Private lives in public (The Straits Times Life!, Tuesday 10 July 2012)

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Private lives in public

Flora and fauna including rare finds in Singapore’s rainforests are the subject of a new book

Chang Ai-Lien
Senior Correspondent

Singapore’s rainforests are home to a rich array of plants and animals, including the prized Tongkat Ali aphrodisiac.

A new book by the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research at the National University of Singapore highlights these treasures, many of which even the most avid visitor to nature parks may not have set eyes on.

The new book, Private Lives: An Expose Of Singapore’s Rainforests, follows on the heels of three other popular nature books by the museum at the university’s Faculty of Science on seashores, mangroves and freshwater.

The latest book, which took a year to put together, is a treasure trove of stunning photographs and interesting nuggets of information. It was the combined effort of 19 writers – naturalists and scientists, four of whom were editors.

One of the editors, head of the museum’s education unit Wang Luan Keng, says: “Our aim is to showcase the country’s rich biodiversity which Singaporeans may not know of. It’s so rich, in fact, that we’ re still finding out how much we don’t know.”

Singapore’s biodiversity as a whole remains so abundant that more than 100 species completely new to science have been found here in recent years. These range from new species of moss to fishes, spiders, shrimps and barnacles.

The Republic is home to more than 40,000 native species of flora and fauna which have survived despite extensive habitat destruction.

Museum director Professor Peter Ng says: “While it is somewhat sad to think about what we have lost , the fact remains that we still have much to study, conserve and be proud of. This book offers interesting insights into the wonderful plants and animals still surviving, thriving and surprising us in our rainforests.”

Ambassador- At- Large of Singapore Professor Tommy Koh, writing in the foreword , noted how the Singapore Index on Cities’ Biodiversity – a tool to monitor, assess and manage the status of biodiversity in urban areas – had been adopted by the conference of parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity in Nagoya in 2010.

“The rapid loss of the world’s biodiversity and the degradation of our ecosystems will ultimately pose a threat to life on earth,” he wrote. “Singapore has pioneered the idea that cities can play a role in the conservation of the world’s biodiversity.”

Apart from the comprehensive look at animal and plant life, the book also touches on issues relevant here, such as the conflicts of conserving biodiversity on a small and highly urbanised island.

One chapter looks at the natural products from the forest and how it is a vital store of medicine and food, while another highlights some rarely seen forest denizens which come to life at night.

It also pays tribute to one of Singapore’s long-standing “eco-warriors”, botanist Wee Yeow Chin. The former Nature Society (Singapore) president “has been a tireless and feisty fighter for what he believes in, always ready to roll up his shirtsleeves and engage in full-on fisticuffs if need be”.

Among his many achievements, the book noted how he was one of the first local botanists to sound the alarm when Bukit Timah Nature Reserve began drying out in the 1970s and 1980s.

Quarrying, road and housing developments had begun to encroach, and lightning strikes started puncturing the forest canopy. He campaigned for the halt of quarrying, the reforested buffer zones and extensions to the reserve that became a reality in the 1990s, it said.

The book project was completed with a $40,000 grant by ExxonMobil. It is on sale at bookshops at a recommended retail price of $22 for the paperback copy and $35 for the hardcover version.

Proceeds from the sale of the books go towards more nature publications and biodiversity projects, and next in line is a book exploring Singapore’s marine life.

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