Saving an endangered Changeable Hawk-eagle in Singapore

A couple of days ago, I was on my way to Dover forest after finishing my lunch shift when I met an eagle near the Greenway.

Now, it isn’t every day that I meet an eagle on my journey, so seeing one fairly up close is a treat for me.

But oddly enough, when I first spotted the eagle from a distance, I initially thought it wasn’t real.

I mean, it was perched on the ground, as still as a statue, resembling a painted sculpture.

Front view of the eagle, which wore a forlorn expression on its face

I took a photo of it with a camera, zooming in closely, and thought to myself, “That was a really well-made sculpture of an eagle.”

After taking its picture, I continued to recce the nice green meadow and surrounding trees, which for me was a much needed respite from the urbanised environment.

Lo and behold, when I crossed a drain with my bicycle to the other side, I heard a human voice calling, and I looked up.

It was then that I realised I had inadvertently gotten closer to the eagle, which was still stationary, several feet away to my right.

The passer-by was cautioning me to not disturb the eagle, I suppose.

“Oh, it’s real,” I exclaimed, upon realising it wasn’t a statue or a sculpture after all.

With my curiosity piqued, I parked my bicycle at one side and walked gingerly around the eagle and took some more pictures of it.

Diagonal back view of the eagle

The eagle remained motionless all this while, which seemed unusual to me, as I am used to see it flying or soaring in the air.

Even if an eagle needs to rest, it would usually perch on a tree, I thought to myself.

“Could it be unwell?” I mused, as I began to type a message to ACRES (Animal Concerns Research & Education Society) on my phone to report the eagle sighting and indicate the possibility that it might need help.

The passer-by seemed to echo my thoughts as she related how she came across a pigeon that seemed to have ingested poisonous food the other day.

Incidentally, she had also messaged ACRES about the eagle sighting earlier, and was advised to get a blanket and box to rescue it and deliver it to them.

The eagle looked in my direction with its eyes closed, as I zoomed the camera lens to have a close-up view.

While waiting for the passer-by to drive back with gloves, blanket and cardboard box, I continued to observe the eagle from behind.

I have read stories of how eagles renew their youth or strength on a mountain top, especially when they reach old age, but this eagle doesn’t really look that old, and the ground on which it stands isn’t a mountain.

I googled on my phone for answers, and some websites describe how eaglets may have difficulty learning to fly at first, but this eagle doesn’t really look that young either, as it lacks the fluffy down feathers that baby birds usually have.

I also posted a couple of photos I took of the eagle in some Nature groups on Facebook asking for identification, and the answers I got include red-tailed hawk, oriental honey buzzard and changeable hawk-eagle.

By then, it started pouring, and I sought shelter under a huge tree, but not before I took some more pictures of it from the front.

Eagle in the rain

Soon, the passer-by returned with the rescue tools, accompanied by her daughter, and I got a rare opportunity to watch a live demo of an eagle rescue in person.

I asked the passer-by, who later told me her name is Charlie, for permission to record the rescue operation on video, and so here we have this video, demonstrating how an eagle may be rescued safely and delivered to ACRES for their care and attention.

Source of map: Google Earth

This blog post also serves to raise awareness of the endangered status of changeable hawk-eagles in Singapore and our need to conserve these majestic raptors and their diminishing natural habitats and feeding grounds for their continual survival.

According to the Bird Group of the Nature Society (Singapore):

“It is listed in the Singapore Red Data Book as a nationally threatened, uncommon resident.… To ensure that large raptors such as the Changeable Hawk-eagle can continue to survive in the urban jungle of Singapore, it is important that our remnant woodlands, especially those with stands of Albizzia (Falcataria moluccana) trees be retained and conserved for their biodiversity value.

The final report for the Environmental Baseline Study for Dover/Ulu Pandan forest released this year has also recorded sightings of the endangered changeable hawk-eagles.

Let’s continue to cherish our endangered resident changeable hawk-eagles and save their threatened forest habitats and feeding grounds (such as Tengah Forest, Dover Forest, Clementi Forest, Bukit Batok Hillside Park area, etc) from destruction and urban/housing development in Singapore.


Bukit Batok Hillside Park area: what it used to be, and what we may lose if parts of the forest are destroyed for development

This post is a summary of the open petition letter that I have sent to the authorities on 24 December 2020 regarding the conservation of the entire Bukit Batok Hillside Park (BBHP) area. This area was formerly joined together with its neighbouring forested hill to form a long continuous ridge.

Before 2018, Bukit Batok Hillside Park (BBHP) area used to be a long ridge about 35 ha in size, serving as a continuous ecological corridor. It connects to Tengah forest in the north and the forested hill where Bukit Batok Civil Service Club is located in the southeast. (Source: Google Earth)
In 2018, the ridge was divided into BBHP Hill 1 and Hill 2 by a new road construction along Bukit Batok West Ave 5. The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) was conducted at BBHP Hill 1 area (shown in the background) in April to June 2018. (This photo was taken on 19 August 2018, showing that the road construction was still going on.)
After the new road was built through the ridge and divided it into two hills in 2018, the present BBHP area (Hill 1) is restricted to 17 ha, and its neighbouring forested hill (Hill 2) comprises about 18 ha. (Source: Google Maps)
View of BBHP Hill 1 from Bukit Batok West Ave 5. This part of the forest may be destroyed if HDB proceeds to build BTO flats here.
View of BBHP Hill 1 from Bukit Batok West Ave 2. This part of the forest will remain intact as it has been designated as BBHNP (8.9 ha) in December 2020. However, the slopes on this side of the hill are mostly steep and not very accessible for many hikers and native ground-moving wildlife such as wild boars (if they wish to move to and from Tengah forest).
View of BBHP Hill 2 (18 ha) from Bukit Batok West Ave 6. As this hill is just next to BBHP Hill 1, we can infer that the forest, shrubland and scrubland here are rich in biodiversity too. From my observations, the flora include Christmas candle shrubs, and the fauna include lineated barbets and oriental whip snakes. Alas, this hill is designated for development, according to URA Master Plan 2019, as shown below.
BBHP Hill 1 is at risk of further forest fragmentation if HDB proceeds to build BTO flats on 2 plots of land in BBHP area. The designated 8.9 ha BBHNP is deemed too small and fragmented to be able to sustain much biodiversity on its own. BBHP Hill 2 (18 ha) is in danger of being totally destroyed for development, thus losing vital ecological connectivity. (Source of base maps: URA and SDP)
In summary, this diagram shows:

(1) What BBHP area used to be before 2018;

(2) What BBHP area has become in 2020;

(3) What BBHP area might be by 2030 if it is not conserved fully.

(Source of base maps: Google Earth, Google Maps, NParks)
An infographical poster on top 5 reasons to conserve BBHP area fully

For more details on why we should conserve Bukit Batok Hillside Park area and its neighbouring forested hill (i.e. BBHP Hill 1 and Hill 2), please refer to the open petition letter here.

Jurong Lake Clean-up campaign: Volunteering experiences

It was a straw that broke the Internet and started a worldwide environmental movement.

Was it the straw that broke the camel’s back?

Yes, symbolically it was.

Was it the straw that was stuck in a sea turtle’s nostril, as shown in a viral video in 2015?

Yes, literally it was.

It was the final straw that galvanised conservationists and animal rights activists into action.

The interesting thing is that it isn’t the usual kind of straw, but a tiny one.

It shows how even tiny things can cause so much suffering.

It also shows how just one living creature that was being subjected to suffering can create such a huge global impact…

To the extent many restaurants started banning or limiting the use of plastic straws.

And a number of people with certain disabilities were unhappy to be deprived of being able to use a straw to drink in those restaurants.

Some substitutes of plastic straws, such as metal straws, also turn out to be dangerous to use if one is not careful.

It shows how complex and intersectional environmental issues are.

Nevertheless, it presents lessons for us to learn and understand how to be more empathic.

Doing a clean-up at Jurong Lake on 13 Dec 2020 (Sunday), organised by Red Dot United (RDU), provided me and other volunteers such an opportunity to show empathy to our wildlife.

This tiny plastic straw reminds me of the straw that was stuck in a sea turtle’s nostril shown in the viral video in 2015.

Like Elijah Tay, the youngest member of RDU at the age of 18, wrote:

“I think that this whole journey, albeit a short one, was a perfect metaphor of our society.

Singapore is a triumphant land with luxurious sights.

Despite this, like the footpaths that give a reason for most of us not to venture beyond the path already put in place for us, our privilege also often gets in the way of us being able to broaden our perspectives and recognise the problems that are not in plain sight, yet are happening right under our noses.

If only we took the effort to take a step away from status quo, from what is comfortable, we could redistribute our energy to undo our contributions to the suffering of others.

Empathy takes intention, and it is only with such intentional efforts that we can build our space based on something substantial and thorough, going beyond what we see on the surface.

If anything else, I think my experience through the Jurong Lake Clean-Up also served as a timely reminder about what it means to serve and advocate.

This pilot event may seem trivial, but it is one that will pivot us towards greater advocacy for our people and every other life placed under our care.”

If you are keen on getting involved in such future events, you may like to follow Red Dot United (RDU) Facebook page.

P.S. On a similar note, there is another kind of “straw” that has sparked a wildlife conservation movement. It is called a straw-headed bulbul, a critically endangered bird. Singapore is one of its last strongholds. You can hear their songs in Bukit Batok Hillside Park, which is also in danger of being “developed” partially for housing. Refer to the link here for more information.

Forest tour at Bukit Batok Hillside Park area

My group members and I experienced the coolness and serenity of Bukit Batok Hillside Park area while we surveyed the secondary regrowth as well as the main natural stream and pond habitat. (Source of base map: EIS report)

On 12 December 2020, I conducted my first tour at Bukit Batok Hillside Park area as a volunteer guide.

Normally, I would baulk at the idea of being a tour guide due to my shy and introverted nature (and being hard of hearing).

But the stakes of losing much of the secondary rainforest habitat and its wildlife are too high.

Even though slightly more than 50% of the area has recently been designated as a nature area, I feel the entire 17-ha ought to be preserved (together with its neighbouring forested hill, which used to be part of the same ridge before they were separated by road construction).

Some may wonder why we should pay so much attention on what seems to be a relatively small forested area.

It is because we care about environmental issues which affect everyone, and we need to keep the big picture in mind.

1. Our biodiversity has been depleted by at least half in the last 200 years, and some endangered species of flora and fauna are found living in Bukit Batok Hillside Park area, including the critically endangered straw-headed bulbuls.

Less biodiversity means more pests and greater risk of diseases, such as dengue fever and zoonotic virus infection.

It also means fewer plants being available for research and medicinal uses.

We need coherent sizeable ecological corridors, not patchy and fragmented ones, to prevent further human-wildlife conflicts and extinction of endangered flora and fauna.

2. Deforestation directly affects the quality of air and the microclimate of the surroundings.

It will result in rising urban heat island effect and flash floods over impermeable surfaces during intense rain.

These in turn have negative impacts on human safety, health and well-being.

According to some research, forests less than 10 hectares in size are generally more vulnerable to disturbance and deterioration of plant and animal life over time.

3. Quality of life for our residents may be compromised by overcrowding of existing spaces.

We need more green space buffers to ease human visitor pressure from our nature reserves.

During the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, many people have avoided malls and sought refuge in Nature to escape stress/sickness, to heal and to build immunity freely and naturally.

With a recent population decline, we don’t really need more housing, and we can choose to redevelop existing lands if need be.

It is hoped that the group tour will enable the visitors to experience the forest for themselves and help spread the word about the need to conserve Bukit Batok Hillside Park area and its biodiversity in their entirety.

After all, our best teacher is Mother Nature herself.

My thanks go to the following participants, without whom the tour wouldn’t be possible: Miss Irene, Mr CK Tan, Mr Michael and Mr CK Chong.

To sign the petition to save Bukit Batok Hillside Park forests from housing development, click here.

Why we need to conserve our forests instead of destroying them in the name of unsustainable development

Why do we need to conserve our forests instead of destroying them in the name of unsustainable development?

You may have read about the reasons in school textbooks.

You may have also read about them on news media and/or social media.

You have probably watched documentaries about them too.

But perhaps nothing is better than going into a forest and experience it for yourself.

After much consideration, I am convinced that no one can explain the reasons to you as well as Mother Nature herself.

That is, if you are willing to let Nature be your teacher.

I hope my short video will go in some small ways to give you a gentle nudge to experience the forest for yourself.

Feel free to share your learning points after watching the video.

Is Singapore really a green habitat teeming with wildlife? Is it also getting cooler or warmer?

Reality check: Green habitat teeming with wildlife?

Yesterday was a sunny day, as testified by those of us who commuted or worked outdoors.

Thanks to the cyclical La Nina effect and northeast monsoon season, the tropical heat has been slightly less intense lately.

Still, I had to laugh when my friend forwarded to me yesterday’s news article.

It was a mirthless inaudible laugh – my incredulous response to the headline.

It boldly says:

“From little red dot to green habitat teeming with wildlife”.

In the wake of two petitions on saving our threatened forests this year and a series of annual wild boar incidents resulting from a loss of habitats….

this article couldn’t have been more untimely,

Or it could have been written out of ignorance or under delusion.

It also says:

“Loving our flora and fauna can form the throbbing heart of a Singapore identity.”

Hopefully so, for this is far from our present reality.

Destroying the homes of pangolins and other endangered wildlife could hardly be considered “loving”.

Nor is suggesting that the wild boars be culled after making them homeless through deforestation.

The sad reality is that the current “throbbing heart of a Singapore identity” is more likely formed by replacing our remaining secondary forests with more BTO flats, malls and roads instead of redeveloping existing lands.

I suppose when driving around Central Catchment after being sheltered in an air-conditioned building, one might be forgiven for having an impression of a green city teeming with wildlife.

But perhaps by no stretch of imagination can we claim that the actual city itself has “stretches of parks that breathe like a green lung through the concrete landscape”

when the dominant green spaces are grassy plots or football fields or fragmented gardens and parks that simmer under the rising urban heat effect.

While I am grateful for the La Nina effect, we can’t depend on such transient favourable weather conditions and dismiss our need for more dense forests.

Our last two droughts were in 2014 and 2019.

When the next prolonged hot and dry season hit, we would wish we had never cut down those forests that have cooled our surroundings considerably.

Geographical location and climate

At this point, one may say that Singapore City looks a bit more green than the cities in many other countries.

How would one respond to that comment?

First, let’s agree on the fact that the comment “looks a bit more green” is referring to “looks” or “appearance”, not environmental friendliness.

Secondly, if we go by “looks” alone, we would still have to acknowledge that over 90% of the city is estimated to comprise concrete buildings and asphalt roads.

Thirdly, even if some other cities, such as Tokyo, New York City (NYC) and Shanghai, look less green than Singapore city, let’s keep in mind our geographical location.

Being located in or around the temperate regions, Tokyo, NYC and Shanghai are not subjected to high daily temperatures throughout the year.

These cities in temperate regions also have four seasons throughout the year.

Thus, the people in these cities do not experience the suffocating effects of urban heat effect or global warming as much.

Tropical and temperate zones of the world (Source of base map: Wikimedia Commons)

In comparison, being located at the equator, Singapore is subjected to the hot and wet tropical weather all year round, interspersed with hot and dry inter-monsoon periods.

The intensity of the sun’s rays is strongest within the Tropics. Being located at the equator, Singapore has a climate with uniformly high temperatures all year round. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Thus, losing over 90% of its original tropical rainforest is a recipe for environmental disasters, such as flash floods and adverse climate change, and is akin to a slow suicide through a health crisis.

It is reported that Singapore experiences increased greenhouse effect twice as much as most other places in the world because of its highly urbanised surface.

Secondary forests in Tengah and Bukit Batok West are being replaced with roads and buildings. Ever since its modern founding in 1819, Singapore has lost over 90% of its tropical rainforest and at least 50% of its flora and fauna.

Moreover, most of the aforementioned cities are located in much bigger countries, such as the United States of America, Japan and China, where the residents can choose to escape the summer heat waves to other parts of their countries that have much forests left.

In contrast, Singapore hardly has any sizeable forests left outside of its four nature reserves (which constitute less than 5% of the total land area)…

except only Clementi forest and a few smaller secondary forests, all of which are marked for future development.

Our gardens and parks may be visually appealing, but their sizes and density of trees are not enough to cool the surroundings as much as the dense forests (of at least 10 hectares) do.

We and our ancestors are not indigenous to this tropical island because we have migrated from nearby countries, hence we don’t have the wisdom and knowledge of managing rainforests sustainably like indigenous people do.

It is a mistake from the very beginning when the British colonialists and Chinese-majority authorities tried to replicate the idea of creating gardens in the city all over the tropical island.

While it might be common to have gardens in temperate countries such as the United Kingdom and China, having too many gardens and too few rainforests amidst roads and buildings in an equatorial country like Singapore only serves to leave us exposed and vulnerable to intense heat from the tropical sun.

The indigenous peoples in the Amazon, central African or Southeast Asian tropical rainforests would never allow their rainforests to be exploited and depleted recklessly like the way we have done in Singapore (which has lost over 90% of our original rainforests in the last 200 years).

These indigenous peoples have the wisdom and foresight to work with Nature and manage their forest habitats sustainably for thousands of years, both for themselves and their flora and fauna.

“Everyone needs to have the forest protected because it cleans the air; it is a pure air for us to breathe. …. We think that the problem is the people just want more and more and more; there is no end. The world is like there is no more control. What people need is more love and to understand each other. …. we want to have our forest protected because forest means life, forest means our body; forest means our everything and we live because we have the forest.” (We are all connected with Nature – TED Talk by Nixiwaka from Yawanawa tribe in Amazon rainforest)

Ecological crisis and ecological grief

Ecological crisis

Our island is getting warmer;
Our rivers are becoming muddier;
Our forests are getting thinner;
Our wildlife are becoming fewer.

It takes years for trees to grow together,
Decades for forests to mature,
Centuries for habitats to thrive,
But only days to destroy all their lives.

The resources aren’t for us to deplete;
We have long overdrawn our credits.
Our national ecological balance sheet
Has been showing huge deficits.

The COVID-19 has come as a reminder
To stay home and let Nature recover.
But still we continue in our old ways
And run our usual business as always.

Thus, the heat shall keep on rising,
The floods shall come without warning.
Our biodiversity shall keep on dwindling;
Do we want to bear the brunt of global warming?

Ecological grief

This deforestation of a part of Pasir Ris Park deserves a national mourning. I believe many are grieving the loss of the forest and its wildlife residents, as well as the loss of fresh cool air in the vicinity.

I hope that as the environmental issues gain awareness, more people will join our collective resolve to cherish and conserve what really matters in life.

As noted in an article on understanding ecological grief noted:

There is much grief work to be done, and much of it will be hard. However, being open to the pain of ecological loss may be what is needed to prevent such losses from occurring in the first place.”

My Feedback on the Survey on Wild Animals in Pasir Ris Estate

Aerial view of Sungei Api Api and Pasir Ris Park (8 April 2020)

The following is my feedback submitted via the survey form regarding wild animals in Pasir Ris Estate, Singapore.

The context of the wild boar attack on a woman in Sungei Api Api Park on 17 Nov 2020 must be established.

Firstly, the incident happened near Pasir Ris Park, which is being developed for housing and is also the natural habitat of the wild boars.

Secondly, the woman wasn’t carrying any foods, so it is highly unlikely that prior human feeding (if any) had caused it to become aggressive towards humans. The recent incident of the wild boar checking out a cyclist’s bicycle basket for food in Pulau Ubin also shows that wild boars are likely to be curious rather than aggressive when foods are made available in their presence.

Thirdly, wild boars seldom venture out of the forests or natural habitats unless there is some disturbance to their homes because they can easily find food in the forests. For example, the clearing of Lentor-Tagore forest for housing development since 2017 has resulted in a number of wild boars venturing out and crossing the roads nearby and becoming roadkill. 

Last but not least, both incidents of wild boar attacks in Punggol and Pasir Ris in 2018 and 2020 respectively took place in the areas where deforestation was taking place nearby. Nowhere in our history have wild boars become aggressive to the point of harming humans unless the wild boars feel fearful that their lives and/or their homes are being threatened. (See website here for more information)

As we look further back to 2012 when a wild boar ventured out from Lower Peirce Reservoir forest into Bishan Park, it is likely that there was some disturbance going on in the forest. Again, it is unlikely the wild boar was roaming into the park to look for food as there is plenty of food in the forest.

Hence, a multi-pronged approach to resolving human-wildlife conflicts may include:

  1. Addressing the root cause of human-wildlife conflict, which is deforestation resulting in destruction and encroachment of the natural habitats and causing wildlife to be homeless and wander into residential areas.
  2. Addressing the secondary cause of the conflict, which is educating the public to keep a respectful distance and not feed the wildlife when encountering them
  3. Seeking urgently alternative solutions to clearing forests for housing development without endangering our wildlife and their habitats any further, such as by redeveloping existing lands that are under-utilised or abandoned.

For more details, you may refer to my blog link.

What happens in Pasir Ris will have an effect on Tengah forest and Bukit Batok Hillside Park because we have wild boars there as well.

We are all interconnected in this complex ecosystem, just like we are all members of the same body.

When one part of the body suffers, so will the rest of the body, and vice versa.

Sungei Api Api and Pasir Ris Park on 8 December 2020

Help save our critically endangered straw-headed bulbuls and their natural habitats

As dead as a dodo? Not our bulbuls, please.

Have you heard of the idiom “as dead as a dodo”?

The dodo is an unusual bird that used to live only on the remote island of Mauritius.

It is also one of the most well-known examples of human-induced extinction.

When the sailors arrived in Mauritus in the 16th century, dodos had no natural enemies.

However, due to sheer human carelessness, the dodos became extinct by 1681.

Over here in Singapore, we are blessed to have the critically endangered straw-headed bulbuls in our few remaining forests.

According to a research paper by Cambridge University Press (16 Nov 2020):

“The Straw-headed Bulbul Pycnonotus zeylanicus is one of South-East Asia’s most threatened songbirds due to relentless demand for the regional cage-bird trade”

The last strongholds of these endangered songbirds include Batok Batok and Batok Gombak.

On 16 Nov 2020, Dr Chee, Naresh and the Young Democrat team and I were fortunate to hear the melodious sounds of a straw-headed bulbul during our survey at Bukit Batok Hillside Park area.

Alas, this bird wasn’t recorded during the 9-day wildlife survey conducted by the EIA team at Bukit Batok Hillside Park area in April 2018.

It is therefore paramount that we spare no effort in preserving the remaining natural habitats of this rare bird species, in order to maximise its chances of survival.

In view of how it has been poached to the brink of extinction, the critically endangered bird species could easily go the way of the dodo.

“the Straw-headed Bulbul had an original range across a number of countries. Now, due mostly to widespread poaching for the caged song-bird trade, its population is so drastically reduced elsewhere that Singapore has become of key importance to prevent its global extinction. Can Singaporeans rise to the challenge of preserving and increasing its numbers? Would the eloquent eyes of the last Tiger in Singapore, recorded in the well-known photo, or those of the unrecorded last Black Panther, speak less tragically if the bubbling song of the Straw-headed Bulbul were guaranteed to sing forever in their native land?”

(Nature Watch, Jul-Sep 2019 issue)

Let’s join our forces to save the entire Bukit Batok Hillside Park area and our native Straw-headed Bulbuls today.

Sign the petition here.