in the destruction of karsts, which are biodiversity hotspots and host large numbers of endemic species[38].


Leah: Global Environment Centre: Community-based Conservation in Mangrove Ecosystems

With changes in climate and subsequently ecosystem function, new growing frontiers have developed throughout Malaysia [39]. Between 1973 and 2000, there has been a 16% decline in mangrove ecosystems throughout the west coast of peninsular Malaysia, south coast of Sarawak, and eastern coast of Sabah [40]. Declines in Mangrove ecosystems are a threat to both the environment and livelihoods of local communities [41]. Acting as a buffer for coastlines and riverbanks, they can alleviate the impacts of environmental risks (flooding and tsunamis) [40] and have high intrinsic productivity and carbon storage capabilities [42]. While climate change is impacting Mangrove ecosystems through longer dry seasons and increased flooding; human drivers are perpetuating land use changes for rice agriculture, oil palm expansion, and aquaculture [39] [40].

To help mitigate these impacts, the Global Environment Centre developed a community-based mangrove conservation program alongside locals from the Pulau Tanjung Surat community [43]. Boundaries surrounding forest reserves along the Johor River are being cleared and altered for industrial and agriculture/aquaculture development [43]. The Program started in 2018 with the primary goals of empowering local communities to manage and rehabilitate mangrove ecosystems while improving ecosystem services. The program has outlined two distinct phases of success. The first phase focused on community outreach, training, and gathering support from government, enterprises, and NGO’s. In 2018 to 2019, the community outlined 3.5 hectares of land where ~5000 mangroves were planted [43]. Since 2019, their second phase transitioned financial and organizational management to locals and a nursery was built to house thousands of seedlings prior to planting [43]. Since the start of the project, direction and management has been led by the community. Locals are also allowed to use the nursery for provisional opportunities: selling seedlings to other planting initiatives [43]. Knowledge development and conservation has allowed for a commercialized ecotourism opportunity for visiting local through nature guide tours led by community members. Since 2018, the program has recognized a 70% average survival rate in mangroves planted by locals and mangrove rehabilitation has expanded across 5 hectares with 7000 trees with 276 participants involved [43].

Figure 6- Taman Negara National Park
Alanna: Taman Negara National Park

The Taman Negara National park is the oldest and largest park established in 1939, it spans 434,351 ha over three states, namely Pahang, Kelantan and Terengganu [44]. This park is an important piece of conservation because of its biodiversity to flora and fauna some of which are endemic, rare, vulnerable or otherwise threatened. In terms of flora the national park has one of the richest areas in terms of plant species and genetic diversity and hosts more than 3,000 species of plants [44]. As well this National Park hosts the largest populations of animals that consist of about 150 species of mammals including some endangered species like the Indochinese Tiger, Sumatran Rhinoceros, Malayan Gaur (seladang) and Asian Elephant [45]. This park was created to protect endangered species in flora and fauna. This has been largely successful with the funds from the national park being rerouted back into the management of the park. However there are still issues of land clearings, which speaks to the lack of law enforcement. (Fig.6)

Dion: Royal Belum State Park Conservation

The Belum-Temengor Rainforest is located in Perak, Malaysia and is one of the world’s oldest rainforests with its origins dating back to approximately 130 million years ago[46]. It it is the largest connected forest in Peninsular Malaysia [46]. It hosts a diverse range of flora and fauna with approximately more than 80 species of mammals residing in the forest [46]. There are numerous endangered species such as Elephas maximus maximus and Pantherea tigris jacksoni as well as threatened plant species like Dipterocarpus costatus [46]. The Royal Belum State Park and the Temengor Forest Reserve make up the two regions of the rainforest [47].

In 2007, the Royal Belum State Park was declared a protected area with the intent to protect the natural biodiversity of the region through biodiversity education and ecotourism [46]. However, the forest reserve has since been heavily marketed as a tourist attraction and has negatively impacted the Jahai (residing predominantly in the northern region of the forest) and Temiar (residing in the southern region of the forest) indigenous communities [48]. As tourism interests prevailed, many of the communities were forcibly removed as tourist sites were built [49]. Insufficient management and lack of control of the reserve led to overfishing, poaching activities and deforestation which has taken away sources of livelihood for the indigenous communities as well as leaving threatened species vulnerable [49]. As such, these conservation efforts have led to detrimental outcomes to the indigenous populations. However, the Perak State Park Corporation created the Menraq Patrol Unit which integrates the Jahai and NGOs to safeguard the forest against illegal activities such as poaching [50]. The Jahai’s traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) of the landscape has resulted in a reported 90% reduction in poaching activities [50]. The success of this initiative is in congruence with the growing literature that supports involvement of indigenous communities in conservation practices.

Alejandra: Conservation and Indigenous Lands: A Political Approach in Sarawak

As of 2007, under the Malaysian constitution, the state is the warden of indigenous peoples and only Muslim Malays can own land[51]. The Aboriginal People's Act further takes away the rights of indigenous people in Malaysia, especially the right to hold individual land titles and to have mobility within the country. The state also utilizes mechanisms of land acquisition through extinguishment notices to take away the native title of the land. Local state authorities and entities meant to protect indigenous rights also consistently align with governmental interests to protect Malay industry[51][52].

The logging industry in Sarawak has been particularly detrimental to the indigenous people as well as the environment with logging practices leaving no traces of the previous forest. This affects even non-timber vegetation. As such, biodiversity has declined and pollution from timber harvesting such as sawdust, mud and chemical spills have contaminated local health and food supply[51].

There have been several successes to reclaim and protect ancestral land, hunting and fishing grounds through court actions[52]. As of 2007, more than 50 cases have been brought to court[51]. There have also been several activist campaigns[53] such as the Long Sayan Declaration which has a list of demands:

  • A stop to all logging operations
  • Recognition of native rights and customary life
  • For each Penan group to have a protected communal forest
  • Establishing a real, community- conscious and fair consultation process for the management of their sovereign forest.[54]

Blockades, marches, national and international media and internet campaigns and acts of civil disobedience resulting in arrests amplified this issue[54]. Authorities became violent against the indigenous groups after logging and palm oil companies complained to the state about losing profit[53].

The Orang Ulu and indigenous peoples of Sarawak continue to fight for their ancestral land and the protection of their communal rights. In turn, indigenous peoples holding different values to the bumiputera are able to steward the land and continue with their ancestral relationships and ways of living.

Tobin: Tropical Rainforest Conservation & Research Centre

The Tropical Rainforest Conservation & Research Centre (TRCRC) is a nonprofit organization in Malaysia that seeks to protect endangered plant species by germinating and propagating seeds in nurseries[55][56][57][58]. These nurseries have volunteers to ensure the survival of the plants[59]. Once the plants are grown they are replanted in other places across the country to reconnect forest fragments as part of their restoration effort[55].

They create nurseries called “Living Collections”[60][61]. Their first nursery was established in 2012 and is 224 hectares in Merisuli, Sabah (which is roughly half the area of UBC’s Vancouver campus’s 400 hectares). Their second Living Collection was established in 2013 and is 500 hectares in Banun, Perak[62][61][60].

Many of the plant species that they collect seeds from are dipterocarps[61]. Dipterocarps in this region are usually masting trees which means that most of the tree community releases seeds (as fruiting bodies) once every several years (it takes 5-7 in Malaysia)[55][61]. This strategy is a way for the plants to overwhelm herbivory and to maximize plant survival[61][63]. This strategy is effective against herbivory as herbivore populations decline in the period before the masting event and therefore do not have the numbers to consume all the seeds[63]. However this makes collecting the seeds difficult as the seeds are only viable for a couple days before they die, and are only produced every 5-7 years, making it a difficult project for the TRCRC[61][59]. The TRCRC focuses on the species that are in non-protected areas, especially those near quarries and other intense land use areas[61][58].

One example of a tree they are helping is the Vatica kanthanensis[58]. This species was first discovered (and has yet to be observed elsewhere) on one limestone massif in 2013[64][65]. There have been fewer than 80 individuals observed and since its discovery, there have been no records of saplings growing on the site[58]. This massif has been a quarry for cement since the 1960s which has been the main reason for deforestation in that location[66]. As of 2014, the quarry had been set to expand operation across the massif, which would extend into an area that has various other species of plants that have only just been discovered as well as numerous species that are critically endangered and in need of conservation aid[66]. The TRCRC is actively advocating for the conservation of the Vatica kanthanensis and surrounding area as they are now in partnership with the cement company to work to protect it[58].

TRCRC's approach focuses on working with the land and the people who inhabit the land to protect it. Ecologically unsustainable land use in Malaysia is often the only sustainable way for some low income farmers to make a living, and having programs like the TRCRC to mitigate harmful effects on biodiversity is a key way to help conservation efforts in Malaysia[8].

The success and progress of TRCRC can be seen in their seed collection. The TRCRC collected 16,000 seeds in just two months of 2019 which is up from the 26,000 in the previous three years combined[61]. The TRCRC also works to engage the local community of Jahai, who contribute to taking care of the nursery[67]. TRCRC are active with social media and are very informative and transparent in their captions further helping to engage with their community and thus be more effective as an organization in terms of working with the local people[68].

Final Project

Please enjoy the guided tour through our final project!

To see it full size please visit:

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Please use the Wikipedia reference style. Provide a citation for every sentence, statement, thought, or bit of data not your own, giving the author, year, AND page.

For dictionary references for English-language terms, I strongly recommend you use the Oxford English Dictionary. You can reference foreign-language sources but please also provide translations into English in the reference list.

Note: Before writing your wiki article on the UBC Wiki, it may be helpful to review the tips in Wikipedia: Writing better articles.[69]

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