EYE ON SINGAPORE; Biodiversity in the Singapore story

Is there a place for Biodiversity in the Singapore Story?

Professor Leo Tan at Labrador Beach (Image from Wildfilms)

EYE ON SINGAPORE; Biodiversity in the Singapore story

Grace Chua

THE other day, as I stood drying my hands in a Botanic Gardens bathroom, I saw a crimson sunbird flitting about, not 3m from the roar of the hand-dryer.

The common bird is a scarlet, palm-length marvel, right there for the viewing for anyone with a little patience and a good set of eyes.

It’s not the only surprise Singapore’s biodiversity has in store.

As a tropical island, Singapore has an impressive list of species both resident and visitor – more than 300 bird species, 58 mammal and 68 freshwater fish species.

Its marine biodiversity is even richer. Singapore waters host a third of the world’s hard coral species and more than 100 species of intertidal sponge.

Among the species found are some “fellow Singaporeans”, such as the rare mangrove Bruguiera hainesii or berus mata buaya, the crocodile’s eye in Malay; the Elysia singaporensis, a 3cm, leaf-shaped aquatic slug; and the Johora singaporensis, a highly endangered freshwater stream crab found nowhere else on Earth.

They live cheek by jowl with other introduced species that have decided to settle here and breed.

Some, like the green crested lizard, are pushed further into the forest by foreign competitors such as the changeable lizard.

Who knows what other species have been lost to development? Singapore’s mangroves have shrunk from 6,400ha in 1953 to about 500ha today, and field biologists have seen old sites, such as Tanjong Gul in Tuas and Tanah Merah beach, turned into industrial areas and runways.

Still, its current diversity belies the line, often used by proponents of further development, that urbanised Singapore is a sterile place.

Arguably, biodiversity in a highly urbanised city-state is a balancing act.

Singapore has one of the world’s busiest ports, but it is also carrying out its largest-scale audit of marine life yet to better understand what is out there and how best to protect it.

Why protect Singapore’s wildlife, though?

I’d argue that the story of Singapore’s biodiversity is really the story of Singapore the city.

Once upon a time, during an ice age, sea levels were much lower than they are today. Singapore the island was physically connected to the greater Asian land mass by a chunk of land called the Sunda shelf. Then, animals could cross from what is now Sumatra to what is now Borneo, or from today’s Singapore to Malaysia.

Today, these countries share overlapping sets of land animals, testament that they were once a continuous land mass, just as languages, ethnicities and food dishes Singapore shares with its neighbours point to a common heritage.

Fast-forward a few millennia. Singapore the city has its own rhythms: the shipping port, the hawker centres, schools, offices, buses, trains. Singapore’s ecosystems have their own: night, day, the tides, the seasonal bloom of durian flowers, the spawning of coral.

To see all these, one has to get out almost before dawn. Then, flocks of swifts wheel overhead, snapping up insects on the wing. Low tide can be in the middle of the night but is the best time to spot exposed shore life.

Sometimes, nature comes straight to you. Early one morning, I nearly tripped over a pangolin on a MacRitchie nature trail.

Those who study it are a different breed from the rest of us. National University of Singapore biologist Zeehan Jaafar spends her time staring at gobies, small fish the size of an ikan bilis – and they are all brown. As time goes by, she said, they do look different. One spot? Two spots? One stripe? Three?

“I think people like to study the big sexy things, but in terms of biomass, the small ones are very important,” she said, referring to the sheer mass of living organisms.

There is a lesson here.

In an ecosystem, just as in a city, every species counts. Not just the big charismatic ones or the flashy pretty ones. The small brown ones are predators and prey for other, larger fish. They are what keep the ecosystem chugging along.

And no one knows what is there until someone bothers to look.

In the last few years, both public and private funding has gone to a comprehensive marine biodiversity survey, which has already revealed several species such as a fat, bumpy anemone that could be entirely new to science.

I may never have seen all of Singapore’s organisms alive but it should be a point of national pride to know they are out there. Even the small brown ones.

Today, Singapore is building its first natural history museum in decades.

“It’s not about dead specimens,” said Professor Leo Tan, a biologist who was chairman of the National Parks Board and director of the Singapore Science Centre and is now helming fund-raising for the new Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum.

“The dead animal tells me a lot about how they live, how they survive.”

Other spaces can be living museums as well, Prof Tan said.

For example, the Labrador Nature Reserve holds the mainland’s only remaining coral reef.

Without places like it, “your future generations will never appreciate how far we have come because they will never see what Raffles saw, what Singapore was when he landed”, he said.

The story of Singapore’s biodiversity, then, is a crucial part of Singapore’s history.

“Biodiversity does not observe national boundaries,” pointed out Dr Lena Chan, director of the National Biodiversity Centre at NParks.

So just as Singapore negotiates its place in international trade and other agreements, it is also a party to international conservation agreements such as the Convention on Biological Diversity, and has helped come up with an index for cities to gauge how well they are protecting their nature.

Singapore’s biodiversity is also clawing itself back. Seeds dropped on farms or kampungs cleared 30 years ago are now mature trees.

Now it must be managed, both to keep it thriving and to slow its approach as plenty of uses compete for the same space.

But where such natural spaces are available, both human and animal life can thrive. And it does so despite the odds, with the building of condominiums next to forest areas and the bustling ship traffic and refinery activity.

Prof Tan likes to tell of sea turtles hatching at East Coast Park several times in the last few years. Human volunteers shepherded them the right way, out to sea.

They may have swum around the world, and East Coast Park may be a flat patch of reclaimed land far too bright at night for their liking, but it makes no difference to them.

In 20 years, provided there is a beach to swim up on, when it comes time for these hawksbill turtles to lay their eggs, they will come home.

This is a Singaporean story indeed.

caiwj@sph.com.sg

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