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The Straits Times 9 Aug 05
Waterfront developments
Chang Ai-Lien discovers some of the treasures that Chek Jawa in Pulau Ubin holds

IT IS the poster child of conservation. The intertidal nature site of Chek Jawa on Singapore's rustic Pulau Ubin was preserved because people from all walks of life rallied around it, persuading the authorities to put off reclamation there. And now, the waving pastures of sea grass, the soft shores strewn with carpet anemones and sea stars, are theirs to enjoy.

For years, this special spot was secret, because its bounty surfaced only for a few hours during the lowest of tides. It was only in late 2000 that nature lovers stumbled on it during an outing.
Inside Track
Flora & Fauna

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Garden of Eden: Tree Top Walk
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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

The beauty of Chek Jawa is that several different ecosystems converge in this 1 sq km space, including rocky shore, coastal hill forest, rich sand and mudflats. It also holds Singapore's only seagrass lagoon, where families of dugong gather in the dusk to graze.

'In the beginning, the native life was devastated because of the uncontrolled walking and collecting,' said Mr How Choon Beng, the National Parks Board Senior Outreach Officer for Pulau Ubin. Now, good controls are in place to allow people full enjoyment of the unique creatures there, while protecting them.

To prevent trampling from heavy feet, visitors walk along designated routes during low tide periods. Volunteers point out the interesting animal life that can be invisible to the untrained eye, such as the ultimate upgraders - hermit crabs, which swap shells when their old homes get too cosy; or the leaf porter crab, which camouflages itself by carrying a leaf on its back.

There is also one of Chek Jawa's most memorable creatures, the nodular sea star - almost 30cm in length, its rough surface covered in bumps, and coloured anything from dirty green to pink.

Further down near the mangroves, they can see the Nipah palm, whose leaves are used to make thatched roofs. Flesh from its young seeds is soaked in sugar syrup to create atap-chee.

Visitors on the fully-booked trips used to have a special guide. Priscilla, a wild boar hand-raised as a piglet by villagers, was a frequent companion on the tours until she died last year.

And to allow more people to enjoy the wonders of Chek Jawa, a walkway meandering along the coasts and into the mangroves - which will be completed by next year - will bring visitors up close to its inhabitants, without harming them.

Visitors who arrive on Ubin also get to sample locally grown rambutans, jackfruit and durian, or feast on fresh seafood and cycle along the winding tracks. Through this, they learn quickly that the kampong isle is much more than Chek Jawa, and has rich pickings in terms of nature.

Ubin contains much the same life that Singapore would have had if there was little or no development. It provides a glimpse into Singapore's natural flora and fauna which can no longer be seen on the mainland, such as the last few wild populations of the red junglefowl.

Many hear the raucous calls of the Southern pied hornbills, or if they're really lucky, see their slow, laboured flight as they glide in formation overhead. The large black and white bird, once thought extinct here, is making a miraculous comeback. Guides have spotted groups of 17 foraging for fruit and crabs, as well as three nesting sites last year.

There is also the Sensory Trail. The 1.5-km walk is designed to allow the blind to touch and smell fruit trees, spices and herbs, plants used in traditional medicine and native plants of the mangrove forest. Lemongrass, for example, acts as a mosquito repellent when the leaves are crushed and the juice rubbed over the skin.

A trek up Ubin's highest point, the 75-m high Puaka Hill, will give visitors a bird's eye view of the granite island's largest quarry, with its grey and ochre rock walls and clear jade waters 10-storeys deep. Along the way, they will have to traverse trails thick with ferns and undergrowth, and meet some native inhabitants as well.

NParks is working with partners to document the biodiversity of the island's flora and fauna, as well as planting trees to reforest jungle areas, home to civet cats, bats, wild boars and many others. Said Mr How: 'We have to know what we have so that we can protect it.'

More about Chek Jawa and Pulau Ubin
Related articles on Singapore's biodiversitys and Wild shores of Singapore

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