No walk in the park for heritage status

NParks team surveyed Bukit Timah Nature Reserve for 3 months to help it win accolade
Kezia Toh Straits Times 27 Nov 11;

Years spent in marathon training came in handy, fitness-wise, for Mr James Gan when he had to navigate the hilly terrain of Bukit Timah Nature Reserve.

He spent three months - at least thrice a week - carefully surveying the reserve, home to Singapore's highest hill.

That experience proved to be more than just a walk in the park for Mr Gan, 41, the National Parks Board's (NParks) assistant director of its Central Nature Reserve division, but it was fulfilling.

He was in the five-member team that helped cement the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve's status as an Asean Heritage Park, announced last month.

As a result, Singapore is now home to two Asean Heritage Parks, the other being the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve, which earned the accolade in 2003.

Mr Gan was also part of the 2003 survey team.

But clinching this recognition for the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve was more challenging, at least physically.

Mr Gan explained: 'All of us have become fitter on this job. Bukit Timah has higher terrain and the hill itself is the highest in Singapore - at 163m - so it is more challenging when going up and down while surveying the entire place.'

Bukit Timah Nature Reserve spans 163ha.

Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve, known for its extensive mangroves, is a smaller 130ha.

Being able to deal with the hilly terrain helps Mr Gan focus on his surroundings.

'It takes an eye for detail to spot wildlife, such as a pangolin on the forest floor keeping very still and quiet,' he said.

'If I were not fit, I'd be huffing and puffing, and will not notice such things.'

The team also adapted well to navigating the forest at night, and observing and monitoring the nocturnal animals.

Their tasks included setting up mist nets to catch about 20 birds daily, and harp traps to catch about 30 bats in the night.

'Animals don't just keep to a nine-to-five schedule, but come out in the evening, which is the best time to be there,' explained Mr Gan.

The team's night forest jaunts usually took place between 7pm and 11pm.

The captured animals would be ringed, after noting details like sex, wing length and whether they were breeding. They would then be released and caught again later to observe any changes over time.

Clearly, traipsing around a pitch-black forest, albeit with a powerful torchlight, takes some skill.

For example, the team practised 'light discipline' - not waving the torch too much, to avoid scaring away wildlife.

And as the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve hosts about 40 per cent of the nation's native flora and fauna, the sheer volume of flora and fauna to observe and record became overwhelming at times.

Mr Gan said: 'While we knew what we had, we also knew there was so much more we did not know.'

The team had to keep their eyes peeled for native species such as the plantain squirrel and the Asian fairy bluebird - a first-time sighting for the team, as the bright blue-crested bird normally dwells in the upper levels of the canopy.

Help from the National Biodiversity Centre and Central Nature Reserve division, both under NParks, also came in handy.

The collated data, said NParks, may be used in future publications and educational material for schools and the public.

To win listing as an Asean Heritage Park, criteria such as ecological completeness and high conservation importance had to be met.

There are now 30 heritage parks across Asean, including the Lorentz National Park in Indonesia and the Taman Negara National Park in Malaysia.

A country with such a heritage site accepts the responsibility to ensure that the best possible level of protection is accorded to the site.

But successfully clinching the accolade is just icing on the cake, Mr Gan said.

'We don't work for it per se, but it is about raising awareness of biodiversity and nature reserves, and highlighting them to our fellow citizens to go discover all these by themselves,' he explained.

Of course, such an honour means immediate publicity for the reserve, which helps draw more people to visit it.

'So getting the accolade is just one aspect that will help us achieve that,' Mr Gan said.



This flagship species is a valuable timber tree, stretching high overhead with its leaves and branches forming a canopy for shade.

Its bark forms boat-shape cracks on the tree trunk, with a greyish tinge to the leaves in the tree canopy.


This is a nationally endangered palm, with only scattered tiny populations in the Bukit Timah and Central Catchment nature reserves.

Its small size and neatly arranged leaflets make it an attractive plant, with potential as an indoor palm.

Plantain squirrel

This native species has a dark brown back, a pale brown belly and a very fluffy dark brown tail.

It lives in gardens and forests, and eats fruit, seeds, flowers and plant shoots, with the occasional centipede and spider too.

Striped Tit Babbler

This species has a distinctive yellowish brow and a tawny reddish crown. Its throat is yellowish with brown streaks. This bird forages in small flocks, breeds in the pre-monsoon season from February to July, and builds a loose ball-shaped nest made from grass and leaves.

Asian Fairy Bluebird

This brilliant blue-crested bird has a clear bell-like call. It has velvety black wings and inhabits only rainforests, and is commonly found only on the canopy's upper levels.

It feeds on the fruit of forest trees, and insects such as termites.

Greater Racket-tailed Drongo

This native black bird is found deep in forested areas. In 2002, it was on the shortlist of a poll carried out by the Nature Society of Singapore's bird group to crown Singapore's national bird.

It then lost out to the crimson sunbird - a handsome bird with a high-pitched trill which flits from flower to flower.