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The Straits Times 9 Aug 05
Living sanctuary
The niche areas are safe havens for plants and animals. Chang Ai-Lien discovers

OUT of sight, out of mind. Perhaps, but pristine pockets of lushness tucked away from the public eye have blossomed in privacy.

'Security areas such as Pulau Tekong have served as a 'forcefield' to keep Singapore's most threatened animals and plants safe in their own bubble,' said Associate Professor Peter Ng, head of the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research here. The trained eye can spy rare fossil ferns, survivors of the Jurassic age - growing in colonies in the north-eastern island, where many of the Singapore Armed Forces' training areas lie.
Inside Track
Flora & Fauna

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I pick my battles: interview with Prof Peter Ng
Singapore namesakes: plants and animals named after Singapore

Dolphins have been spotted frolicking in surrounding waters, and the elusive leopard cat, recorded only twice on the mainland in the last decade, also seems to have found a niche there. Such animals and plants act as the barometer of the forest. So sensitive are they that they would perish with any slight change, say in moisture content or plant cover. That is why Singapore's most threatened mammal, one of perhaps two found only here, has holed up in an area on the mainland where human footsteps are rarely heard.

The last of the highly-endangered species, the cream-coloured giant squirrel, have been spotted at Singapore's only freshwater swamp in the central catchment area - Nee Soon swamp. While this shy creature is almost certainly doomed to extinction because there are too few left, solitude has helped other flora and fauna to thrive. For instance, there may still be hope for the other mammal unique to Singapore - the banded leaf monkey, which also calls the swampy forest home.

The protected area is a rich hunting ground for researchers. It is home to one-quarter of the remaining freshwater crabs and fish here, including two species which Prof Ng discovered and named.

When Raffles landed in Singapore in 1819, roughly 5 per cent of the land - a whopping 2,900 ha - was covered in freshwater swamps. All that remains now is a tiny pocket - 87 ha - found primarily in Nee Soon Swamp. Enveloping the SAF's firing ranges, it is too dangerous for the public to go wandering in.

But this wet, flooded lowland, with its clear, tea-coloured pools full of shimmering fish and shadowy cool foliage, could easily have come out of Tolkien's Lord Of The Rings. The area has been carbon-dated by researchers to at least 5,320 years before the Ice Age, when the area was high and dry, before melting ice flooded it.

A walk through the spongy wetness will yield delights - insect-eating pitcher plants, transparent damselflies with electric blue heads, 'acorns' falling from tropical oaks. Not surprising, considering this is a last refuge for all these special creatures hemmed in by civilisation.

Said Prof Ng: 'The fact that some of the animals are still present or even thriving in these areas is testimony that the SAF has played an admirable role, not just in protecting the people of Singapore, but its earlier inhabitants as well.'

Related articles on Singapore's biodiversity and Wild shores of Singapore

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