No need to go hog wild (The Sunday Times Think, Sunday 15 July 2012)

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 No need to go hog wild

There is a time to conserve and protect animals, and a time to manage their numbers

Sunday with Chua Mui Hoong Opinion Editor

My heart broke the weekend they felled the trees at Bishan Park.

This was about two years ago. I lived facing the park, right in front of a row of mature trees that shaded my flat from the direct morning sun.

I spent hours watching wildlife flit by from my study window. A pair of kingfishers colonised the canal railing nearly every day. A Brahminy kite would regularly perform aerial acrobatics, gleaming golden in the noon day sun. A pair of eagles nested in the large tree in front of my flat, and I watched when the hatchling tried to fly.

On one incredible day, I saw a kingfisher chase a monitor lizard chasing a frog into the innards of the canal. The lizard was larger than the bird. When I googled, I learnt that kingfishers may be tiny but are fearless when hunting lizards, one of their favourite prey.

I loved those trees, that green vista from my window, that front-seat view of creatures in the wild.

And then one day, they sent in the wreckers. I woke to the screech of electric saws and the roar of bulldozers. Men with weapons swarmed round, lassoing the trees with thick ropes. I watched in horror as they were felled.

I had never understood why they call conservationists tree-huggers until that morning. I considered running down to wrap my arms round “my” trees to protect them. I wanted to round up my neighbours to get a petition up.

But the saws whirred, the bulldozers moved and more trees fell.

I was so upset, I closed all the windows, drew the blinds, left the flat and stayed away for much of the weekend. When I woke up and opened my windows on Monday, the trees were nearly all felled, lying in logs on the ground.

Unfiltered by the leafy branches, bright sunlight streamed into the living room. My flat looked brighter. But at some psychic level, it was no longer home.

Within a year, I had sold that flat and moved to rented digs.

When the new Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park opened to much fanfare, I gave it a miss. I finally made a few trips there recently.

Yes, it is beautiful. I like the way the concrete canal has been turned into a meandering, seemingly natural river with green banks. I’m sure there is wildlife aplenty still. I see more waders and water birds than before.

But I mourn the park as it used to be and “my” trees, that housed the kingfishers and eagles. I hope over time, I will come to love the park and feel the same lift in spirits every time I walk there.

In a highly built-up city like Singapore, pockets of green areas remain critical repositories of our flora and fauna, and vital sources of energy for stressed-out urbanites.

Human ecologists theorise that humans have spent so much of our early history in hunter-gatherer societies, we feel at ease and are recharged with the vistas of green plains, vegetation and occasional glimpses of wildlife.

Conservation activist Ho Hua Chew wrote in to The Straits Times yesterday arguing for environmental impact assessment studies to be made before developments are allowed to encroach on mature woodlands.

I am no expert in conservation or development. But I do know from experience just how healing it is to spend time in nature areas and the wilderness.

Manicured green areas like parks or the new conservatories in the Gardens by the Bay are Nature 101 – good places to go to, to learn about flora and to open one’s green eye.

But there is a special appeal in spending time in the nature reserves, open to wildlife surprises.

There is a special frisson when I see wildlife in its natural habitat: a mix of awe and wonder, a feeling of immense gratitude and privilege, mixed with a healthy dose of fear if the creatures are large or dangerous.

I’ve felt that shiver down the spine and soul when I spotted a golden-haired orang utan and her baby playing in the jungles on the banks of Sabah’s longest river, the Kinabatangan; when a chickadee in Cape Cod landed on my palm to take a melon seed; when I snorkeled on Christmas Island and swam up close to a school of fish that changed direction in a fleeting silver flash before my eyes.

City-bound Singaporeans who have never spent much time wandering its nature areas may find it hard to believe me, but I have felt that frisson in Singapore too: when I saw a kingfisher swoop down on a fish, close-up through the lens of my binoculars; when I saw the slither of a water snake that glided away as I stepped on a bridge near Venus Road; and at the sight of my first starfish on Chek Jawa.

After years of walking in nature areas with nature groups and friends, I’ve learnt to appreciate both the verdant greenery that is home to wildlife, and the wild creatures themselves.

But I am often aware that danger lurks in nature. Wildlife isn’t called wild for no reason.

I respect long-tailed macaques and give them a wide berth. If I’m alone and there’s a swarm of them on the path, I walk away or wait till they disperse. That’s in part because I’m a scaredy cat; but also because I understand that the forest is their home, and I am a guest.

One wild creature in the forest I hope not to cross paths with is a wild boar.

I know how strong they are, because I’ve seen trees they uproot in the forest. I’ve already seen a wild boar on the road, a few months ago. It was pulling at shrubs along Bukit Batok Road, a road that slices through forested areas. A primary school and a Housing Board precinct lie farther up that stretch.

I wondered why wild boar were venturing out of the forests into the fringes of residential areas and how long it would be before a serious injury or fatality occurs. When wildlife ventures out of its natural habitat into areas inhabited by humans, conflict will occur. Already, a boy has been injured and a dog killed by wild boar.

Humans have related to animals for millennia. We domesticate some as pets. We cultivate others as livestock. We shoot some for their meat and others as game.

Modern ecology movements have taught us urbanites to learn to respect animals on their own terms. But humans are not just another species on the planet cohabiting with wild creatures. We are also stewards, gifted with the intelligence and compassion to deal humanely but rationally with wild species. We study their habits and habitat in order to help conserve and protect them – but also to help protect ourselves.

I am no wildlife expert. So when the experts, who include folks from the National Parks Board and ardent conservationist groups like the Nature Society, say some wild boar have to be culled, because without natural predators their numbers have exploded beyond their habitat’s ability to sustain them, I would certainly not stand in their way.

There is a time to conserve and protect wildlife, and a time to manage and constrain its growth. An ecosystem has a logic of its own. In the old days, tigers would have kept wild boar in their place in the forest and kept down their numbers.

These days, humans have to be the apex predator. By all means, be responsible and humane. But if culling is the best option, do it. Between curbing the wild boar population and letting them explode in numbers so they come into more conflict with and endanger human lives, I know where my  preference lies.

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