Who’s on the frontlines of conservation? A bunch of (expert) amateurs ...

NEO CHAI CHIN Today Online 18 Jun 16;

SINGAPORE — Whom might you turn to for help to identify a rare spider, stick insect or butterfly in Singapore? Try a retired diplomat, a colorectal surgeon and an architect, respectively.

Mr Joseph Koh, Dr Francis Seow-Choen and Mr Khew Sin Khoon are part of a small but valuable pool of “amateur experts” on various creatures in the animal kingdom here. Over the decades, they have happily contributed to science by pursuing their interests to what fellow hobbyists might consider dizzying heights.

Despite their amateur status, their contributions and expertise arguably have never been more important, with environmental conservation regularly coming to the fore in public debate here, most recently in the development of the future Cross Island MRT line (CRL) and its possible impact on the Central Catchment Nature Reserve, and threats to biodiversity worldwide.

For instance, Mr Koh, an authority on spiders in Singapore, is part of the working group in talks with the Land Transport Authority on the CRL.

Some also help in biodiversity surveys spearheaded by the National Parks Board (NParks) — Dr Seow-Choen, Mr Koh, Mr Khew and Nature Society Singapore Bird Group’s Alan Owyong are involved in a survey at Bukit Timah Nature Reserve and the Ecolink@BKE.

Many amateur naturalists are able to spend more hours in the field than some specialists, and thus represent the frontlines of nature study and documentation, said NSS president Shawn Lum.

There are very few professional biologists and ecologists active in the NSS, whose ranks include many of Singapore’s most respected amateur experts, said Dr Lum, a lecturer and tropical forest ecologist.

“A number of the amateur naturalists are as technically capable as professional botanists or zoologists in some aspects of the field, and they invariably have an enthusiasm and love for nature — and a willingness to speak up and to be counted — in a way that is arguably more muted among the professionals,” he said.

Except for Mr Koh, who studied zoology at university before entering the civil service, the amateur experts had no formal training in biology or zoology, and do not make a living in the field. Many of them simply followed their natural curiosity piqued from a young age.

For instance, Mr Khew, the chief executive officer of CPG Corporation, which does building consultancy and facilities management, fell in love with butterflies when he was growing up in Malaysia. A pioneer of the ButterflyCircle, a group of enthusiasts and hobbyist photographers, he authored the Field Guide to the Butterflies of Singapore, published in 2010.

Birder Lim Kim Seng, 56, had nature at his doorstep growing up on a family farm in Sembawang. He developed an interest in birds because he found them easier to observe and identify than other groups of animals or plants. However, he made little headway before he joined the then Malayan Nature Society at the age of 15.

With a background in mechanical engineering, he spent 25 years in the manufacturing sector before going for his Master of Science in Environmental Management, and is now a part-time lecturer and full-time nature guide. What stayed constant was the devotion to his interest: He penned books on birds, participated in research and helped in the development of NSS’ Birds of Singapore app, driven by passion, a thirst for knowledge and the desire to make things easier for others wanting to learn more.

“After (some) time, you find you’ve reached that point: What should I do? Maybe what I need to do is to document all this information somewhere that can benefit other people, because I had a hard time picking it up. In the future, it shouldn’t be so difficult. I think that was what drove me,” said Mr Lim. His first book, in 1992, was on the vanishing birds of Singapore; he wrote field guides in 1997 and 2010, and two more books in 2009.


Some of the amateur experts, such as Mr Lim and fellow birder Professor Ng Soon Chye, firmly reject the label of “expert” or “authority”.

“Please specify I’m not an expert, I don’t want to go under false pretenses,” said Prof Ng, a gynaecologist and one of the men behind Asia’s first test-tube baby in 1983. “Maybe I know more than the general public but that’s about that ... It’s (the) small efforts by everybody that make a movement,” said Prof Ng, 66, who has published scientific papers on birds.

Professor Peter Ng, head of the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum at the National University of Singapore, calls them “professional amateurs”. They may know less about the rules and procedures of taxonomy — the science of naming, describing and classifying organisms — than full-time scientists like himself. And in their obsession with a particular kind of creature, they are different from naturalists with their broad knowledge of conservation and the environment, he said. “It’s the intensity and purpose that’s different.”

Many of the amateur experts here have built distinguished careers, but have brought similar levels of energy and professionalism to their hobby. “They’ve taken their hobby to another level, and that level makes them pretty good scientists,” said Prof Peter Ng, whose museum works with many of these individuals and has appointed some as honorary research affiliates.

The Natural History Museum nurtures their hobbies. The amateur experts might need references or specimens from other countries that they cannot get as private individuals. Or they might need tools such as microscopes or cameras.

Does the presence and relative prominence of these professional amateurs mean that the pool of biologists and zoologists here is very small? Every natural history museum has limitations in size and budget, said Prof Peter Ng. “Some people say a museum or university should have experts on every group of animals. Impossible! Why? There are too many kinds of animals, and despite what some people may claim, it’s impossible to be an expert on everything,” he said.

“You’re talking about millions of species of animals. To know one group very well requires lots of energy and time. Even the largest museums in the world can’t afford this luxury.”

Working with the amateur experts allows the museum to augment its pool of experts “straightaway”.

“And the nice thing is, we don’t have to pay them — I always call them free labour,” quipped Prof Peter Ng. “I always say all of us are crazy; our madness bonds us.”


So why didn’t the amateur experts pursue their interests as a career? Pragmatic parents and a relative lack of opportunities and jobs available in biology and zoology were among the reasons cited. But they expressed few, if any, regrets about their choices.

Spider expert Mr Koh said he simply followed his heart after graduation in 1972 and applied for a position at the Singapore Administrative Service. It was “a calling that had eclipsed my passion for spiders”, but it did not mean giving up arachnology, he said.

“At a time when ensuring the survival and prosperity of Singapore was our national preoccupation, the Singapore Armed Forces and the civil service were powerful magnets for many young people looking for purpose and meaning in life,” said Mr Koh.

The National Parks Board (NParks) is another institution that benefits from collaborating with amateur experts, who help identify species and verify the number of species in various areas. With deep knowledge in specific taxa, the amateur experts provide NParks with advice on enhancing parks or roadside greenery to make them more conducive to biodiversity, said Dr Lena Chan, group director of NParks’ National Biodiversity Centre. “They are reliable sources of detailed data as they have accumulated many years of experience.”

Besides equipment, NParks supplies resources from the Singapore Botanic Gardens Herbarium and Library, and it facilitates access permits for the amateur experts.

The National Biodiversity Centre also has two schemes to support individuals in their research: The Honorary Research Associate Scheme and, for emerging researchers and enthusiasts, the Research Fellowship Scheme.

The nature community is confident of a younger generation ready to take over the reins in due time. Young naturalists are making good contributions to groups of animals that the public is less aware of, such as dragonflies, lady beetles, bees, ants and various marine organisms, said Dr Lum.

Prof Peter Ng would not predict who among the younger ones could follow in the footsteps of today’s amateur experts. Those in their 20s and 30s would be in the midst of developing their careers and families, and their fascination would develop along the way, he said. “I think we’ll probably see them blossoming when they’re in their 50s … But I can predict there will be a lot more.”

Spiders are ‘intellectual detective work’ for retired S’pore diplomat
NEO CHAI CHIN Today Online 18 Jun 16;

SINGAPORE — Spend an hour or two with spider expert Joseph Koh, and one is bound to go away with a much greater appreciation of these arachnids — and perhaps, ideas on alternative uses for pantyhose.

During a short walk in Bukit Brown cemetery last week, the 67-year-old retired diplomat found a spider that mimics ants, and another that had spun beautiful barrier webs to protect its main web, among others.

The Myrmarachne maxillosa waves its front legs in the air to simulate ant antennae, has slender legs, and also constricts part of its body to resemble the three-part body of an ant.

On why a spider would want to “pretend” to be an ant, Mr Koh said that most predators leave ants alone because they can bite and inject formic acid.

As for the “textbook shot” of barrier webs made by the Nephila pilipes (or Giant Golden web spider) — spun only by juveniles — Mr Koh shared a fact that he said women love to hear: Females can outweigh males by 30 times.

On the way back to his home nearby, Mr Koh showed how he had improvised and created his own aspirator, a device to suck up small spiders without harming them, and without having the spiders end up in his mouth — by slotting a piece of his wife’s pantyhose between two tubes attached to each other.

The bubbly retiree’s interest in spiders began long before he studied zoology at the then-University of Singapore. His late businessman father bought him many wildlife and natural history magazines, and guidebooks on various animals. The old Raffles Museum at Stamford Road became his favourite haunt.

When he was around 14, his father introduced him to macrophotography, prompting him to look closely for smaller creatures in gardens and nature reserves.

He was drawn to the sheer diversity of spiders in Singapore, and what has kept him going for more than 40 years is the delight and challenge of “intellectual detective work in getting a spider identified or described”.

Identifying Southeast Asian spiders is not as straightforward as identifying butterflies or dragonflies where the names may be quickly traced in reference books, Mr Koh said. He has to track down scientific literature, decipher descriptions, compare closely related specimens and narrow down possibilities, then make a judgment of what the specimen is or is not.

Mr Koh has described 13 new species of spiders, three from Singapore and 10 from Brunei, and has written a guide on common Singapore spiders and another book on the spiders of Borneo.

He has not slowed down since retirement in 2012, willingly taking young naturalists under his wing by leading field trips, welcoming them to work in his lab at home, and writing papers with them.

He has also pledged his 12,000 specimen collection to the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum, and is involved in various groups helping to conserve or enhance nature in Singapore.

He is working on a new book on spiders here, where he estimates there are about 800 species.

One of his recent interns is Rachel Ashton Lim, 19, who is enrolling in a liberal arts school in the United States and wants to major in environmental analysis. Calling Mr Koh a “really good teacher” who encourages creative thinking, she said: “Something I learnt that was quite valuable for me was that in nature, there’s the intersection between the sciences and the arts… You have to appreciate every single little detail, even on the smallest spider.”

Droppings boiled into tea sparked his interest on stick insects
NEO CHAI CHIN Today Online 18 Jun 16;

SINGAPORE — He kept rabbits, hamsters and cats as a young boy, but it is stick insects that he finds most fascinating to this day.

When he was in kindergarten, Dr Francis Seow-Choen found out about these insects because people in villages were keeping them to collect their droppings in order to boil tea for medicinal purposes. His mother managed to get some stick insects from the meat seller in the market and his fascination for them grew as he kept them.

“They’re beautiful, they’re harmless, they come in a variety of fashion — not just sticks but also leaves,” Dr Seow, 59, said. “They don’t have poison, don’t bite people, don’t spread Zika (virus),” the top colorectal surgeon in private practice added.

When threatened, stick insects play dead, camouflage themselves, or drop their legs (auto-amputate), he explained.

Dr Seow wanted to pursue veterinary surgery in university, but was told by the Public Service Commission interview panel to study something else because there were no cows or sheep in Singapore that required care. It was only after he became a doctor and returned from surgical training in London that he renewed his interest in stick insects.

There was little he could find about them in books and the library. When he contacted the National University of Singapore zoology department, staff members encouraged him to study them.

From 1989, he built up a formidable body of knowledge on the insects — also called phasmids — and has written four books on them so far. The latest, launched this month, is titled A Taxonomic Guide to the Stick Insects of Borneo, the result of his explorations and work over two decades.

Among 337 species featured are 52 new ones, classified under 15 new genera, described by him.

When he can find time out of his packed work schedule to head overseas, Dr Seow would venture out to forested areas at seven or eight at night with a hand torch, and stay out until five in the morning. “Because if I’m there and it takes a long time to get there, I don’t want to waste any time,” he said.

Just as challenging was the need to check with museums for old specimens, to avoid re-describing species, and translating old books that had described species in other languages. The science of naming organisms, or taxonomy, was “fraught with minefields” and the work was “much more difficult than writing a medical paper”, he said.

On his interest, Dr Seow — who added a hyphen between his surname and first name to keep it intact and minimise confusion when in London and after he began writing scientific papers — said: “It’s relaxing in that it’s something you enjoy. Insects don’t sue you or complain to you. Of course, it’s stressful if you’re (on a trip) looking for things and you don’t find anything new.”

He keeps some stick insects in the compound of his home for studies on breeding patterns and eggs, for example. Dr Seow is also discussing another more comprehensive survey of stick insects in Singapore with the authorities.

He estimates that there are about 52 species here, potentially more.

Both generalists and specialists have a role in getting the public more interested in nature, he said. People kill animals such as snakes because they don’t understand them and don’t understand what the loss of a single species means to Singapore or to ecology, he said.

“In life, we can be generalists and know a bit about everything, which I think is good. But I think it’s even better to know everything about a few things. Then, you are the expert and can contribute more to science and also to the world and to nature in general,” he said.

Gynaecologist goes from observing sea life to watching birds
NEO CHAI CHIN Today Online 18 Jun 16;

SINGAPORE — Before he trained his sights on birds, gynaecologist Ng Soon Chye was keener on marine life, heading often to the shores and reefs of Labrador and the Southern Islands to collect specimens.

In fact, he wanted to apply to the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, California, for undergraduate studies but his father was “more pragmatic” and had reservations about making a living from marine biology at the time.

“But no regrets,” said Professor Ng, 66, who studied medicine and later became a pioneer in assisted reproduction.

His interest in birds grew after outings with some birdwatchers during his house-officer days. Then, members of the bird study group of the Malayan Nature Society’s Singapore branch were mainly from the British army.

When the troops withdrew, the bird study group needed more locals and Prof Ng stepped forward to become its chairman, and the group went on many bird-ringing trips.

Once, in a wondrous turn of events, a curlew sandpiper — a migratory bird with a large range that breeds near Russia — which Prof Ng had ringed at the Serangoon Sludge Treatment Works, was netted and identified months later in Melbourne by the study group’s ex-chairman, who had relocated to Australia.

When Prof Ng was doing National Service as a medical officer in the navy, he spent 1.5 months on a ship in the South China Sea, observed migrating barn swallows and published a paper on them.

He later devoted more of his energy to a magnificent bird, the hornbill. “It’s not that I was no longer interested in other birds, but I didn’t have so much time,” he said.

Hornbills are “really large birds, iconic, on top of the food chain and they are like markers of the forest. You can tell the health of the forest or jungle by having an idea of the fauna at the top of the food chain”.

From 2004, Prof Ng initiated a project with fellow birder Marc Cremades to study and enhance the population of the Oriental Pied Hornbill, which had not been recorded in Singapore for over 70 years until it was sighted in 1994.

From being seen primarily on Pulau Ubin, the bird became sighted quite frequently all over mainland Singapore within a decade. Hornbills nest in hollow cavities of trees and, when breeding, the female would be confined in a sealed nest with a small gap for the male to pass food through.

Artificial nests were also used in the Singapore Hornbill Project, which increased understanding of its breeding cycle and habits, such as through observations of infanticide-cannibalism where the mother hornbill kills weaker chicks and feeds them to other offspring.

Prof Ng also took up videography and went on field trips in Thailand with world-renowned hornbill expert, Dr Pilai Poonswad. She would identify the hornbills’ nesting area, and Prof Ng would capture video footage of the goings-on.

“I’m more interested in action, maybe as a result of watching movies and Nat Geo,” he said.

Due to age and shifting priorities, Prof Ng has cut down on birding activities but stands ready to help animal facilities in the reproduction of species.

He does not consider himself an authority on birds, but has certainly inspired others.

Mr Lim Kim Seng, 56, who has written five books on birds, said Prof Ng led the first trip he went on decades ago. “I’d say he was one of my mentors when I took up birding…I was inspired too, to be as keen as him,” said Mr Lim.

Butterflies not in his stomach, but in his blood
NEO CHAI CHIN Today Online 18 Jun 16;

SINGAPORE — Helping his daughter with her school science projects in the 1980s rekindled Mr Steven Neo’s interest in butterflies, the flying jewels of the insect world.

There was no stopping him after that: Mr Neo, 65, whose career was in estate management and the building industry, did research in the library, began re-collecting specimens and studying butterflies and their relationship with fruit plants and other insects, as well as their life history.

On field trips, he would collect the eggs if he saw butterflies laying them, to breed them and document the details. “People have butterflies in the stomach, I have butterflies in my blood,” he quipped.

When he agreed to requests to write a guidebook on butterflies in the 1990s, Mr Neo had to first find out “how to write a book”, and decided to do it in a way that the layperson would understand.

He revved up his energy, bought a camera and spent daytime on weekends chasing butterflies, and nights writing on WordPerfect software. This went on for more than a year and he came close to 100 species. “Some (species) I couldn’t get photos of, so had to forgo when the deadline came,” he said.

Mr Neo wanted to increase the public’s understanding of butterflies. “I do find that most Singaporeans would want very clinical and clean parks,” he said.

Fogging, for instance, would get rid of mosquitoes – but also butterflies and other insects that are part of the larger ecosystem.

Described by Nature Society Singapore (NSS) president Shawn Lum as among the first local naturalists to master butterflies, Mr Neo got hooked on butterflies as a schoolboy through his late brother, who had friends and a teacher keen on the subject.

His brother made a butterfly net out of mosquito net, and both boys would venture into the countryside.

After his pocket-size guide was published in 1996, Mr Neo got acquainted with other butterfly experts such as Mr Khew Sin Khoon and together, the group accumulated more knowledge.

Once, Mr Neo spotted some small butterflies breeding on plants at a Simei petrol kiosk, documented them and, through Mr Khew, sought out other experts to verify the species. It turned out to be the Pale Grass Blue, a species new to Singapore.

Mr Neo also conducted walks once or twice a month and started the butterfly interest group in the NSS. Around 2005, an accident during a road trip to Malaysia with fellow enthusiasts led to a compression fracture in his spine. That, coupled with a job that required frequent travel, led to a “hibernation” phase.

He retired last month and reckons he will be heading out into the field more frequently now. He hopes to see monarch butterflies in the United States – where his son now lives – on their spectacular annual migration again.

His son has also encouraged Mr Neo to take his infant grandson on butterfly-spotting outings.

Mr Neo, who has two diplomas in estate management and business, said he is content pursuing butterflies as a hobby.

“Learning through observation is, to me, much more interesting than just the theoretical, academic part (where you) just go and study. When I’m in the forest observing butterflies…I feel at ease and the enjoyment of nature is a feeling that cannot be replaced,” he said.

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