Happy International Biodiversity Day! Today, 22 May 2018, marks the 25th anniversary of the day the Convention on Biological Diversity came into effect. Why not celebrate by donating a tree or two in support of our planet?
The Trillion Tree Campaign has allowed people around the world to pledge and donate to plant trees since its 2006 launch by the United Nations Environment Programme. As of 2016, more than 14.2 billion trees have been planted by people who care about the earth. Last year, the campaign set a new goal of a trillion trees. A 2015 study by Yale found that there are about 3.04 trillion trees on earth. However, we lose about 15 billion trees each year – imagine what a difference we could make with a trillion trees! You could become a part of that movement with just a few clicks.
Psst, World Water Day is coming up soon! Here’s a little tip for you to celebrate the upcoming World Water Day on March 22nd:
Go on down to one of the Singapore World Water Day (SWWD) roadshows with your latest Singapore Power (SP) bill, and if the folks at the roadshow see that you’ve been a diligent water saver, you’ll be able to receive an exclusive premium. This sweet opportunity will be waiting for you during the entirety of March, but limited stocks are available (just like one other precious, precious resource).
The above link is also where you can find SWWD’s official partners, including Ben & Jerry’s and oBike, who are eager to offer you a steal of a deal for the right water-saving attitude.
Here’s something to think about this World Water Day: wetlands. Sure, we need to do all we can to keep that fresh, clean, thirst-quenching clear water running out of our taps. But is that enough? Nature needs water too, and we need nature.
Urbanising cities have a common trend of gradually encroaching on natural spaces like wetlands. These cities will only expand and multiply as time passes, and it may seem a waste to preserve a wetland when it could be a bustling hub. The truth is, however, that wetlands are important to us, even to those of us who live highly urbanised environments. Wetlands provide a wide array of ecosystem services, such as absorbing excess rainfall during storms and helping to reduce the risk of flooding. Now, that’s relevant.
In particular, Singapore boasts a sprawling Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve, which is not only a site teeming with heritage, but also with birds of every shape and size. Native birds, exotic birds that have travelled from across the world to spend the winter in sunny Singapore – our very own wetlands are a key stopping point in the East Asian Australasian Shorebird Site Network, which include Kakadu National Park in Australia, Mai Po in Hong Kong and the Yatsu Tidal Flats in Japan.
This World Water Day, maybe leave a little room in your thoughts for the wetlands around the world and in our own garden city, while you’re taking a short shower.
We’ve reached the end of May, and what better way to say goodbye to this month than to celebrate World Otter Day? This year, World Otter Day falls on the 31st of May, and we hope that you’ll be motivated to learn more about these otterly adorable creatures after reading this post. World Otter Day was created with the intention of raising global awareness on these river-loving animals. This is due to the myriad of threats that otters increasingly face such as habitat destruction, hunting and road deaths. Before we talk more about otters, let’s start off with a joke:
Otters are carnivorous mammals that belong to the weasel family, which includes animals like the badger and wolverine, and there are 13 otter species which can be found all over the world. In North America, you can find the charismatic sea otters, who are often seen relaxing while floating on water. They even hold hands with one another while they’re sleeping to prevent themselves from floating away! In South and Southeast Asia, you can find the Oriental Small-Clawed otter, which is the smallest but one of the more social species among all the otter species.
In our own island home, we’ve become enamoured with the otter families that elicit squeals of excitement whenever they are spotted. These families comprise of smooth-coated otters, which as the name suggests, have smoother and shorter fur as compared to other otter species. These adventurous otters have been seen exploring places such as St Andrew’s Junior College and the i Light festival at Marina Bay, proving themselves to be highly adept in navigating our urban landscape.
Other than providing us with an overwhelming amount of cuteness, otters also play significant roles in their ecosystems as well. In the case of sea otters, they significantly influence sea urchin and kelp populations. Sea otters munch on sea urchins which consume kelp. By eating the sea urchins, sea otters keep the populations in check, which prevents kelp forests from being overgrazed on by sea urchins. It’s important to maintain healthy kelp forests as they are rich sources of nutrients to fish and other marine organisms.
Sadly, most otter species are facing falling population numbers and this can be attributed to a few reasons. One major reason would be pollution which contaminates water bodies where otters are mostly found. Harmful chemicals from the run-offs can accumulate in the otters and their prey are affected by the pollution as well, jeopardising the food sources of the otters.
You may be wondering, how can I contribute to World Otter Day? Well, even a small action is pretty significant! You could aim to spread the message about otters to people around you and raise awareness on their situation. Another simple way of contributing would be being considerate towards our local otters (and all other wildlife in fact!). Some tips include giving the otters adequate space upon encountering them and keeping our waterways clean to give them optimal habitats to thrive in. With that, happy World Otter Day and enjoy the rest of this week 🙂
It’s mid-week already, but this time it’s not just any typical Wednesday, but Vesak day! So, you may ask, what exactly is Vesak Day about? And why are we even writing about a religious festival on a website dedicated to Singapore’s biodiversity? Well, Vesak Day is observed by Buddhists to celebrate the birth, enlightenment and death of Siddharta Gautama Shakyamuni Buddha. Buddhists would refrain from killing and many times carry out ‘Mercy Release’.
Firstly, what is mercy release? Basically, mercy release involves the release of animals kept in captivity such as the pets sold in pet stores and live fishes kept in restaurants. While at first glance, such acts may truly be benevolent and liberating, a deeper analysis proves otherwise. In fact, statistics released by NParks show that about 80-90% of the animals freed into the wild perish within a day (Heng, 2016). Doesn’t sound very liberating, unless death is your idea of liberation (instead of the conventional concept where animals are returned to their proper home – the great wilderness).
In fact, this tradition of mercy release has spurned off a darker side taking advantage of an activity borne out kindness for animals. In some places where the animals are bought from vendors specialising in this ‘trade’, the animals are recaptured after being released, thereby continuing a vicious cycle of catch and release. That’s not all. The animals that do survive being suddenly freed into the wild compete with native species for resources, upsetting the already delicate balance of Singapore’s wildlife. Common examples of non-native species include the Red-eared Slider and the American Bullfrog.
However, you can help put an end to this! For one, you could start by telling your friends and family about the consequences of mercy release. If people are not deterred by the ecological harm brought about by this activity, one should also note that animal abandonment is a crime under the Singaporean Law. Under the Parks and Trees Act, one could be fined up to $50,000, jailed for up to half a year or even both if caught releasing animals for the first time (National Parks, 2015). Also, if you wish to know more, NParks is currently holding Operation No Release this weekend in the various parks and nature reserves where they reach out to the public on this issue. Alternatively, after being armed with the knowledge listed above, you could sign up to volunteer with NParks to engage the public about mercy release and animal abandonment! 🙂
In conclusion, we need to realise that not all actions borne out of virtuous intentions have good results. In the case of mercy release, such acts may in fact do more harm than good. However, we can still do our part to help animals on this Vesak day through actions such as being vegetarian or donating to animal groups that fight illegal wildlife trade (Actman, 2017).
While the BES Drongos guide at Macritchie’s Petai Trail, our guides are equally passionate about helping others learn more about biodiversity in other parts of Singapore as well!
Last month, 2 BES Drongos guides joined participants from NUS’s University Scholars Programme on a trip to St John’s Island, located a short 25 minute ferry away from Marina South Pier. St John’s Island forms part of Singapore’s Southern Islands, a planning area comprising of other islands like Kusu Island and the Sisters’ Islands. Geographically, all of them are found just south of Sentosa (see map below).
There, students visited St John’s Island National Marine Laboratory, which houses the Marine Park Outreach and Education Centre, and listened to both Dr Serena Teo and Dr Neo Mei Lin who are key staff based at the facility. Students then got to tour the grounds, with the highlight being the Giant Clam Hatchery, which breeds 2 species of giant clams, the Fluted Giant Clam (Tridacna squamosa) and the Boring Giant Clam (T. crocea).
Fluted Giant Clam (Photo by Angela Chan)
Boring Giant Clam (Photo by Angela Chan)
For those who don’t know, Dr Neo is one of the world’s leading scientists in researching giant clams, and was recently named a TED Fellow. Part of her research is to maintain the Giant Clam Hatchery, which grows giant clams until they are large enough to be re-introduced into Singapore waters. In a similar fashion to animal rehabilitation, a hatchery relies on the genetic material of giant clams in the wild to produce offspring, and protect these new clams from predators and other threats, allowing them to grow without interference until they are old enough to defend for themselves.
Why focus on giant clams then? Giant clams worldwide currently play an important role for the coral reef ecosystem, being sources of food with for other marine animals because of its large primary productivity, shelter for a mixture of coral reef fish and epibionts (creatures that live on the clam’s shell) as well as having reef scale contributions by contributing carbonate and regulating eutrophication (acting as a nutrient filter) (Neo et al., 2015). Furthermore, their long lifespans spanning around a hundred years mean they are bioindicators to help scientists understand the health of the coral reef they reside in (“Giant Clam”, n.d.).
However, giant clams are being threatened by multiple drivers, including coral reef degradation, harvesting and aquarium trade, such that might become locally extinct if marine biologists do not intervene (Neo & Todd, 2013). Thankfully with passionate individuals like Dr Neo, and the infrastructure of St John’s Marine Laboratory, giant clams here may just be spared a fate of doom, and we hope that giant clams can soon be found thriving once again!
All in all, I personally enjoyed myself at the facility. Seeing and learning about giant clams for the first time was a good reminder that biodiversity is diverse, beautiful and needs to be shown respect and care for by humans. The island itself also has a pleasant, tranquil feel to it, offering several recreational spaces, many furry felines, and even a beach (on adjacent Lazarus Island) should you want to get yourself ready for the June holidays! The Marine Park Outreach and Education Centre is open 7 days a week and St John’s Island is assessable by ferry 2 times a day on weekdays and up to 5 times a day on weekends.
That’s all for now, stay tuned to our blog for more updates as we talk about biodiversity in other parts of Singapore too!!!
Neo, M. L., Eckman, W., Vicentuan, K., Teo, S. L. M., & Todd, P. A. (2015). The ecological significance of giant clams in coral reef ecosystems. Biological Conservation, 181, 111-123.
Neo, M. L., & Todd, P. A. (2013). Conservation status reassessment of giant clams (Mollusca: Bivalvia: Tridacninae) in Singapore. Nature in Singapore, 6, 125-133.
“If a garden is well maintained and neatly landscaped, there must be a dedicated and efficient gardener.”
– Mr Lee Kuan Yew (1923-2015)
From Garden City to City in a Garden, Singapore has been utterly transformed by the work of our late founding father, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, whom we dub affectionately our Chief Gardener.
In Chapter 13 of his book From Third World to First, Lee Kuan Yew details his experiences and intentions in transforming Singapore’s physical landscape into a tropical garden city, an “oasis” as he called it.
During those early days, the challenge of improving the living environment of Singaporeans was intricately connected to the push for modernity, particularly the behaviour of the people. In the quote below, Lee Kuan Yew promoted environmental education in schools and cultivated a sense of pride for our green surroundings:
“Perseverance and stamina were needed to fight old habits: People walked over plants, trampled on grass, despoiled flowerbeds, pilfered saplings, or parked bicycles or motorcycles against the larger ones, knocking them down. A doctor was caught removing from a central road divider a newly planted valuable Norfolk Island pine which he fancied for his garden. To overcome the initial indifference of the public, we educated their children in schools by getting them to plant trees, care for them, and grow gardens. They brought the message home to their parents.”
Lee Kuan Yew became our Chief Gardener when he saw the value of the shade provided by street trees and roadside vegetation. He set in place tree-planting programmes, which are ubiquitous in community gatherings even today. His vision of a lush, thriving city is what we see today in our streetscapes of verdant sidewalks planted with familiar Angsana trees, Yellow Flame trees and others. These trees mitigate the temperature increases caused by the urban heat island inevitably enveloped the city as urbanisation reduced vegetated land cover.
“I have always believed that a blighted urban landscape, a concrete jungle destroys the human spirit. We need the greenery of nature to lift our spirits.”
– Mr Lee Kuan Yew, 1995
While one may argue that garden may not necessarily mean nature, and that street trees are not ecologically sufficient, there has been a shift in perceptions to embrace urban biodiversity conservation. Today, NParks, Singapore’s statutory board for providing and enhancing greenery in our urban environment, has advanced the vision of a Garden City into a City in a Garden.
Lee Kuan Yew’s key contributions to the biodiversity community are undeniable, as a leader who valued greenery and vegetation even when development priorities came first, and set in place the institutions that would champion the cause for biodiversity later on. To that, we salute our Chief Gardener, Mr Lee Kuan Yew.
To celebrate World Pangolin Day, the BES Drongos are proud to present a special post on pangolins! (so many P words in one sentence.) So first things first: What the heck is a pangolin?
Pangolins, or scaly anteaters, are probably the weirdest and least understood mammals in our tropical forests today. There are a total of eight species of pangolin that can be found from Africa to Asia, and one species, the Sunda pangolin, can be found in Singapore’s forests, including MacRitchie! Unfortunately, these creatures are nocturnal and are very shy, so the likelihood of seeing one as you walk along the trails is very low. In an odd twist of fate though, pangolins have been known to wander into the residence halls of NTU, much to the confusion of resident students.
Looking at this creature, a lot of people think that it is a reptile instead of a mammal. And such sentiments are pretty understandable, seeing as this is the only scaly mammal in the world.The pangolin is covered in rather distinctive overlapping scales, making it look like an artichoke on legs. The scales themselves are made of a material called keratin, which makes up a whole bunch of tough things like our fingernails and rhino horns. These scales have to be tough, as the pangolin uses them to protect itself against predators… by curling into a ball.
This is actually a surprisingly effective strategy on the pangolin’s part; it turns out that its scales are so hard, that it can even survive an attack by a hungry lion. In fact, this is such an iconic strategy employed by all pangolins that its name was was derived from the Malayan phrase “Pen Gulling”, which means “Rolling Ball” . Does this sound familiar? Well, it turns out that the pangolin is closely related to the armadillo, who also famously rolls up into a ball to escape danger.
So, if the pangolin rolls up to protect itself, what are those impressive claws on its forelimbs for?
For digging! The pangolin is a great lover of eating ants and termites, and in order to get to its lunch, it has to dig them out. Coupled with its long and sticky tongue, the ants rarely ever stand a chance against the eating machine that the pangolin is. Surprisingly, the pangolin has no teeth, so in order to grind up its dinner it swallows stones to crush its prey within its stomach.
Unfortunately for the pangolin, having such large, clumsy claws makes it very hard for it to walk, and as a result pangolins tend to be very slow moving. However, a few species of pangolin, like the Sunda pangolin, have evolved to make the most of it by learning how to climb trees!
Tree-dwelling, or arboreal pnagolins have also evolved to have a prehensile tail, which means that its tail is strong enough to wrap around branches like a fifth limb. This long and muscular tail is also a useful spot for baby pangolins to piggyback on. Baby pangolins, incidentally, are also known as pangopups. Try saying Pangopup Piggybacks on a Pangolin very fast. What a tongue twister!
Unfortunately, it turns out that this wonderful creature is one of the most illegally trafficked in the world. It is a common belief across most of China and Southeast Asia that pangolin meat and scales have medicinal properties for a whole range of ailments from asthma to acne, and as a result they sell for ridiculously high prices on the blackmarket. Even though all pangolin species are protected under CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna), which means they cannot be legally traded, entire stretches of Southeast Asian forests have been emptied of this animal, and as a result poachers have turned to Africa to satisfy the demand for pangolin meat and scales here in Asia. In an ironic twist, because pangolin products are becoming so valuable, it has eating pangolins have become akin to a status symbol in certain parts of Asia, driving the demand even higher. Warning; do not click this link if you don’t think you can stomach the sight of pangolin fetus soup.
So what can we do? Well, for starters, we can all raise awareness about this curious, fantastic animal through social media, and never support the consumption of pangolin products, be they in the form of medicine or food. If you are on holiday and you see pangolins for sale, you can also use the Tangaroa Illegal Wildlife trade reporting app to notify the authorities.
Well, we hope that you have enjoyed this post about pangolins as much as we enjoyed writing it! If you are interested in finding out more about pangolins, please visit our friends over at The Pangolin Story to find out about local pangolin conservation efforts, and check out Save Pangolins for even more resources. Together, we all can save the precious pangolin from peril too!
Chakkaravarthy Q. A. (2012) Research and Conservation Needs of the Indian Pangolin (Manis crassicaudata). Proceedings of the Third Seminar on Small Mammal Conservation Issues 2012: 50-55
Forestry administration of Cambodia and Conservation International-Cambodia (2008) Pangolin conservation stakeholders workshop. 8–10.
Chin S.Y and Pantel S. (2008) Pangolin Capture and Trade in Malaysia. Proceedings of the Workshop on Trade and Conservation of Pangolins Native to South and Southeast Asia: 143-160
Words by: Jacqueline Chua
The BES Drongos adventures on the Petai Trail and more!