Singapore should have wildlife control down to a science

Natalia Huang For The Straits Times 22 Feb 17;

As land is scarce, should wildlife growth be regulated, like cars? Let an animal management committee decide.

Where there is limited space, intensive management of the things taking up that space is needed.

Roads are limited in Singapore, and so the number of cars is managed intensively. Our options are to either build more roads or have fewer cars. We don't have the space for many more roads, so we need to have fewer cars.

Similarly, wildlife habitat is limited in Singapore. Our options are to either create more wildlife habitats or have less wildlife. Thankfully, we can choose both of these options, and more.

Every few months, public servants evaluate how many new cars should be allowed on the roads. The Land Transport Authority's vehicle quota system "regulates the rate of growth of vehicles on our roads, at a rate that can be sustained by developments (of future roads)", according to its website.

It does this with careful calculations and tried-and-tested methods, not with any sudden moves and certainly not in response to any complaints.

Why not apply this same stringent level of calculation to managing our wildlife?

We might be able to regulate the rate of growth of wildlife in our reserves (or facilitate them to do so themselves) at a rate that can be sustained by future human population growth. An undisputed first necessity is scientific research so that we shift our responses from knee-jerk and short term to scientifically sound and long term.

FORM AN INFORMED COMMITTEE

The vehicle quota system was probably created by an informed group backed by research. We need an informed committee for animal management issues in Singapore.

The role of this committee would be to come up with a united and scientific approach towards animal management across Singapore. It would assess the current situation, devise and oversee relevant research, such as alternatives to culling, trial those alternatives and implement management actions.

Wildlife is more complex than cars, and human-wildlife conflict even more complex. This means there are different topics to deal with, such as wildlife behaviour, governance, scientific research and public behaviour. This committee needs scientist representatives from the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA), National Parks Board (NParks), Wildlife Reserves Singapore, academia (comprising primate/boar/bird researchers and human behaviour change experts), Nature Society (Singapore) and animal activist group Acres, just to name a few. They should be carefully selected to ensure balanced representation. There already exist successful working groups for pangolins and pythons.

FUND THE RESEARCH

A major role of this committee would be to generate research projects which can address the immediate and long-term needs of animal management in Singapore. Any decision about animal management - especially culling - should be made by a committee which informs itself through scientific research and representative expertise.

Research could include alternatives to culling, effectiveness of each alternative, impact of culling (such as loss of genetic diversity), ability of wildlife species to manage their own numbers, methods to dissuade animals from leaving forested areas, public education, ways to alter human behaviour, and future rates of growth or loss of wildlife and habitat space.

Creative alternatives need to be conceived, tested and trialled.

The call for scientific research is not new. What is needed is funding, a scientific committee to define the research and dedicated animal management researchers. Has animal management become enough of a priority to draw funding from government coffers?

'SEAMLESS' WILDLIFE LAWS

What exacerbates the local animal management issue is legislation. If a monkey sits in a tree in a nature reserve, it is under NParks' protection. The moment it steps outside the reserve, it is under the jurisdiction of AVA. Each government department might respond differently to the monkey and to public complaints about it. We need a unified set of laws for all wildlife in Singapore.

Wildlife laws also need to be revised to reflect the current state of affairs. For example, the common mynah and daurian starling are no longer common in Singapore, but they are listed as pest species in the Wild Animals and Birds Act. This Act refers to bird damage to crops, which was relevant in 1965, when the law was created, but not in 2017.

Another example is that of the red junglefowl, which is listed as endangered in the Singapore Red Data Book, our national assessment of the threatened status of our native animals.

This native chicken is also noisy; it is unclear whether the authorities would allow a threatened species like this to be culled. Interestingly, culling of domestic chickens may benefit our junglefowl by removing the opportunity for them to interbreed and hybridise, so this may be an action the committee could explore.

MAKE MORE SPACE

Remember, our options were to create more wildlife habitats or have less wildlife. Creating more wildlife habitats may not be that easy as developments vie for space and continue to intrude into forested areas. Wildlife habitat keeps decreasing but the number of animals probably stays the same.

The obvious move is to stop encroaching into forested areas and to protect the wildlife habitat which already exists. This would provide space for wildlife to persist.

The committee might be able to examine the carrying capacity of Singapore's natural spaces. Carrying capacity is the maximum number of animals an area can support, and this is determined through scientific research. Increasing carrying capacity could be possible by creating new habitat, such as restoring degraded forested areas, planting green corridors and officially protecting natural spaces.

To plan for the future, the committee could work with the Urban Redevelopment Authority to generate an animal management plan which incorporates future plans for land-use, developments and natural spaces as well as projected wildlife growth.

HAVE LESS WILDLIFE?

If the decision is for less wildlife, culling may be an option to remove problematic wildlife.

It is a chosen option by many countries where animals threaten human livelihoods and lives. Animals can become over-abundant if they adapt well to urban areas (for example, crows, pigeons, monkeys) or because they have no predators (for example, wild boar).

When these animals damage property or forested areas, culling can be effective to reduce their numbers. However, culling must only be conducted following research, a thorough assessment of alternatives, as part of a long-term solution and as a joint decision by the committee.

EDUCATE THE MASSES

People living in Singapore are a logical and fair bunch. We can understand the need for a vehicle quota system and, albeit reluctantly, certificates of entitlement.

Teach us about animals - why they do what they do and what we can do to avoid conflicts. Teach us that part of living in Singapore involves living with wildlife, and that this is something to be proud of. Charge those who enjoy our wildlife to write letters of compliment to, well, complement complaint letters.

We also respect systems. Come up with an animal management system which is backed by expertise and research, and commit to it. When complaints arise, respond in a united manner backed by the animal management committee and system.

Ultimately, Singapore is a modified landscape and it is up to us to manage it - for cars, people or wildlife. We need to address the animal management issue in a united and scientific manner, instead of behaving like (and creating) headless chickens.

The writer is principal ecologist at Ecology Matters, a consultancy providing ecological advice and biodiversity studies for environmental impact assessments.

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