They can’t say for sure how old he is, or how healthy he is. They’re not certain which trees he sleeps in at night. But they know he is alone, and that’s how they knew to call him Samurai.
The Raffles’ Banded Langur Working Group couldn’t exist without pure optimism. Deforestation and urbanization have pushed the native critically endangered Raffles’ Banded Langur population further and further into the Central Catchment Nature Reserve, where they have dwindled down to fifty individuals. On top of that, the working group discovered in early 2018 that a male individual had been separated from his troop, and was wandering an isolated patch of forest alone. During my brief time as an intern at the Jane Goodall Institute (Singapore), I stumbled over roots and pricked my fingers on thorns as I followed the volunteers, combing the forest patch, mornings and afternoons, day after day, for the slightest sign of him.
Here’s what it all comes down to: we need every single Raffles’ Banded Langur out there; every individual that carries the genes of the Presbytis femoralis femoralis is precious. A lost male is a lost parent is a lost generation. Samurai has to be taken out of that isolated forest patch where no one but a troop of wary macaques even remotely looks like him, and returned to his own troop.
The key is the sleeping tree. When a volunteer spots him resting on a tree, a ribbon goes around that trunk. Sometimes the trees are so old that it takes two of us on either side, giving its wide girth as tight a bear hug as we can manage, so that our outstretched fingers can meet each other just long enough to pass the ribbon over. We do this over and over, because we’re not sure which ones he sleeps in at night, which ones he naps in, and which ones he just plain sits and takes a dump in. Most shifts, we don’t even see him, just the bounce in the canopy as he bolts from our sight, leaving us with a heavy rustling. But once the all-important tree is identified, a team of specialists will sneak into the forest before dawn and gather around it. They will scan the overhead boughs for Samurai’s sleeping form. They will aim and shoot a tranquilizing dart, and if all goes well, he will be falling into a net and whisked away before he even begins to understand that something’s out of the ordinary.
Once he’s determined to be healthy, he will be reunited with his troop. That is, if all goes well. If they ever find his sleeping tree. If he doesn’t get spooked and abandon his usual haunts. It would all be so much easier if they could just read his mind, but you don’t try to get into the head of a wild animal the way you invent gadgets to translate dog barks. You observe and take notes and do what you can, because you weren’t evolved to be best buddies or to gently place your hands palm to palm like in Tarzan. You’re just two components of the same world. In Singapore, not many of us become close friends with our neighbours. But we sweep the corridor and press the lift button for each other and turn down the music at night.
On my last ever shift, I was re-entering the forest for a second round, and a silhouette leapt from a disturbance in the canopy and landed on a branch just a few metres from me, low enough that I only had to raise my head a little to see. My eyes were caught off guard and unfocused, but I remember that our gazes met. I turned to softly call my companion, and then he was already nothing more than the sound of branches crashing in the distance. You must have seen the ubiquitous Long-tailed Macaque before, so imagine this: twice as large, black hair instead of brown, tinged very slightly with purple. Limbs somehow stockier. Tail always longer than you expect; white smudges on the abdomen and the inner sides of the arms and legs. Quiet, inscrutable.
It’s been a pretty wild summer and we just had another great walk last week along the Petai Trail. It was pretty awesome to talk with so many interested Singaporeans about the natural heritage we can find at the Central Catchment Nature Reserve (CNNR).
As you can probably guess from the title, the theme for this post was inspired by the cool reptiles we managed to spot along the way.
This critter digging his snout into the ground is most commonly known as the Malayan water monitor (Varanus salvator). Among the largest lizards in the world, you can probably spot this lumbering reptile in areas with dense forest like CNNR and Sungei Buloh. Not just native to Singapore, these reptiles are commonplace throughout Southeast Asia and can even be found in urban areas .
Their abundance has largely been attributed to the adaptability of this cunning creature. Though it is a primarily terrestrial species (lives mainly on the land like us homo sapiens), it has been found to climb trees and swim in the reservoirs, using it’s flattened tail to propel itself forward like a tadpole. With its ability to climb and even dive underwater, few animals are safe from its jaws. From insects (probably what this particular one is searching for) to crabs scurrying about in the mangroves to birds resting on a perch, they have been noted to consume almost anything they can get their claws on .
The next reptile that one of our guides spotted was the Buffy Fish Owl (Ketupa ketupu). Hang on a minute, that’s a bird not a reptile! Well, a Cool Science Fact to blow your friend’s mind: birds are actually classified under reptiles. Part 2 of Rad Reptiles will be explaining why so keep your eyes peeled for it!
Now, back to the Buffy Fish Owl. Though you can only see its speckled brown back in the picture above, the smallest of the fish owls can be distinguished by it’s brilliant yellow eyes and adorable ear tufts that are usually tilted at 45 degrees . Since they are largely nocturnal, it can be difficult to spot owls at daytime when they are usually resting silently in trees, an indistinguishable shape on the tree. However, birders have reported an encouraging increase in local sightings of this elusive fish owl in the recent years . If you haven’t spotted one, there are always pictures. Check out this awesome one of the infamous one-eyed Buffy Fish Owl !
As you can probably guess from its name, it feeds exclusively on aquatic creatures such as fish. Because of their special diet, they aren’t like your typical owl. Unlike the snowy owl (Harry Potter’s tragically dead pet), the Buffy Fish Owl does not fly silently. They don’t need to since their prey (fish) are unlikely to be able to hear them anyway. Another unique behaviour of the fish owls are that instead of swooping down to catch their prey like we so often see on documentaries, they actually wade into shallow waters to catch their prey . Pretty cool, huh?
Last of the reptile species we spotted is the Abbott’s babbler (Malacocincla abbotti). Named after the Lieutenant Colonel who discovered it, they are one of the more common babbler species still found in Singapore. While majority (well, three of the five) babbler species such as the short-tailed babbler (Malacocincla malaccensis) are predominantly found within relatively undisturbed forests (mature secondary and primary), the Abbott’s babbler are habitat generalist. This means that they have been spotted to use disturbed habitats like regenerating secondary forest (like the forest along Petai Trail) .
Babblers are one of the harder bird species to identify since they are rather small (usually the size of the iPhone 6). The easiest way to identify a babbler is by its distinctive call. The Abbott’s babbler is known by its characteristic wee-woo-weecall. 
Well, that’s all for now. Do keep out for Part 2 where we will discuss why birds are considered reptiles, about their evolution from dinosaurs and why some scientists stuck a plunger on a chicken’s butt for science reasons.
It’s officially been the second year since we have begun this venture and it’s has been a great learning adventure. This semester has been especially wild with the media buzz surrounding the Cross Island Line and all the activities surrounding the March for MacRitchie campaign.
With seven exciting walks along the Petai Trail conducted this semester, we had a great time bringing participants along the Petai Trail and talk about the various inhabitants that share our nature reserve. From creepy-crawlies like the ferocious dragonfly to furry critters like the Slender Squirrel, there were much to explore in our nature reserve! Ecological concepts were also explored and explained using funny examples.
The leaf litter plant (Agrostistachys indica) or as we like to call it the kiasu plant, is used to explain the concept of an ecological niche. As an understory plant, it uses a different strategy to survive among the towering canopy trees you usually find in our tropical rainforest. Like us Kiasu Singaporeans, this clever little plant has found a way to survive in this competitive environment. It doesn’t just absorb nutrients from the nutrient-poor tropical soil but also from its leaves. How? With its leaves growing in a spiral, it is able to capture the leaves that fall from its taller neighbouring trees. Using the little rootlets growing on the base of its leaves, it can absorb the nutrients directly as these leaves decomposes . Talking about getting the best of both worlds!
We also held conservation booths at the NUS campus. Lining up the wooden benches, we managed to display an even larger haul of preserved specimens loaned from the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (Thanks again!). Cool jars filled with specimens hovering in ethanol, we were excited to share more about the species that were difficult to spot in the wild and less common to the public eye. The adorable but nocturnal Lesser Bamboo Bat is a prime example. Being one of the smallest bats, it grows only to about 4cm (the size of your thumb)! Usually found roosting in the hollow core of the bamboo, it’s not exactly the easiest creature to find .
Students, intrigued by creatures they don’t usually encounter, were eager to learn more about that flora and fauna we can find in our rainforest. Engaging with more than 250 students over those two days, it was encouraging to see the zest our generation had for nature. We hope that students left with a greater appreciation for our nature reserves and a deeper understanding on the Cross Island Line issue. We would like to thank all the participants who came down for our events and we hope that we have managed to incite some passion for our precious nature reserve!
With the Cross Island Line still lingering at the back of the minds of Singaporeans, there have been many interesting articles that rationalise and reason out why we should conserve what’s left of Singapore’s wildlife. (While it can be argued that nature has no need for humans, that’s a story for another day.) Some might argue that we, nature lovers, tend to preach to the converted, those who are already passionate about the environment. So, here is a attempt to reach out to the stereotypical urban dweller who would rather hang out in a cool air-conditioned shopping mall than trek through the Central Catchment Nature Reserve (CCNR). Other than the intrinsic value of nature, what other benefits could be used to appeal to the ever-pragmatic Singaporean masses?
With thousands of visitors heading to CCNR annually, water sports and various other recreations activities make the nature reserve a brilliant outlet for stressed-out Singaporeans to take a break from the rat race of work. “Well, Singapore has over 300 parks .” you might point out, “I’m sure that there is an entire spectrum of alternative green areas for Singaporeans who want to enjoy fresh air.”
What about the ecosystem services that the CCNR provides? As the biggest continuous stretch of forest found in Singapore, it acts as the “green lungs” of our nation among various other valuable services.
“In comparison with the entire of Singapore,”you might object, “the CCNR constitutes a mere 4% of Singapore’s total land area. Does the ecosystem services it provides really make a difference to us?” Well, maybe it doesn’t make as much of an effect to the whole of Singapore but it certainly makes a difference for the residents (both animals and humans) who live near or within the CCNR.
Well, let’s bring up something that hasn’t really been touched upon: the wonder and awe that nature invokes. The natural environment has inspired humanity for centuries. From arts to architecture, natural wonders are so central to our culture and progress that almost every nation in the world has ideas and creations that reflect our awe of nature.
“Wait!” you might protest, “Art and all this airy fairy stuff might be very interesting but that won’t be able to fill our rice bowls.” Well, as the wise Robbie Williams once said, “medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.” But I see your point.
To them, I say: industries have been built on nature. The Wright Brothers, who are widely credited for inventing the first aircraft capable of sustained flight and the father of the aviation industry, were inspired by the flight of pigeons . You might remain unconvinced, after all biomimetics (field of study of designs inspired by nature) is a relatively new term. Has there really been that many innovations evoked from nature to justify saving our natural environment? Singapore’s uniform and ubiquitous HDB blocks resemble lego bricks more than they do rainforest trees.
But there is a whole plethora of nature-inspired products that can be found all around us. From the tiny pieces of velcro strapping across the white shoes of primary school students to the giant artificial “supertrees” towering over the Gardens by the Bay, there are numerous instances of innovations that have found inspiration from nature. This shouldn’t come as a surprise considering how all of us are successes of millions of years of continual R&D process, better known as evolution. We are all “products” that have been ruthlessly and relentlessly refined and prototyped.
To honour nature, the most experienced designer of us all, we will be releasing a new Nature and Technology series: Biomimicry, bringing the nature to you “innovations” of the forest. These posts will talk about creations that are inspired by the creatures we can find in our very own little island. Look forward to them!
P.S. (We will be conducting walks during the Summer! So, for all those who need a break from the urban jungle, join us at our natural one!)
Wang LK, DCJ Yeo, KKP Lim & SKY Lum. (2012) Private Lives: An Expose of Singapore’s Rainforests. Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research, Singapore. 298 pp.
It’s been a wild month! As part of the March for MacRitchie campaign organised by the Love Our MacRitchie Forest Movement, we have hosted a bunch of cool activities to raise awareness about our natural heritage and the proposed Cross Island MRT Line (CRL).
Through events like conservation booths and guided trail walks, we have sought to ignite a zest for nature. It was fantastic to have so many interested individuals come forth, eager to learn more about the CRL issue and our beautiful nature reserves. From signing the petition (over 11,000 signatures and counting!), to writing postcards and to talking about why they want to conserve our nature reserves, it was heartwarming to see support being so enthusiastically given.
It was also great to see so many participants coming down on our walks, brimming with eagerness and questions. A big thanks to all those who came down to support our events! We hope you walked away having learned something new and rekindled your passion for nature.
As you might know, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) has been exploring the possibility of constructing the proposed CRL through the Central Catchment Nature Reserve (CNNR). With the completion of part 1 of the EIA and the recent media hype about the Cross Island Line, there has been a surge of interest in our nature reserves. The countless articles written by people from all walks of life has provided a rich perspective on this issue. If you’re clueless on where to start, we have plenty of recommendations on our Facebook page. It remains ever vital that people are informed about upcoming plans for our forests. After all, you cannot miss what you don’t know.
CCNR retains one of the few patches of primary forest left in Singapore . This is important as primary forest (untouched jungles) are known to support a rich spectrum of biodiversity unlike most secondary forests (regenerated jungles) . Many cool creatures inhabiting its depths such as the Sunda Colugo (Galeopterus variegatus) and the Malayan blue coral snake (Calliophis bivirgata).
It is also likely that this patch of forest does provide priceless ecosystem services for Singaporeans. Other than acting as the green lungs of earth, forests are able to provide various other benefits such as filtering rain water, resulting in a cleaner and clearer reservoir . This wonderful piece of natural heritage deserves our protection and we continue to stand by the Zero Impact policy. We advocate conserving the ecosystem, avoiding any long-lasting impacts on the environment.
Through the March for MacRitchie campaign, the word about the CRL issue and the beauty of our nature reserves have spread. However, the fight has only begun! We will continue to seek to reach out to more of our fellow Singaporeans. It is our hope that these few patches of untouched forest with its numerous inhabitants would still be here to inspire generations to come.
Ng, P.K.L. et al. (eds.) (2011) Singapore Biodiversity: An Encyclopedia of the Natural Environment and Sustainable Development. Editions Didier Millet, Singapore.
Corlett, R. (2014). The ecology of tropical east asia (Second ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199681341.001.0001
Chapin, F. S. I., Matson, P. A., & Vitousek, P. M. (2011). Principles of terrestrial ecosystem ecology (2nd ed.). New York: Springer.
Recently, I’ve seen Facebook posts about the Cross Island Line on my newsfeed posted by those outside of my usual echo chamber of environmentally-conscious, nature-loving friends. The Cross Island Line debacle has finally surfaced into mainstream public consciousness. People are talking about the impacts of building an MRT line through a forest our city in a garden. This comes almost two years after it was first announced as part of the 2013 Population White Paper, which led to lively but unsustained conversations about it. A petition started by a concerned individual began to garner signatures. It was discussed at the Singapore Future Sustainability Symposium. Nature groups conducting walks in Macritchie Forest drew attention to the matter by incorporating it in their guide notes. An alternate route was proposed by Nature Society Singapore in a position paper submitted to the government.
This is in response to the newly-released environmental impact assessment (EIA) report solely on the environmental baseline and soil investigation works that are required for future construction of the line. Notably, this is the first phase of the EIA, upstream of a future study that will assess the construction and operation of the underground train tunnels.
This EIA report has over 1,000 pages and 7 chapters, and is available for viewing at LTA by appointment only. There are no digital copies, making details about the EIA vaguely translated at best – a defensive move given the lack of legal requirement for EIAs to even be produced, much less open to public scrutiny. Information here on the EIA have been personally noted, and I take responsibility for any inaccuracies. [Update 19/2/2016: The LTA has now released the EIA online in full for public viewing here, a move made after the lack of transparency was raised in a letter to the Straits Times.]
The time is ripe for a decision by LTA to select one of two viable options proposed in the report:
Option 1 (Green): 1.8km route cuts across Macritchie/CCNR from the Singapore Island Cross Country Club to the Pan Island Expressway (PIE)
Option 2 (Blue): 9km route skirts around it Macritchie/CCNR from the southeast of SICC, beneath to Lornie Road and parallel to the PIE
The engineering feasibility of the Cross Island Line likely depends on soil investigation works to map out the geology of the area for both options. For Option 1, the train tunnel ought to go through Bukit Timah Granite for structural stability, and this is the reason why 16 boreholes (instead of 72 originally planned) will be drilled 50-70m underground for analysis.
Importantly, the EIA studied the impacts of soil investigation works on surface water quality (groundwater quality was studied without intrusive testing), ambient noise, vibration, ambient air quality, and ecology and biodiversity.
Option 1 presents particular concerns. Even though a rather robust Environmental Mitigation and Monitoring Programme has been recommended to reduce almost all impacts to acceptable levels of minor to moderate or negligible, there still remains the possibility of accidental events . Uncontrolled site runoff, spills from construction fluids, roadkill and damage to vegetation from vehicle movement could all occur – the likelihood of which could fluctuate based on how well measures are observed.
The language of the EIA has diffused into media reports, with words like impact receiving attention. Translated from the Impact Significance Matrix, impact is a composite of sensitivity/vulnerability/importance of receptor/response and magnitude of impact (with factors of extent, duration, scale and frequency). Typically, we want to minimise impact to minor or negligible, especially if they are in highly sensitive areas such as areas directly within the reserve. The type and likelihood of impact is also important. The phrase “as low as reasonably practicable”, stylised as ALARP, is also mentioned as a caveat to the limits of engineering ingenuity, standards, protocols and emergency action plans to reduce these impacts.
The construction of a Cross Island Line is one that has particular pressure points which lie outside the scope of the EIA report:
Macritchie / CCNR is the largest nature reserve in Singapore. While it is gazetted by law, it has not been accorded blanket protection.
The biodiversity and habitats found in Macritchie are unparalleled and scarce. Flora and fauna species are already endangered and cannot be found elsewhere, while the high urban cover of Singapore has reduced primary and secondary forests to these few remaining patches in our nature reserves.
The costs of picking Option 2, the route that skirts around the reserve, have not been clarified by LTA yet.
A concerted move by environmental groups to push for a “zero-impact policy as a starting point to avoid long-lasting impacts on the environment” is making itself visible and vocal on social media platforms, garnering support from the masses with each share and like. The Love Our Macritchie Forest movement, fronted by the Toddycats, the BES Drongos, and the Herpetological Society of Singapore, is putting pedal to the metal – or in this case, boots on the ground.
March for Macritchie is a series of guided tours in March initiated by Love Our Macritchie Forest that the general public can sign up for – and decide for themselves the values that they place on biodiversity intrinsically, as educational tools, or for wonder to be experienced by themselves or their children.
“You can’t miss what you don’t know.”
This slogan captures precisely the motivations for me to be part of the Love Macritchie movement. You can’t miss what you don’t know about the local biodiversity housed in our forests – a part of our terrestrial environment that still remains audaciously non-urbanised. And you won’t miss it until it’s gone. (Pictured here are some of the animals found in Macritchie.)
Such is the impassioned, heartfelt plea from environmentalists such as myself to not only minimise the impact of the Cross Island Line, but to reduce the impact to zero. This is not unachievable, given the fact that there is after all, literally another option on the table present as a thinner (and hence detailing fewer impacts) bound report: the alternate Lornie Road route, Option 2.
Words by: Judy Goh
EDIT: The EIA has now been made available for viewing online here!
The BES Drongos adventures on the Petai Trail and more!