Singapore is much wilder than it seems

Ground-breaking documentary shows the island's rich biodiversity, so much so that NParks takes a conservation-minded approach in developing Thomson Nature Park.
CHEAH UI-HOON Business Times 11 Nov 16;

AFTER having lived in Singapore for 25 years, executive producer Jocelyn Little knew there was something more to the island state than just its urban, built-up city centre.

"Over the years, we knew there were possibilities of producing a natural history documentary in Singapore. Based on research we've come across and also personal experience, we knew that wild life was thriving - and it's been something we wanted to do," says the founding partner of Beach House Pictures whose clients include Nat Geo International, ABC Australia, Discovery Networks International, BBC, ZooMoo Networks and Fox International Channels.

The catalyst was when Channel News Asia and the SG50 Fund announced that they were looking for content that celebrated Singapore. "We thought it was a perfect opportunity - based on our idea about how the natural world interacts with the human world in Singapore and the fact that Singapore was a city within a garden."

Two years later, three episodes of the ground-breaking wild life documentary Wild City were made and aired. The last episode was screened this March.

It was a coup getting the godfather of wildlife shows, David Attenborough, to narrate it, and after Singapore, Wild City has been aired in Australia, Germany, France and the UK, and continues to make its way around international TV circuits.

The documentary launched the natural history arm of Beach House Pictures as they are now producing a 10-part series on Borneo for Discovery and a UK TV Channel, and are looking at producing Wild City internationally.

"Wild City really put us on the map," says Ms Little.

The beauty of the show is that a lot of people don't realise the breadth of species that can be found in Singapore, in the wild, she says. The production house brought in specialist cameramen to film "exotic" animals in their habitat, such as the pangolin and the colugo (a flying lemur). But mostly, they got great support from local wildlife and natural history enthusiasts and also some local filmmakers in Singapore.

Star of the show

The otters became the star of the show, and the production house even spun off a show called Otter Town for Nat Geo Wild.

What's been the local audience response to Wild City? "People from every walk of life - the taxi driver, the auntie at the market, our lawyers - the first thing they say when they find out that we produced Wild City, is that they didn't realise Singapore had so much wildlife."

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the National Parks Board (NParks) is working hard to make sure that Singapore's wildlife is protected - even while it creates recreational space for Singapore residents.

Conserving biodiversity is the primary aim, for example, at the upcoming Thomson Nature Park to open in 2018.

The 50-hectare nature park wedged between Old Upper Thomson Road and Upper Thomson Road was first announced in 2014. It'll also be the first park where the structures of an existing old Hainanese village - abandoned since the 1960s - will be conserved and not torn down for the nature trail.

"We're taking a conservation-minded approach because there are a lot of animals moving between Upper Pierce and Lower Seletar reservoirs to breed and feed," explains Wong Tuan Wah, NParks group director of conservation. NParks is now doing a biodiversity survey of animals and their behaviour in the area.

"Once we know how the animals move about, we'll be better able to plan where to put the public facilities and amenities. So far, camera traps have captured the Raffles' banded langur (nationally critically endangered), Malayan porcupine (thought to be extinct until sighted in 2005), Sunda pangolin, Sambar deer and the leopard cat. The freshwater streams are also home to many native aquatic species such as the spotted tree frog which is near threatened on IUCN Red list, as well as the Malayan box terrapin.

Mr Wong says that NParks will be very light-handed in its approach as it's simply cleaning up and making good the former roads of the kampung, or village, which used to have about 50 households.

Thomson Park sits just outside the Central Catchment Nature Reserve. It is one of four such parks announced by NParks in 2014 as part of its plan to extend the green buffer for Singapore's largest nature reserve - the Central Catchment Nature Reserve.

As for the village, the intention is to re-open the old roads so that the public can see what the village was like. A total of 4km of trails have been earmarked.

Architecture professor Lai Chee Kien, who has researched the history of the Hainanese village which had Singapore's first rambutan plantation, commended NParks for its plan to leave the buildings as they are, untouched. "The walls and staircases of the houses, for example, will not even be repainted. I think this idea became more acceptable to them after they developed Coney Island which also has an old house. So for this, you'll see the patina of age on the ruins, which is very different from the urban experience and I think quite interesting for the public to see."

The park will also be a chance to tell the social histories of local places in Singapore. "It's a good start because it's a way to know our local history. So the draw is that it's not completely a nature trail but a former settlement as well," Prof Lai notes.

Another important reason for the park is that it acts as a buffer park to the Central Catchment Nature Reserve. Mr Wong says: "In this case, we can reduce and redistribute the number of visitors to Upper Pierce, for example, and give visitors an alternative."

But when NParks does look at park development, its priority is conserving biodiversity first, before it looks at the function of the park and what facilities it should have to meet the needs of the public, he notes.

Leong Kwok Peng, vice-president of the Singapore Nature Society, says that it's a good thing if Thomson Nature Park's primary function is to draw the crowd away from Bukit Timah or MacRitchie.

"It's first and foremost a buffer zone, that's my take, which is good because those two Nature Reserves can do with less visitorship," he explains. "For Nature Reserves, it should be conservation first and visitors second."

Exercising at a Nature Park has less impact, for instance. "It's fine if people just walk and enjoy nature, but they're running up and down and going off-trail at Bukit Timah, or often running on the boardwalks at Sungai Buloh - which aren't good for the local wildlife," he points out.

So, do Singaporeans realise just how rich in biodiversity we are?

Even if Singapore is known for being a garden city, the idea still persists that Singapore is somewhat sterile and devoid of natural wildlife. Not that the local population's interest in flora and fauna is not there. In fact, environmental organisations such as Wild Singapore can barely cater to the demand for its marine programmes from the time its founder, Ria Tan, started giving guided walks at Chek Jawa 15 years ago.

"Interest didn't build up over the years . . . it was there from Day One!" declares the avid environmentalist and specialist in Singapore's coastal waters.

Back in 2001, when she and other volunteers started the Chek Jawa walks, every visit was fully booked.

"And those were the days before even blogs. NParks didn't even have a website then. People found out about our walks by word-of-mouth and came," relates Ms Tan, who has visited every one of Singapore's 40 shores and was involved in the blueprint for the setting up of Sisters' Island Marine Park in 2014.

From the time she started blogging about Singapore's marine life - Singapore's waters are home to more than 250 species of hard corals (32 per cent of hard coral species found worldwide), more than 100 species of reef fish, about 200 species of sponges and 12 seagrass species - it took a life of its own.

"It's been this monster that I try to feed," she quips. Till today, every walk is booked within hours, even with the increased number of volunteers they have.

Ivan Kwan, a volunteer nature guide, notes: "There's definitely an increase in the number of people visiting our parks and nature reserves over the last decade or so. There is often an overwhelming response whenever free guided walks conducted by various nature interest groups are advertised. There also appears to be more corporations keen on spending a day out on say, Pulau Ubin, as part of a company outing, or schools bringing students to these green spaces as part of their enrichment programmes."

Young and curious

Mr Kwan says that the younger ones in his groups are curious and excited about everything they see - even the smallest insects often draw their attention. "Many of them are actually full of questions about how a particular animal or plant survives in its natural habitat, or are eager to share their own previous experiences or even things they learnt from watching nature documentaries or reading books.

"Our forests, mangroves, coral reefs and other habitats may not be as extensive or as grand as those of neighbouring countries, but what we have left is no less worthy of protection and active conservation efforts. At the same time, there are several species that can thrive in our midst, as long as we provide the right environment for them, and in some cases, find solutions that allow both humans and wildlife to coexist."

Ms Tan points out just how easy it is to get to a reef, rainforest or marshland in Singapore, within an hour. "We've all the major tropical eco-systems within easy reach - and a six-star hotel nearby to get a drink after a visit. This is a huge natural heritage treasure that we have and it should be part of the Singapore story, and what makes Singapore special and interesting to visit and live in!"