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The Straits Times 9 Aug 05
Green peace
Bukit Timah Nature Reserve contains the only virgin rainforest in Singapore
Chang Ai-Lien goes on a trek through it

IT IS the land of giants. There is nowhere else in Singapore where you can find trees that tower 80 metres into the sky. This includes one of the country's oldest trees - a 360-year-old Seraya, a valuable timber tree common in the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve.

Smack in the heart of one of the most jam-packed populations on earth, and just 12km from the city, this 164-ha emerald patch contains the only virgin rain forest here. It could also be the oldest small rain forest reserve in the world.
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Nature's rescuers
Living sanctuary: Nee Soon Swamp, Pulau Tekong
Garden of Eden: Tree Top Walk
Green peace: Bukit Timah Nature Reserve
Waterfront developments: Chek Jawa and Pulau Ubin
Coral islands: Southern Islands
Swamp things: Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve
Coast guard: Labrador Park
I pick my battles: interview with Prof Peter Ng
Singapore namesakes: plants and animals named after Singapore

A living, changing, growing entity, it has been a botanical collection centre for over 100 years, and is the site where many Malayan plants were first uncovered. Famed biologist Alfred Russel Wallace, who together with Charles Darwin was the first to name natural selection as an evolutionary mechanism, wrote of the richness of the forest in 1869. 'The vegetation was most luxuriant, comprising enormous forest trees, as well as a variety of ferns...'

Although most of the larger animals that roamed the forest have been snuffed out, the reserve has otherwise been able to cling to much of its original diversity. It holds 40 per cent of Singapore's native plants, for example, many of which are found nowhere else here.

A 10-year study of a 2-ha plot within the reserve by the National Institute of Education, National Parks Board, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and Harvard University found that this small square alone contained 347 species of trees. In fact, eminent conservationist Dr David Bellamy has pointed out that half this space holds more tree species than the whole of North America.

And these species have remained unchanged for at least 5,000 years, which is why people should not venture beyond the approved hiking trails, or they could damage the endangered species.

The reserve's fern valley holds plants which were first discovered in Singapore, and the fact that the fronds are proliferating means that the forest is doing well, said NParks' Sunia Teo, a senior conservation officer at the central nature reserve. Century-old specimens of the rare, extremely slow-growing Rhopaloblaste singaporensis palm can be found here.

The forest's night-time denizens include the flying lemur, whose eyes glow red in the light, and the banded bent-toed gecko, which, unlike its household cousin, the 'chik-chak', does not have sticky foot pads. You would have to be lucky to spot the regal changeable hawk eagle though.

But despite its lush foliage, some cynics have likened the fragile forest to a terminally-ill patient who's dying a little every day, because it has been slowly losing the essential elements that keep it pristine.

Without the help of larger birds such as hornbills, some trees could have difficulty dispersing fruit, for example. Opinions differ on whether native creatures should be reintroduced into the forest, and the debate is still going on.

But while it is unrealistic to think that such a tiny slice of forest could remain pristine in Singapore, it is the crown jewel of what we have left. It plays a critical role in regulating the climate, and is home to the greatest number of plants and animals out of all of Singapore's diverse ecosystems.

More about Bukit Timah Nature Reserve
Related articles on Singapore's biodiversity and Wild shores of Singapore

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