In case you missed it, four Malaysians emerged among the Top 5 nature observers in the world, with the No. 1 position claimed by an undergraduate from Universiti Malaya (UM).
When did all this happen? In late-April at the global City Nature Challenge (CNC), which took place worldwide in 68 cities simultaneously, including Kuala Lumpur. The results came out a month later.
CNC is a bioblitz-styled, mobile app-based competition in which cities compete to see who can gather the most observations of the environment, find the most species, and engage the most people.
In Malaysia, the first Klang Valley City Nature Challenge (KVCNC) was co-organised by Rimba Project and Water Warriors, two environment projects based on UM grounds.
(Rimba Project is an education and outreach programme in urban ecology and conservation based at UM’s Rimba Ilmu Botanic Garden. while Water Warriors is a project that protects and conserves water bodies on the UM campus.)
Klang Valley is the first Malaysian – and Southeast Asian – urban area to compete in the event. KVCNC saw observations made in and around Klang Valley that will help establish a publicly-accessible biodiversity baseline.
Overall, 25,287 observations were made of 1,775 species – including protozoans, fungi, plants, insects and animals – by 682 observers and 284 identifiers. In the category of total observations made, Klang Valley finished fourth among the 68 cities.
The top observer title went to Tan Kai Ren, a third-year undergraduate in ecology and biodiversity at UM, with 4,872 observations. He snatched the spot from over 17,000 international competitors.
Klang Valley also added the most new species from its environs onto the iNaturalist database, at 1,392. This does not mean the discovery of new species – just that the species are new to the database.
While this may mean the event’s scientific impact isn’t so significant, what is far more interesting is its public engagement, says Rimba Project founder Benjamin Ong. “We actually managed to get enough people interested in documenting such a wide array of species – the educational potential of this achievement is huge.”
He added: “I think this is a very solid start for citizen science in urban biodiversity conservation. Prior to this, there have been citizen science efforts focused on specific groups of plants and animals (e.g., trees, butterflies and birds), or on particular habitats like forest reserves.
“To the best of our knowledge, this is the first Malaysian bioblitz of this scale across the entire Klang Valley where we had observations from Klang to Gombak to Putrajaya, and across all taxa (groups) of plants and animals.
“In particular, we wanted to make the case that biodiversity is all around us, even in the city, and we are very happy that many of the observations made were literally in people’s backyards, schools, workplaces and residential neighbourhoods.”
Ong says there is still room for improvement. “Although we made over 25,000 observations, we only managed to identify around 1,700 species. Also, we only had 279 identifiers (versus nearly 700 participants). This means that, at most, only a third of the participants were able to identify what they observed.
“Therefore, moving forward, we intend to help people gain confidence in identifying some of the common plant and animal species in the city. We also intend to build networks that involve professional scientists as well as amateur naturalists to assist in this capacity building. Saying that there’s ‘plenty of data to sort, including many observations we have yet to identify!’”
Ong adds that the plan is to organise the data into a repository that can be easily accessed by the general public, and that can be used for nature and environmental education.
The final tally from all the cities involved in the international CNC was 441,888 observations from 17,329 people taking part. The San Francisco Bay Area won all three categories of most observations (41,737), most species found (3,211) and most participants (1,532).
The event also made 4,075 research-grade observations of 599 rare, endangered and threatened species globally, and added over 100 new species that had not previously been recorded on the iNaturalist database before.
The first CNC was held in 2016, organised by the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and California Academy of Sciences in the United States. It was an eight-day competition between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Over 20,000 observations were made by more than 1,000 people in a one-week period, cataloguing approximately 1,600 species in each location.
In 2017, the CNC spread across the US, and this year it was held as an international event with nature-related organisations in cities across the globe organising the event in their local areas.