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Protecting BIMP-EAGA’s Rich Biodiversity through Heritage Parks

Date Published
December 13, 2022

Mt. Apo, a dormant volcano, is the country’s highest mountain and known as the last stronghold of the endangered Philippine eagle. Photo credit: iStock/Ruelito Pine.

BIMP-EAGA is a biologically important subregion in Southeast Asia. It is home to 13 of the 51 ASEAN Heritage Parks, which are protected areas of high conservation importance to the region. These parks encompass terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems that support endemic and endangered flora and fauna.

In Brunei Darussalam, the Tasek Merimbun Heritage Park in Tutong District is the biggest wildlife sanctuary and one of seven important bird areas in the country. Tasek Merimbun is a unique black water lake and the largest lake in Brunei.

In Indonesia, the Bantimurung-Bulusaraung National Park in South Sulawesi is the second-largest karst area in the world and features several prehistoric caves. The park is home to the Sulawesi moor macaque, red-knobbed hornbill, cuscus, and Sulawesi palm civet, and endemic butterfly species, such as Papilio blumei, Papilio polytes, Papilio sataspes, and Graphium androcles. In Southeast Sulawesi, Wakatobi National Park is designated as a biosphere reserve by UNESCO and a high biodiversity area in the Coral Triangle region. Protected species in the park include the yellow-crested cockatoo, Pacific reef heron, green sea turtle, hawksbill sea turtle, coconut crab, horned helmet, Triton’s trumpet, and giant clams. In Papua province, Lorentz National Park is the largest protected area in Southeast Asia at 2.5 hectares and the only protected area in the world that has snow-capped mountains linked with a tropical marine environment, including extensive lowland wetlands. Puncak Cartenz is the highest peak east of the Himalayas.

Gunung Mulu National Park has the second highest mountain peak in Sarawak and features an outstanding karst terrain. Photo credit: iStock/stockstudioX.

In Malaysia, Gunung Mulu National Park has the second highest mountain peak in Sarawak and one of the most extensive limestone cave systems in the world, where millions of swiftlets and bats roost. It features an outstanding karst terrain. Kinabalu National Park is one of the major attractions in Sabah, offering a wide range of habitats— from “rich tropical lowland and hill rainforest to tropical mountain forest, sub-alpine forest and scrub on the higher elevations.” Its highest peak is Mt. Kinabalu and its lowest elevation is Poring Hot Spring. It has been designated as a center for plant diversity in the region.

In the Philippines, Mindanao boasts of six ASEAN Heritage Parks. Mt. Apo Natural Park is an important watershed and a key biodiversity area in the country. Mt. Apo, a dormant volcano, is the country’s highest mountain and known as the last stronghold of the endangered Philippine eagle. Mt. Hamiguitan Range Wildlife Sanctuary protects terrestrial and aquatic habitats, and it features a fragile tropical “bonsai” forest. Threatened species in the park include the Mindanao Bleeding-heart dove, Philippine warty pig, and Pointed-snouted tree frog. Mt. Kitanglad Range NaturaI Park features densely forested slopes, numerous caves, more than a dozen mountain peaks, several waterfalls, and a hot spring. Mt. Malindang Range Natural Park has seven major peaks with Mt. Malindang as the highest and Mt. Ampiro as the lowest, and features waterfalls, crater lake and dense virgin forests. Mts. Timpoong–Hibok-Hibok Natural Monument is a key biodiversity area in the country that is rich in species diversity and high level of endemism. It serves as watershed for Camiguin island. Waterfalls, cold springs, hot springs, and soda waters make it an ideal ecotourism destination. Agusan Marsh Wildlife Sanctuary is largest and least disturbed freshwater wetland in the country with a complex network of lakes, rivers, marsh, and ponds.

The Philippine province of Palawan encompasses Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park, which sits in the middle of the Sulu Sea. UNESCO calls it “an excellent example of a pristine coral reef with a spectacular 100-m perpendicular wall, extensive lagoons and two coral islands.” It has a high density of marine species and also serves as a nesting site for birds and marine turtles.

The Sulu-Sulawesi Marine Ecoregion is part of the Coral Triangle, which is considered the center of global marine biodiversity where the highest number of colorful reef and marine fishes, various sizes of corals and shells, myriad shapes of algae, and protective mangrove forests are found. Photo credit: iStock/ifish.

Best protected areas

“ASEAN Heritage Parks are the ‘cream of the crop’ protected areas in the ASEAN region that were recognized for their biological and ecological diversity,” said Executive Director Theresa Mundita Lim of the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity on 29 November, ASEAN Heritage Parks Day. These are part of the region’s “nature-based solution in building a sustainable future for all.”

The 1984 ASEAN Declaration on Heritage Parks and Reserves established a program to promote greater awareness and collaboration among member states in preserving their shared natural heritage. The ASEAN Heritage Parks program seeks to protect the complete spectrum of representative ecosystems in the region.

Southeast Asia comprises almost 20% of the world’s biodiversity. Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines are recognized as megadiverse countries, while Cambodia, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Myanmar, Thailand, and Viet Nam make up a large part of the Indo-Burma biodiversity hotspot.

The ASEAN Heritage Parks are the region’s best protected areas. They showcase innovations on participatory planning and collaborative management; sustainable ecotourism; law enforcement; on-the-ground conservation activities, such as patrolling; sustainable infrastructure development; and the use of digital platforms, such as for protected area monitoring. Park activities, such as cultural events, raise public awareness on the value of biodiversity and the need to preserve it.

However, much more needs to be done to protect the region’s rich biodiversity. “To effectively manage protected and conserved areas, such as the ASEAN Heritage Parks, there is a need to build financial sustainability among protected areas; scale up public and private sector partnerships that mainstream biodiversity into collaboration agreements; and ensure the participation of women, youth, and local communities in the decision-making processes in protected area management planning, as well as in implementation and monitoring,” said Lim.

Preventing another pandemic

Biodiversity conservation plays a vital role in a resilient and sustainable recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. The zoonotic source of the virus underscores the importance of keeping natural habitats healthy.

The effective management of protected and conserved areas may be the “game-changer that can turn the tide against emerging diseases by acting as buffers to contain pathogens, and also as natural gene pools that can be sources and inspiration for primary and adjunct treatments to illnesses,” said Lim.

Recommendations from the 7th ASEAN Heritage Parks Conference (AHP 7) this year in Bogor, Indonesia include how the region can prevent and control the spread of deadly diseases from animals to humans.

The endangered green sea turtle is important to the marine ecosystem as it helps maintain healthy seagrass beds and coral reefs. Photo credit: iStock/Jao Cuyos.

Reversing biodiversity loss

The post-2020 global biodiversity framework being finalized at the United Nations Biodiversity Conference (COP15) this December in Montreal, Canada is also expected to help further strengthen conservation efforts in the region.

“ASEAN looks forward to having a realistic set of guidance in boosting our efforts in expanding and enhancing the region’s protected and conserved areas, which can be a cornerstone of a sustainable recovery for all,” Lim said.

Nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history. An estimated one million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades. ASEAN countries have called for transformative actions to achieve the UN Convention on Biological Diversity’s 2050 Vision of “Living in Harmony with Nature.” These include “conserving and restoring prioritized ecosystems with strong actions curbing species extinctions, improving management effectiveness of protected areas, and promoting sustainable use, and securing the fair and equitable benefit-sharing from the utilization of genetic resources.”