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The Straits Times 9 Aug 05
Nature's rescuers
Meet the men and women who have made it their job to protect our precious greenery. By Chang Ai-Lien

WOULD you risk a nasty bite from razor-sharp canines to save a monkey entangled in fishing line and slowly drowning before your eyes?

How about wading waist deep in a mosquito-infested swamp to net creatures new to science, diving in a torrential downpour to plant new coral outcrops, or lobbying for decades against almost insurmountable odds to save a pile of rocks?

A small group of people has been quietly doing all this and more, day after day, year after year. Not for money, not for glory, but simply to document, preserve and share the rich treasure trove of animal and plant life Singapore has. Talk about passion.
Inside Track
Flora & Fauna

Main page
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

Thanks to these champions of nature, we enjoy the few pockets of biodiversity we have left, most of them one-of-a-kind mini-edens which are havens for animals and plants that could survive nowhere else.

'These are the true natives of Singapore. They were here long before we took over,' said National Parks Board chairman and Singapore National Academy of Science president Leo Tan. 'Surely they deserve a place here, and surely we should give our children and our children's children the opportunity to see them.'

Prof Tan successfully lobbied for the shores of Labrador Park - Singapore's only remaining rocky shore and reef and a much-loved area that he has explored since boyhood - to be saved from development and gazetted as a nature reserve.

NParks' assistant director for central nature reserve Sharon Chan is another example. She received a call from a frantic member of the public one evening several months ago, telling her that a macaque was drowning in MacRitchie Reservoir. 'I knew my rangers had left for the day, so I rushed down with a colleague,' she said.

When they reached the site, they found the baby primate helplessly entangled in a fishing line, while a large alpha male - the leader of the pack - stood by the water's edge, pulling at the smallest member of his troop in a futile attempt to set it free.

A short distance away, the entire group waited motionless just beyond the trees. 'The male was protective, and if he attacked, the whole troop would have charged,' she recalled. But, armed with just a penknife, she cut the monkey free while her colleague held it still. The big male did not move. The moment the baby was free of its entanglements, the alpha male snatched it and ran off.

'We must be crazy,' Ms Chan said with a smile. 'But when you see a situation like that, and how similar these monkeys are to humans, how can you do nothing?'

Led by chief executive officer Dr Tan Wee Kiat, NParks has been instrumental in research, public education, reforestation and clean up projects in Singapore's green spots. It is working with the National University of Singapore, for example, to document the rich biodiversity of intertidal life in areas such as Labrador Park and Chek Jawa, and has also organised coastal clean-ups in mangrove areas in Sungei Buloh and Pulau Ubin.

At the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity, an exhibition area features the region's fauna and flora through both preserved specimens and miniature living displays, and, among other things, the museum frequently organises public talks by animal and plant experts for the public.

Active volunteer groups and organisations have also helped to highlight how precious our natural heritage is by bringing it closer to the man on the street. Marine conservation group Blue Water Volunteers, for example, holds reef walks at Kusu Island during low tide to highlight to non-divers the beauty of Singapore's reefs.

The Nature Society Singapore, meanwhile, organises activities such as guided nature walks, bird and butterfly watching and slide shows, conducts conservation projects and surveys, and works with schools and community groups to promote nature appreciation and education. Some of its achievements include relocating coral reefs threatened by land reclamation, and staving off plans to develop part of Peirce Reservoir into a golf course.

Without the tireless professionals and volunteers, as well as enthusiastic members of the public who made their voices heard, gems like Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve and Chek Jawa would probably have been wiped off the map without a whimper.

That would have been a tragedy.

Singapore has already lost about half its animal species in the last 200 years. Based on detailed documentation of the state of mammals, birds, fish and butterflies on the island, a National University of Singapore study in 2003 found that at least 881 of 3,196 recorded species, or 28 per cent, had vanished forever.

Taking into account the probable number of animals here before detailed records were made in the late 1800s, it predicted that this figure was actually higher - about half.

The country has paid for its economic development, its first-class ports and increased land mass in currency partly made up of native flora and fauna. Since the British first established a presence here in the early 1800s, more than 95 per cent of the estimated 540 sq km of original vegetation has been cleared.

Now, nature reserves, which make up only 0.25 per cent of Singapore's land area, are home to more than half of the native animals here. But given Singapore's position at the heart of the tropics, what remains is some of the best there is.

Chek Jawa is a combination of six ecosystems within 1 sq km, a place where seagrass lagoons neighbour sandy shores and mangroves, and where dugongs almost rub noses with mudskippers and sea horses.

The Sungei Buloh reserve is a haven for over 200 species of birds, about two-thirds of those found in the entire island.

And one hectare of trees in Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, possibly the world's most ancient small rain forest reserve, contains more tree species than in the whole of North America. The fact that delicate rare plants there which would disappear at the slightest change seem to be thriving is a good sign. It means that the forest, for now at least, is in the pink.

Despite Singapore's urban sprawl, researchers routinely discover dozens of new species here every year that are native to the island. 'We may not have much forest or mangrove, but the diversity of animal life is much greater than we give it credit for,' said Associate Professor Peter Ng, director of the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research. 'There is so much we have yet to discover. We can't change history, but we must try to hang on to what we have now.'

In fact, nature is literally at our doorsteps. That is why species new to Singapore can be found slithering, flying or crawling just outside the NParks office off Island Club Road, and why a trip to the open-air toilet may result in visitors sharing it with stick insects and butterflies.

Even the shy mousedeer, a rarely seen creature here, has been spotted foraging just 50m away from the main road at Lower Peirce Reservoir, while the Southern Pied Hornbill, once thought to be extinct here, has made a surprising comeback in Pulau Ubin.

While nature areas act as retreats for what remaining plants and animals we have left, professionals and volunteers alike are also working hard to undo the damage that development has been responsible for.

Reforestation efforts are under way to help reinforce the native presence in areas such as Bukit Timah Nature Reserve and Pulau Ubin.

Other researchers are looking at the best way to grow coral, and have embarked on ambitious projects to regenerate the undersea areas devastated by the heavy silting in our waters.

They are our true entrepreneurs: using scarce money wisely, firing up the public in their causes, working against the odds, picking themselves up when they fail. The plants and animals won't thank them. But for these unsung heroes working tirelessly to salvage our national treasure, the reward is simply that they are still around.

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

  News articles are reproduced for non-profit educational purposes.

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