Second chance for Singapore to save its rare species

The rediscovery of 'extinct' wildlife serves to motivate nature enthusiasts
Kimberly Spykerman, Straits Times 22 Aug 08;

WHEN it comes to wildlife native to these shores, it seems people here just do not know enough, grumbles Miss Toh Chay Hoon, a 31-year-old nature enthusiast.

In her spare time, the accountant does her bit to introduce people to the flora and fauna here by leading nature walks on offshore islands such as Pulau Ubin and Pulau Semakau.

She recalled an incident at Changi Beach last year, when a beach-goer found a threatened species of marine snail commonly known as the Bailer Snail, so named because its large shell is said to have been used to bail out water from leaky boats.

She said with dismay: 'He was going to take it home and cook it - even after I told him it was an endangered species! People have to learn to appreciate animals in their natural environment.'

People here are not aware of the rich variety of animals and plants in these parts, largely 'because because they don't get out there and explore', she said.

And given that some animals native to these shores have staged a 'comeback' in recent years, nature enthusiasts like her believe it is time Singaporeans sat up and took notice of the creatures that share their environment.
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Professor Peter Ng of the department of biological sciences at the National University of Singapore believes that with the rediscovery of native species previously thought extinct, Singaporeans have been given the gift of 'a second chance' to protect them.

For example, he said, the Changi Tree and the Malayan Porcupine, both of which have not been seen here for decades, have resurfaced - the tree in 2002 and the porcupine in 2005.

'All rediscoveries are like a breath of fresh air,' said Prof Ng. 'But when you have a second chance, you try not to screw it up. Singapore should feel heartened. These discoveries or rediscoveries mean people are keeping their eyes open.'

Miss Toh, for one, is always on the lookout for a great find.

In June last year, she thrilled the local scientific community by spotting the multi-armed starfish called the Basket Star while on a pre-dawn trip to the coral reefs off Sisters Islands.

A relative of the common Sea Star, it had not been seen in waters here since 1896. Its distinguishing feature is the basket-like shape formed by its many arms.

Miss Toh said of her find: 'I never expected to see a Basket Star. Till then, the only one I'd seen was a skeleton at the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity.'

She left the fragile starfish where she found it, and came away with just memories and a few photographs.

The rediscovery of the Malayan Porcupine, on the other hand, is credited to Mr Norman Lim, a research assistant at the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research, who photographed a specimen on Pulau Tekong in 2005.

He said that with urbanisation here, there has been a shrinking of forested areas to which animals retreat for food and shelter. The Malayan Porcupine, for example, 'disappeared' into the depths of Pulau Tekong's jungles.

Mr Lim believes public education is the way to go to stop native species from disappearing altogether.

Since the late 1980s, more native species have 'come back from the dead', so to speak - the Dwarf Snakehead in 1989, and the Blue-Spotted Tree Frog in 1994, for example.

Both species had not been seen for over 30 years, but now thrive in the Central Catchment Nature Reserve under the protection of the National Parks Board.

Mr Biswajit Guha, assistant director of zoology at the Singapore Zoo, said: 'It will be a challenge to track these animals, but if we don't put in our efforts to collectively address this issue, we may become apathetic witnesses to the demise of our native species.'

Further reading

An Introduction To Mammals Of Singapore And Malaya, by John Harrison

Wild Animals Of Singapore: A Photographic Guide To Mammals, Reptiles, Amphibians And Freshwater Fishes, by Nick Baker

These books can be found at the National Library.