By Sean Yap
As more Singaporeans start to appreciate nature, natural history and heritage are slowly stepping up to a larger stage on the national agenda.
The word ‘Singapore’ brings to mind a bustling, efficient city. Having the third-highest per capita income and one of the five busiest ports in the world, it is only natural that Singapore is associated with incredible financial success. In all that economic glory, it is easy to overlook Singapore’s wealth of natural history and her heritage.
In fact, our little island nation, in the course of history, was home to two famous naturalists, one of them being Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles himself.
Many of you would know Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles as the founder of Singapore and, of course, the very school you are studying in, but perhaps few would know that he was also a keen naturalist who had a deep fascination with the biodiversity in the region. So enthusiastic was he that he actually employed zoologists and botanists to find out all that they could about the region’s biodiversity, and hired assistants at his personal expense to help him collect specimens. He even reared a sun bear together with his kids, and it often joined them for dinner! Upon returning to England, he co-founded the world-famous Zoological Society of London (of which he was its first president) as well as the London Zoo. As he was rather well known in natural history circles, a number of animals and plants have been named in his honour. Perhaps most famous of these would be the Rafflesia, a genus of parasitic plants which he discovered on an expedition to a jungle in Sumatra in 1818. These plants are endemic to Southeast Asia and produce the world’s largest and possibly the most spectacular (albeit vile-smelling) flowers.
The other famous naturalist is someone biology students might be familiar with. Alfred Russell Wallace is best known for conceiving the theory of evolution through natural selection and being the ‘father of biogeography’. He also wrote prolifically about both scientific and social issues, and his journal of his adventures and observations while exploring Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia, The Malay Archipelago, is regarded as the best journal of scientific exploration published during the 19th century. He stopped over in Singapore in 1854 and collected many species of beetles in the vicinity of Dairy Farm Nature Park, where the Wallace Education Centre, Wallace Environmental Learning Lab and Wallace Trail (all named after him) were set up by NParks and RGS.
At this point you’d probably be thinking: ‘But that was all history, surely in modern Singapore, a sprawling urban jungle where the national bird is the construction crane (actually, it is the crimson sunbird), there is no place for the naturalist!’
Indeed, many organisms that once used to call Singapore home have since abandoned ship or gone extinct altogether, seeing as how we only have less than five percent of our original forest cover, and many of our natural shores have been reclaimed.
Even so, due to our geographic position, Singapore lies in a biodiversity hotspot, and in spite of rapid development, the biodiversity here is something still worth noting.
I spent my childhood watching documentaries and reading books on wildlife from all over the world, and grew up thinking that awesome wildlife could only be found overseas, in distant, exotic lands. I read of dolphins and eagles, and thought of them as animals that could only be seen locally in the Underwater World and Jurong Bird Park respectively. However, as I became actively engaged in the local nature scene, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Singapore is home to both wild native dolphins and eagles, as well as many other wonderful creatures and plants—what’s more, there were eagles nesting in my own backyard!
Our island is home to 30 percent of the world’s coral biodiversity, 375 species of birds, 305 (and counting) species of butterflies, and that’s only for the relatively well-studied animals. In fact, many other animals and plants such as tarantulas, sea turtles, otters and pitcher plants can all be found in the wild locally. In recent years, we’ve even discovered new species that are endemic to Singapore. Who can say how much more there is to discover in this field!
Our natural heritage is as valuable and important as any other form of national heritage, and concern for it should be encouraged in our endeavour to nurture an environmentally-conscious citizenship. Granted, many of the places where we currently live and work used to be natural areas. However, aspirations and mindsets have changed over time, and we now have greater appreciation for the few natural areas we have left—they are an integral part of our quality of life, whether as a recreation space or just for appreciation.
Conserving our natural heritage may also benefit our health. Nature Deficit Disorder, a hypothesis by American writer Robert Louv, theorises several negative effects on children growing up disconnected from nature, such as attention disorders, depression and obesity. It claims a number of causes, including the loss of accessible natural areas. There aren’t many pockets of easily accessible natural lush greenery left locally. A survey conducted by zoologists at Cambridge University showed that schoolchildren are better at recognising Pokémon characters than local wild animals, and I suspect this is equally true with children in Singapore.
We need to impress on our youths the importance of conservation and the natural environment. Exposure and proximity to nature is critically important in fostering resonance and improving the relationship between people and their natural environment.
In 2006, a Belgian entomologist, Patrick Grootaert, came to Singapore and discovered 150 new species of forest flies, exclaiming: ‘I was so surprised to find so many species here, with different communities living in microhabitats just 500 metres apart. We are just scratching the surface and the information is already overwhelming.’ He shared that the vast spectrum of creatures still undiscovered in tiny pockets of biodiversity here makes it even more critical to save what is left. ‘Singapore is like an open laboratory. All you need is a short drive and you get to see insects in their natural habitats, displaying and feeding,’ he observed.
Fortunately, visible change is underway. In the past, where economic imperatives and urban development were the overriding priorities, natural history of the island might have been kept at the periphery. Now, as people are becoming more discerning and more willing to take action, the green voice in Singapore is growing louder and the discourse on the conservation of our fragile natural history is becoming more intense. Local initiatives are mounting, led by the young and driven by their conviction and advocacy.
Tan Ming Kai, now a third-year life sciences student in NUS, loves orthopterans—grasshoppers, crickets and the like. Conducting field surveys in his own time outside of school and working with the National Biodiversity Centre (Nparks) and foreign experts, he has, as of the writing of this article, already discovered 15 species of orthopterans new to science (meaning no one has described them till now!)—a number that is sure to increase.
Ernest Aw and Zeng Tianchen (RI, 2008 & 2010) have chosen to inspire others into action instead, setting up Fyllum, a social enterprise promoting bio-diversification of the ecology via youth-initiated projects such as setting up a butterfly garden in Bishan Park. Huang Xinyuan (RGS, 2010) and Ruth Ng (RGS, 2010; RI, 2012) set up Youth for Ecology Singapore together with other like-minded youths, which holds dialogues with local youths to find out their concerns regarding the environmental impacts of the Population White Paper, with the objective of publishing their own paper to make these concerns known.
Within the school, Year 5–6 students from the Raffles Ecological Literacy Programme have published childrens’ storybooks featuring local wildlife and natural areas, in order to provide resources for our young learners while instilling in them a sense of place.
These are just a few examples of youths taking action for the conservation of our natural history and they represent an increasingly articulate and engaging segment of our citizenry.
In 2001, reclamation plans for Chek Jawa on Pulau Ubin were called off and deferred after a biodiversity survey conducted by NUS with conservationist volunteers and massive public feedback. More recently, many groups of residents have been raising concerns over the sudden burst of housing and other land use development that have encroached on numerous patch forests, such as Bukit Brown Cemetery and the Pasir Ris Greenbelt among others.
Military training areas help preserve biodiversity as a side effect, but with changing land use planned for mainland training areas, will the army still be able to protect our non-human citizens?
One important case currently is that of the Cross Island Line (CRL), which is planned to cut through the heart of the Central Catchment Nature Reserve. Ecological systems, especially in the tropics, are maintained in a fragile balance, and it is very difficult to predict what actions may or may not adversely affect the area, as even preliminary investigation works could be damaging and hard to recover from. This is especially so for a nature reserve, where a large proportion of our remaining but still importantly diverse flora and fauna reside.
Re-routing the CRL around the fringe instead of through the reserve would extend travelling time by only four minutes, but would also greatly reduce the impact on the area’s ecology and might also be able to serve built-up areas along that route. This is something Singaporeans will have to decide—it may cost more to build longer tunnels and tracks, but it may well be a worthwhile investment in the long term.
These are neither random acts of appeals nor scattered pockets of conservation efforts, but the sum total of the emerging national concern and aspirational needs of a people yearning to keep a precious piece of Singapore’s natural history and ecology. If Raffles was still alive today, what would he think of the country Singapore has become? Will we see the loss of our remaining biodiversity within our lifetime, or will our children still have access to parts of an unmanicured, wild Singapore in the future? Even though we have lost much of our natural heritage over the course of our short history, we have much left still that is worth preserving, and efforts have to be taken now if we want to prevent our natural history from becoming, well, history.
|Sean Yap (RI, 2008 & 2010) has been in love with nature since kindergarten, and has a soft spot for creepy crawlies and other ‘less charismatic’ animals. An alumnus of the Raffles Ecological Literacy Programme and the Raffles Science Institute. Sean is currently studying life sciences in NUS. Before this, he was a temporary staff at the National Biodiversity Centre at NParks, doing research on ladybird diversity in Singapore, and has published A Picture Guide to the Ladybird Beetles of Singapore, an online guidebook. He is also a volunteer with environmental volunteer groups such as Teamseagrass, NUS Toddycats and the Naked Hermit Crabs, and he jots down his experiences in his nature blog: http:// ourlittleurbaneden.wordpress.com.