Why is it so important to conserve Tengah forest and Bukit Batok hillside park (BBHP) area?
Why was the recent disruption of wildlife corridor between Bukit Batok nature park and Toh Tuck forest caused by excessive tree-cutting for road widening so serious?
And why do we need to protect Pang Sua woodland along Green Rail corridor from housing development?
One main reason is “ecological connectivity”.
Due to rapid deforestation and urbanisation in the past two centuries, there is only one contiguous forest left that can provide safe movements of wildlife between western water catchment and central nature reserves,
which include critically endangered Sunda pangolins, leopard cats and straw-headed bulbuls, globally endangered long-tailed macaques, and uncommon Malayan colugo,
Already, we have lost native species, such as the giant cream-coloured squirrel and forest gecko, when the Bukit Timah expressway construction separated Bukit Timah nature reserve from Central catchment area since the 1980s-1990s.
The stakes are high for the ecological connectivity between western water catchment and central nature reserves too.
Though strong dispersers among aerial and canopy wildlife, such as changeable hawk-eagles and long-tailed parakeets, are able to fly long distances, they face the threat of habitat loss, which means fewer sites for nesting, breeding and feeding.
Moderately strong dispersers among canopy wildlife, such as straw-headed bulbuls, will be affected by even small-scale deforestation, such as a planned 4-ha BTO (Build to Order) site in BBHP area.
Weak dispersers among forest-dependent wildlife, such as red jungle fowl, Sunda colugos and possibly red-legged crakes, will be most affected by any disruption of ecological connectivity, as they seldom travel far from forest edges.
Below is my message sent to National Parks Board (NParks) on 9 December 2022:
I would like to propose to NParks and other relevant agencies to conserve and restore Jurong river mangroves and designate Pandan river mangroves as a nature park or wetland reserve.
The purpose is to complement the roles of the current nature reserves, such as Sungei Buloh wetland reserve, and other nature parks, to strengthen Singapore’s climate, ecological and social resilience, in view of the current climate emergency.
1. As noted by Nature Society (Singapore) in their post dated 13 September 2022, Jurong river and Pandan river are among the 3 remaining mangrove patches in the southern sector of mainland Singapore (the third one is Berlayer Creek).
They have identified a green area in the vicinity that is contiguous with the Old Jurong Line and a corridor for wetland bird species from the Southern Islands, thus giving us the opportunity to preserve both our natural and historical heritages.
2. Although parts of the banks along Jurong river and Pandan river have been concretised or reinforced due to industrialisation since the 1960s-1970s, some mangroves (and back forest vegetation) and mudflats remain, as also noted by MND minister Desmond Lee in the aforementioned post.
A crocodile was also spotted in the West Coast area yesterday (8 December 2022), which I believe testifies to a gradually recovering ecosystem, in spite of the environmental impacts of industrialisation and land reclamation in recent decades.
Hence, restoring Jurong river mangrove mudflats and protecting Pandan mangrove wetlands can ensure that these native flora and fauna can continue to survive, and in turn help the mangrove ecosystem to become more established through the interconnected web of species interactions (including seed dispersal, pollination, prey-predator relationships, etc).
3. By having a bigger and healthier mangrove ecosystem, Singapore can benefit from greater carbon sequestration (since mangroves can sequester more carbon than tropical rainforests) and protection of the coasts from rising sea levels and resultant floods.
For example, as recent as 17 April 2021, Ulu Pandan river canal experienced flash floods as a result of the intense rain and high tide.
Earlier today (9 December 2022), I noticed that Pandan river was almost full capacity near the tidal gates around 1 pm plus during high tide – see link for pictures.
Given that Singapore may experience rising sea level up to 1 metre by the year 2100, having more mangroves along the coast can help stabilise the mudflats, build higher ground and mitigate floods to some extent, which can help reduce the socio-economic costs of flood damage, since we cannot solely rely on engineering solutions due to high costs, resource-intensiveness, reliance on global supply chains, and other factors.
4. Economically speaking, Singapore can benefit from the restoration of mangroves in Jurong river and Pandan river in terms of not only flood prevention but also ecotourism. For example, with the expected completion of Pandan Reservoir MRT station by 2027, both rivers will be much more accessible to visitors and tourists.
The (UNEP) report outlines that every $US1 invested in restoration creates up to $US30 in economic benefits. “Restoring our ecosystems will help avoid 60 per cent of expected biodiversity extinctions,” Atallah says. “It will also help absorb carbon and crucially, help us adapt the effects of the climate crisis.”
I believe that a new Sungei Pandan wetland reserve can help draw more international tourists to visit Singapore, given that mangroves are unique to only certain tropical coastal areas. It can also help ease visitorship in Sungei Buloh wetland reserve, as too many human visitors may cause stress to the wildlife there (just as too many visitors in the central nature reserves may also be detrimental to the sensitive wildlife, hence the need for buffer nature parks outside the nature reserves).
Having the new Sungei Pandan wetland reserve can also facilitate school and public education and foster scientific research on mangrove habitats and their manifold benefits.
5. Last but not least, residents and people working in the highly built-up industrial estate around Jurong river and Pandan river can benefit from having access to cleaner air, cooler environment and more dense greenery in the neighbourhood, which is good for both physical and mental health.
This in turn will help them save costs of electricity bills (from using air conditioning) and costs of medical bills (from falling sick due to stress, heat injuries caused by heat waves or rising urban heat island effect, and so on).
I understand that Singapore is considered land scarce, and I believe the above proposal does not involve having to sacrifice much land zoned for other purposes, since the mangroves in Jurong river and Pandan river already exist, and the main work to be done is to first protect them as nature areas, so that we can focus on making these environments more habitable and conducive for both humans and non-human residents (and more pleasant and attractive for visitors as well).
Going further, we can redevelop old industrial sites in this part of Singapore, since many of the single-storey or low-rise industrial buildings built in the 1960s and 1970s are old and possibly run-down or underutilised, so that we can rebuild taller and more integrated modern industrial buildings in order to optimise land space fully.
The island-state’s sixth national report to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, submitted in 2020, said: “Due to the limited land area in Singapore, our natural areas tend to be small and isolated.” But to maintain the biodiversity of these areas, it is important to connect the green spaces, restore habitats and implement species recovery projects, among other efforts, the document added.
I was privileged to participate in the Pulau Ubin cleanup event as a volunteer photographer, witnessing the commendable efforts of the organisers and other participants in helping to make the environment cleaner and more conducive for flora, fauna and humans.
On our way to Kampong Mamam beach, we saw long-tailed macaques gathering and watching us inquisitively as we prepared to start picking up litter in the forest.
These primates have been recognised by International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to be globally endangered early this year, due to habitat loss, illegal wildlife trade, culling, exploitation, and so on.
Despite their apparent common status in Singapore, there is still a need to ensure that they have a safe and clean environment to live in.
Some of the macaques appeared to have been conditioned to approach human visitors boldly in search of food, probably because they have been fed previously or they have learnt to pick up trash disposed indiscriminately by inconsiderate visitors on the island.
Though our efforts to clean up the environment may be seen as a band-aid solution to a deeper issue of human negligence and disregard for ecological health and sustainability, I hope that this event can also serve as a means to promote nature awareness and education for the general public.
For advisories on what to do when you see a monkey in the forest or neighbourhood, click here.
29 September 2022 felt like one of the longest days in my life.
I attended a plant rescue programme at Dover Forest East in the morning, which was organised by Nature Society Singapore (NSS), in collaboration with National Parks Board (NParks) and Housing & Development Board (HDB).
The event was supervised by NSS reforestation officer Chua Chin Tat.
I witnessed how the dedicated volunteers dug up saplings and placed them in bags for transplanting.
After the event, I had lunch with some of the volunteers and learnt much from their sharing of knowledge and experiences in various fields –
from hiking to recycling to scavenging to food security to nature conservation.
Then I cycled to Alexandra Woods for a recce via Green Rail Corridor before starting my dinner delivery shift at Bukit Merah area.
After the shift, I decided to make my way back via the Green Corridor in the dark of the night.
I was glad for the bright front lights for my bicycle and the improved surface of the greenway, which help to ensure safety.
Somehow, I am reminded that when it is darkest, we shine the brightest, even though things around us may look bleak, in view of the existential crises facing us.
“Our planet has been wounded by our actions. Those wounds won’t be healed today, or tomorrow, or the next, but they can be healed by degrees.” – Barack Obama, COP26 speech, November 2021
One of the panel speakers, Elijah Tay, aptly summed up the different kinds of stress experienced by young people: studies stress, work stress, minority stress, and social stress (as a result of social injustice and climate crisis).
Incidentally, studies show hotter weather caused by human-induced climate change has adverse effects on mental health, such as causing aggression and anxiety, resulting in higher incidences of crimes and suicides.
I wonder how much the cases of crimes and suicides correlates with the mental health crisis experienced by our youths.
“Research has found that for every 1C increase in monthly average temperature, mental health-related deaths increase by 2.2%. Heat waves also impact cognitive ability, increasing aggressive behaviour and violent crime rates. The best thing we can do to help ourselves and future generations is to act on climate change, say experts.” (World Economic Forum, 14 July 2022)
Given the complex nature of mental health issues, could we also address the issue of soil loss, which is related to a loss of forests and organic soil-based farms?
Dear Dr Yap Him Hoo, I refer to the latest news “Wild boar that injured woman in Yishun caught, ‘euthanised humanely'” (Straits Times, 21 March 2022) about the euthanasia of a wild boar captured by NParks in Yishun. I understand that the recent wild boar incident in Khatib Central resulting in passers-by getting injured might have caused apprehension among some members of the public about their safety. However, putting to death a wild boar that had wandered from its natural habitat and had not intended to hurt anyone due to its disorientation in an unfamiliar urban area is not really necessary or justifiable.
Some commenters on social media have mentioned that relocation of the wild boar to another patch of forest (where it would be safer from habitat fragmentation and human disturbance) might have been more humane and appropriate. While I agree that relocation would be a better solution, we also need to address the increasing cases of human-wildlife conflicts, especially in the past decade or so, at a deeper level in order to deal with the root causes of the issue effectively.
Unprovoked attacks of wild boars on humans that result in serious injuries were unprecedented before the Hillview Avenue and Windsor nature park fringe incidents in 2017, the Punggol incidents in 2018 and 2021 and the Pasir Ris incident in 2020, so we need to ask ourselves why they have been happening with increasing frequency since then.
“Dr Ang from Jane Goodall Institute said that whether similar incidents of wild boars entering urban areas would occur in future depends on several factors.
These include whether there is sufficient habitat for wildlife, the presence of island-wide connectivity for animals to move between habitats without venturing into urban spaces and educating the general public on dealing with wildlife encounters.”
For example, on hindsight, if Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and Environmental Monitoring & Management Planning (EMMP) had been conducted in Punggol forest and Pasir Ris park before any housing development took place, there might have been adequate mitigation measures to prevent substantial loss of the habitats and ensure ecological connectivity, so that the wild boars would not be displaced and would be much less likely to end up wandering into residential areas and feeling afraid, disoriented and defensive as a result of habitat loss.
Similarly, although the wild boar might have escaped into Yishun Park after the recent Khatib Central incident, it is possible that it might have initially been displaced or disturbed by deforestation going on nearby at Sembawang Woods (due to construction of the North-South Corridor) or around Lorong Chencharu and Ground-Up Initiative area (due to recent tree cutting for development works).
In my hiking experience in the forests in Singapore mainland and Pulau Ubin over the decades, I have never seen any wild boar becoming violent because they are usually relaxed in their serene natural habitat, ambling peacefully far away from the noise of motor traffic and construction works.
As rightly noted in NParks website, wild boars usually only become aggressive if they are cornered or feel threatened, or if the mother is protective of her babies when someone provokes them.
During my walks around Jurong Road area next to the biodiverse Tengah forest where construction works were going on last year, I witnessed on several occasions a wild boar moving quickly past in front of me at a distance as if it was feeling nervous or fearful.
It is likely that the wild boars in Tengah forest have been stressed by the noisy construction and big trucks roaring up and down the tracks through the forest regularly ever since deforestation and construction began around 2017.
Already, a wild boar was found injured along Kranji Expressway (KJE) after emerging from the forest and getting knocked down by a vehicle about a month ago, and the photos in the news media suggest that the accident might have taken place near Tengah forest opposite Home Team Academy at Old Choa Chu Kang road.
On 24 January 2019, another wild boar was knocked down by a lorry near Brickland Road and Bukit Batok West Avenue 5 and had to be euthanised, as reported in the news.
It is likely that the wild boar might have wandered as a result of being displaced from Tengah forest, which was being cleared for Build To Order (BTO) housing development at that time.
Contrary to popular thinking, wild boars are not necessarily harmful to the environment. As noted in an academic article from Nanyang Technological University (NTU):
“Boars could damage vegetation, but on the other hand, their soil diggings can also create a patchwork of soil microhabitats to allow other plants and smaller organisms to thrive which, in turn, promotes biodiversity. A recent study in Malaysia showed that wild boars can promote plant diversity by eating smaller plants of the dominant tree species, giving less dominant plant species a better chance.”
Hence, may I urge NParks and other relevant agencies, such as Housing & Development Board (HDB), Land Transport Authority (LTA), Public Utilities Board (PUB) and respective town councils, as well as the respective Members of Parliament (MPs), to work together to deal with the root causes holistically, in order to prevent such animal roadkills and human-wildlife conflicts from happening in future, both for our safety and the wild boars’ safety?
In the case of housing development, for example, even if there is a strong demand for public housing, why can’t we prioritise redevelopment of brownfield sites or previously developed lands instead of destroying greenfield sites or secondary forests, especially in the context of climate change, biodiversity loss and mental health crisis?
“In the past, we could build new homes on swathes of undeveloped open land. Now, after 55 years of building and development, there are far fewer of these, and it has become more challenging to balance competing uses for land.
In order to continue providing good homes for Singaporeans, we will have to recycle previously developed land.”
Otherwise, it will probably be a matter of time before we see similar incidents of human-wildlife conflicts in which both passers-by and displaced animals end up paying the price of relentless development and habitat fragmentation in other places, such as Tengah, where more than 30% of the forest has already been removed for housing development and another 30-40% or so of the forest may be cleared in the next phase over the next few years, if insufficient measures are taken to ensure the long-term survival and safety of both wildlife and human beings.
(Even if 140 ha of Tengah forest has been set aside for green spaces, it is uncertain if they refer to dense forests or open wooded parks, and it constitutes only 20% of the total area, which I am concerned may not be enough, in view of the relatively narrow designated nature way without much buffer space. As proposed in the petition to preserve 30-50% of Tengah forest to protect biodiversity and tackle climate emergency, we need to “preserve at least 30 to 50 percent of Tengah forest’s original 700-ha size (or 210 to 350 ha) for purifying the air, cleaning the soil, removing pollutants, cooling the urban heat island effect, supporting biodiversity, preventing/mitigating risk of floods, zoonotic viruses and dengue diseases (as well as roadkills and human-wildlife conflicts), reducing electricity usage for air-conditioning, enhancing our physical and mental health etc, thereby potentially saving billions of dollars of public funds and personal/household expenses, in terms of healthcare, socioeconomic and environmental costs.”)
In view of our disappearing forests, I am learning to move beyond mere Nature appreciation to Nature conservation.
A plant observation or animal sighting becomes less of an academic exercise and more of an emergency exercise, in order for us to document as many species as possible, so as to (hopefully) protect them from being destroyed in the name of unrelenting development.
After all, undocumented flora and fauna species are like undocumented humans, who will stay invisible and marginalised and fall through the cracks of a discriminatory and dysfunctional dystopian regime.
As long as they are unnamed and unaccounted for, they remain unacknowledged, in spite of the intrinsic value they hold in the natural ecosystem.
Although they may be indigenous on this tropical island, they have become refugees in their own homelands, having been displaced by human migrants, no thanks to imperial colonialism in the 1800s and capitalistic nationalism since the 1960s.
Crass consumerism has resulted in certain “cute” wildlife and certain manicured gardens gaining celebrity status and being commodified for wealth and status, while other wildlife and unmanaged vegetation (such as in Tengah forest and Lentor forest) fall by the wayside.
It is an ongoing struggle for emancipation, as we seek to restore biodiversity in a holistic and sustainable manner, such that no one will be left behind.
Wild reflections on the nature of forests
As I wandered deep into the forest after finishing my shift and catching up on rest, I found myself wondering what Mother Nature could be telling me.
I am learning to keep my senses open and attuned to the quiet mysterious voice of Nature, allowing Her to be my teacher.
While I was sitting on a park bench and typing this post a while ago under the dimming evening sky, a beetle suddenly landed on my phone screen.
It gave me a startle, and I dropped the phone on my lap, and away flew the beetle.
Such an unpredictable encounter underscores the very nature of Nature – that there is always something new and/or unexpected to be revealed during a nature outing.
Perhaps the allure of the wilderness is not that we will eventually figure everything out, but rather that we will learn to embrace the unknown and accept the mystery.
After all, the whole forest is greater than the sum of its parts – it is much more than simply a certain area of the forest having an X number of species, or absorbing Y amount of carbon dioxide, or cooling the surroundings by Z degrees Celsius.
Instead, there is a certain X factor about wild Nature, which we cannot quite put our finger on but know intuitively that is important, if not indispensable, to our existence.
It is such that no high resolution photograph or video can fully encapsulate the experience of being in a wild forest – the sights and sounds in a nature documentary cannot capture the indescribable thrill of being there.
Unlike a garden that is arranged by human hands, a forest has no apparent order.
At the most, we can describe a forest by its structure, age, size, biodiversity, and so on, but is that all there is to it?
It is almost as if the forest has a way of unlocking the untapped potential and hidden primal memories from ages past, buried deep in our soul, which we would not have known had we stayed entrenched in a programmed modern society.
In other words, the forest may well be a mirror of who we really are, independent of the social identities and societal expectations imposed on us by the system.
On 25 September 2021, my hiking buddies and I explored some trails to take stock of some notable plant species while the eastern patch of the forest is still intact. The photograph of ficus virens was taken by Sheryl Leong. Some of the fig tree species have been identified with the help of Chua Chin Tat.
Somewhere in the middle of the eastern patch of Dover forest, small dry animal poop was spotted, which resembles that of a common palm civet. Old discarded litter, such as drink cans and water bottles, were also seen along the way. Mosquitoes were encountered near the forest fringe where vegetation has been disturbed, but not in the forest interior where there are more natural pest predators, such as spiders and dragonflies.
Here’s remembering wise words from Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh:
“The Earth is not something outside of us. Breathing with mindfulness and contemplating your body, you realise that you are the Earth. You realise that your consciousness is also the consciousness of the Earth. Look around you – what you see is not your environment, it is you.”
This may well be a fitting starting point for us to appreciate Nature.
For too long, many traditional books on Nature typically devote 10 chapters on the beauty of the natural environment and end with only 1 or 2 chapters on environmental conservation.
Maybe it’s time for nature conservation to be on the forefront of our education, instead of taking a backseat.
After all, without nature conservation, we will have fewer and fewer opportunities for nature appreciation.
If we don’t disrupt the status quo, nature will always be an afterthought in the minds of developers and urban planners.
Mitigation measures for development plans are often euphemisms for controlling damage incurred as a result of human-centric planning.
As a result, the wildlife often find themselves shortchanged, as they deal with ever-dwindling habitats.
“Minimise roadkill? Good – let’s fence up the forest boundary, so they have nowhere else to escape while the bulldozers tear down their homes.”
“Human-wildlife conflicts? Oh, it’s the people’s fault for feeding the wildlife that were displaced from habitat fragmentation, causing them to become aggressive towards humans.”
“Wildlife corridor? Fine – let’s chuck it next to the noisy expressway where nobody cares to live near.”
“Forest town? Ok, let’s replace over 90% of the original forest with buildings, roads and parks, and then advertise it as a “forest town”.”
“Petition to save the forest? Sure – let’s publish in the news about a newly designated nature park and omit details about housing development in its vicinity.”
“Green Plan? No problem, we will add 1,000 more hectares of “green spaces” by 2030 – while we hope the public will soon forget about the 33-hectare Dover forest, 85-hectare Clementi forest, 700-hectare Tengah forest etc before we slowly turn them into housing estates.”
“A new Outward Bound School (OBS) not welcome in Coney Island? Well, actually, our urban planners have already marked the area for development many years ago (nevermind the fact that they weren’t trained in EIA nor were they educated much about climate change back in the days).”
And so on and so forth.
So yes, happy World Environment Day.
May we remember the wise words of Thich Nhat Hanh for our sake and that of our future generations.