Wild About Nature

Date May 6, 2013

Nature groups have sprung up, holding walks, talks and scientific surveys. And interest in these activities is rising too.
By Lea Wee Straits Times 5 May 13;

They come with names like Naked Hermit Crabs, Hantu Blog, Toddycats and ButterflyCircle.

But there is nothing facetious about these community nature groups.

Instead, their mission is to celebrate and conserve what is left of the rich and diverse wildlife here, despite intense urbanisation.

According to the National Parks Board (NParks), natural greenery still constitutes more than 40 per cent of Singapore’s 714.3 sq km total land area. Of this, only about 5 per cent is gazetted as nature reserves.

While Nature Society (Singapore), formed in 1954, is the oldest nature conservation non-governmental organisation here, it has been joined by at least eight other nature groups over the last decade or so.

They come with their own pet causes, ranging from wildlife areas on land and sea to more specific animal or plant species. Some want to raise awareness, others are into nature education and conservation.

And they express their passion with clockwork regularity through various channels – blogs, photography, guided walks, talks and exhibitions, and scientific surveys.

Most of the volunteers are not scientists, but ordinary folk, including students, working adults and retirees.

The size of each group can range from five to more than 20. Some groups are registered as societies, while others are more informal. Most do not have an office and volunteers often communicate with one another via e-mail. The groups have their own blogs, through which they publicise their activities. Or they advertise on other nature websites, through a mailing list or by word of mouth.

And the relationship among them is one of camaraderie rather than competition.

Some volunteers are members of two or more groups. A number of the groups also have a good working relationship with NParks and representatives of the scientific community.

In fact, the three parties meet one another a few times a year at the Biodiversity Roundtable of Singapore.

This was initiated last year by NParks, the National University of Singapore and WildSingapore, a nature website by nature enthusiast Ria Tan to “allow members to update one another on conservation initiatives, exchange ideas and raise issues for discussion”, said DrLena Chan, director of National Biodiversity Centre at NParks.

The roundtable started an annual Festival of Biodiversity for the public last year.

The rise of these nature groups takes place against a backdrop of rising awareness of environmental issues and technological developments.

The origins of some of the groups can be traced to 2001, when news broke that the shores of Chek Jawa, at Pulau Ubin’s eastern-most point, were due for reclamation. The public protested against the move and the Government eventually deferred it.

Chek Jawa brought nature into the mainstream of public consciousness, wrote Dr Shawn Lum, 50, president of the Nature Society, in the 2011 book Singapore Biodiversity.

Nature blogs flourished. Some early ones include MsTan’s WildSingapore and Ms Debby Ng’s Hantu Blog on the marine life around Pulau Hantu.

Interest in nature photography also bloomed, made possible by the rapid growth and accessibility of digital photography.

Architect Khew Sin Khoon, 54, a father of two adult sons, gathered a group of photography enthusiasts to form ButterflyCircle in 2006 to focus on butterfly photography and research.

The rise of social media such as Facebook and Twitter also makes it easier for these groups to reach out to more people.

In 2007, volunteers from the Naked Hermit Crabs and Cicada Tree Eco-Place started to take the public on walks in different wildlife areas in Singapore.

One of the earliest groups, the Habitat Group, set up in 1996 and comprising volunteers with the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research, was renamed Toddycats in 2000. The toddycat, or the common palm civet, is the last surviving wild carnivore in Singapore. Besides walks, the group also conducts talks and exhibitions on Singapore’s wildlife and habitats, as well as cycling trips.

Other groups, started by scientists, collect data. The Blue Water Volunteers have been conducting surveys of the coral reefs in the southern islands since 2003, while Team Seagrass volunteers have been monitoring the health of seagrass here since 2007.

More recently, in March, a group of pre-university students came together to form Youth for Ecology, so riled were they by what they felt was a lack of discussion of environmental issues in the Population White Paper which projected a 6.9million population in 2030.

Since last month, they have been facilitating a series of focus group discussions for young people on what they want for the environment and Singapore’s future. They plan to write a paper based on the feedback and publish it online.

Responses to the activities of these groups have been encouraging. In fact, older groups such as the Naked Hermit Crabs, Cicada Tree Eco-Place and Hantu Blog said they have seen growing interest in their activities.

Ms Ng, 31, from Hantu Blog, said that 10 years ago, she had to convince other divers to join her group for dives around Pulau Hantu. But now, there is no problem filling up the boat each time. In fact, people book at least three months in advance for a trip as only eight divers can participate in each trip. This is the maximum number of participants a diving boat can accommodate.

She said: “There is definitely more awareness among divers today that Pulau Hantu has rich marine life.”

Still, challenges remain for some groups. One of these is getting enough funds for their activities. Sponsors tend to prefer bigger and more well-known environmental groups or causes related to people or the arts, said Dr Vilma D’Rozario, president of Cicada Tree Eco-Place.

Another challenge is getting a group of committed volunteers.

For instance, three years ago, the Blue Water Volunteers had to discontinue their monthly reef walks at Kusu Island because of the lack of volunteers to lead them. These walks used to attract about 100 people each time.

However, most groups are upbeat about their future and believe the fire of their passion will keep them going for years to come.

Dr Lum, who is married with no children, welcomes the growing presence of these groups as “it reflects a heightened interest in nature”.

But the challenge, he said, is to extend this interest to the wider community.

He said: “It is when the wider community feel that their natural heritage is precious that there will be a higher chance of influencing decision-making to ensure the protection of more wildlife habitats.”


To find out more about community nature groups and learn about the flora and fauna here, make a trip to the Festival of Biodiversity, which will take place on July 13 and 14 at VivoCity, from 10am to 10pm. For more information, go to www.nparks.gov.sg/festivalofbiodiversity.

Hantu Blog

Lea Wee Straits Times 5 May 13;

It all started innocuously enough in 2003.

Fresh from a diving course in Malaysia, Ms Debby Ng, then 21, wanted to explore the coral reefs around Singapore, but was told there was nothing to see in local waters.

Undeterred, she went for a few dives around Pulau Hantu, south of Sentosa and a 45-minute ferry ride from Pasir Panjang Ferry Terminal.

She saw seastars, sea turtles and other marine life and posted their pictures on an online forum.

People were amazed and some asked if they could join her for her dives.

As the number of interested divers grew, she roped in other divers to help her.

Later that year, she created a blog called the Hantu Blog (www.pulauhantu.org), where she wrote about these dive trips and put up photos of animal sightings.

“There are always new things to see, even if visibility can be as low as 1m on some days,” said Ms Ng, a 31-year-old photojournalist who is single.

She once spotted a blue-tailed dartfish and was told this was the first time the fish had been recorded in Singapore’s waters.

Today, the Hantu Blog divers conduct educational dives around Pulau Hantu.

During these dives, which cost $110 a person, participants not only get to dive, but they also learn from the volunteers the importance of protecting the coastline among other things.

Day dives are done at least once a month and night dives at least once a year.

The group just celebrated its 10th anniversary this year and was registered as an organisation last year.

Said Ms Ng: “We wanted to show that we are committed to this endeavour.”

She now has seven other volunteers who have been with her for at least three years, all working professionals in their 30s and 40s. But she is on a constant lookout for more volunteers.

She said: “Volunteers come and go. Life happens, people get married or move abroad.”

Volunteers have to undergo three dives and an open book written test and commit themselves to guide at least four dives a year.

To ensure safety, one guide will buddy only two divers.

Only eight participants and four volunteers are allowed each time as the boat is licensed to carry only 12 passengers.

One Singaporean diver, Mr Petrus Sahetapy, 51, a senior customer support engineer, has been diving with the Hantu Blog since 2007. His younger daughter, 19, who joins him sometimes “loves them to death”.

He said: “Even though diving at Hantu often feels like diving in muck, it’s like getting to know a mysterious lady. She doesn’t reveal all of herself the first time you meet her. Instead, she allows you to get to know a little more about her every time you see her.”

Cicada Tree Eco-Place
Lea Wee Straits Times 5 May 13;

Fancy taking your children out to the forests here at night so that they can see nocturnal creatures such as owls and bats?

Or how about an excursion to older housing estates to catch sight of the common palm civet, or toddycat, the last surviving wild carnivore here?

These are just some of the activities of nature education group Cicada Tree Eco-Place.

It was set up in 2007 by five longtime members of the Nature Society (Singapore) in their 40s and 50s who felt that there was a need to build children’s interest in wildlife.

They named their group after the cicada tree, a native plant found in the endangered freshwater swamp here.

At least twice a month, the group’s naturalist educator Andrew Tay and president Vilma D’Rozario, an assistant professor in psychological studies at the National Insitute of Education, lead 20 children aged five to 10 on two-hour walks at different wild habitats here. Both are single.

Sometimes, two-hour workshops are held, during which children are introduced to the wildlife in Singapore through slide shows, displays of specimens on loan from the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research, and art and craft sessions.

Each walk or workshop costs $15 to $20 a child, with one accompanying parent. The activities are publicised through the group’s blog, a mailing list and nature-related websites. Places are snapped up quickly.

Senior manager Finna Wong, 40, has been taking her daughter, Phebe, nine, for such walks at least twice a month for the last two years.

Said Ms Wong: “I am not a nature fan, but Phebe is interested and I didn’t want my fear of creepy-crawlies to inhibit her learning.”

Fees from these walks and workshops are used to cover the group’s operating costs, which include maintaining a website, printing of educational materials and paying MrTay for his expertise.

Three years ago, Cicada Tree started offering free walks to children from less privileged families, after it received funds from the Rotary Club of Jurong Town and Lee Foundation.

Funding from another well-wisher also allowed the group to introduce its activities to preschoolers at a subsidised fee of $10 a child.

Today, the group remains a quintet, with the addition of a couple of volunteers. It plans to raise funds to support young researchers keen to study Singapore’s wildlife as well as efforts to protect the native wildlife in Singapore and the region.

Finding sponsors – “only one in 10 may say yes” – is a challenge, but Dr D’Rozario is unfazed.

She said: “We will continue to ask, because we are passionate about wildlife and wild habitats and their conservation.”

Naked Hermit Crabs
Lea Wee Straits Times 5 May 13;

They took on the monicker Naked Hermit Crabs to remind people of how vulnerable the shores of Singapore are, just like hermit crabs without their shells.

The informal group comprises about 20 members who are in their 20s to 50s. Many of them were volunteer guides at different seashores of Singapore.

When news broke in 2007 that part of the natural shores at Sentosa would be reclaimed, they got together to conduct free walks for the public so that they could have a last look at these shores before they were reclaimed. Most of the shores remain undeveloped today.

This inspired them to form a group to offer guided walks at all other at-risk shores in Singapore.

However, due to the lack of people to lead and organise walks, the “crabs” now focus mainly on taking families out to the boardwalk at Chek Jawa in Pulau Ubin every month. During the school holidays, they conduct walks at the mangroves in Pasir Ris.

The boardwalk is easier for families to navigate, said MsRia Tan, 53, one of the founding members and a retired civil servant. Besides, it can be visited at high tide, when a special set of marine creatures such as otters and jellyfish can be seen.

These walks draw about 60 to 80 people each time.

Mr Andy Tan, 39, a customer relationship management consultant, joined one such walk at Chek Jawa in March last year with his wife and four children, aged four to 10. He said: “With the help of the guides, we saw so many more animals than we did when we were there on our own.”

In 2008, a volunteer started a training arm for its volunteer guides and other nature guides in Singapore. Ms November Tan, then a 27-year-old graduate student in geography, started coordinating a series of free workshops for nature guides and nature lovers here.

Nineteen workshops, given by nature experts in different fields, were conducted between 2008 and 2010. Topics ranged from specific species such as butterflies and spiders, to habitats such as mangroves and forests, to issues such as the release of animals into the wild.

The workshops were named the Leafmonkey Workshop after Ms Tan’s blog leafmonkey.blogspot.com, where she has been chronicling her thoughts on the environment since 2003. The banded leaf monkey is a highly endangered species in Singapore.

Even though the workshops were a success, drawing about 40 participants each time, they have been on hold since 2011 as Ms Tan was busy with her master’s dissertation. Now 32 and a civil servant, she plans to start the ball rolling again with a new series of free workshops next month.

Ms Tan, who is married, said: “We want to create more avenues for people, especially youths, to learn about Singapore’s biodiversity and natural places.”

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