A tribute to Clive Briffett: Birdwatcher and conservationist

on 10th November 2011

“Today, a memorial service is taking place in Oxford, England. It is for a delightful gentleman by the name of Clive Briffett, who I had the honour of calling him a friend. Clive suddenly passed away, of a suspected heart attack, on Saturday, 29th October 2011.

“In the early 1980s, Dr. Clive Briffett arrived in Singapore from Hongkong to take up a teaching post at the Department of Building Management, National University of Singapore. An accomplished birder, he soon became an active member of the then Singapore Branch of the Malayan Nature Society, now the Nature Society (Singapore). An excellent leader full of energy and passion, he organised the birdwatchers into a formal Bird Group, serving as Chairman for the next six years.

“I first met Clive in 1985, soon after I joined the society. This was when I participated in the Annual Bird Race that Clive and a few others introduced the year before. The next year he introduced the Annual Bird Census which got the group involved in the Annual Waterfowl Count in 1991. An updated checklist of birds was published, followed by the Singapore Avifauna to report on the rapidly growing number of bird records. In addition, there were regular talks and guided bird walks.

“Under Clive’s leadership the Bird group grew from strength to strength. He would regularly host meetings at his home in King George Park where ideas flowed and discussions were always fruitful. Local and expatriate birdwatchers worked hand in glove, as there was never any room for elitism or egos. I shall always remember these enjoyable gatherings of friends. This was indeed the golden years of local birding.

“Under Clive’s Chairmanship, the Bird Group spawned Singapore’s first ever conservation movement. This was a time when our precious natural habitats were under threat. Richard Hale became the first Chairman of the fledgling Conservation Group, with myself, Rexon Ngim and Ho Hua Chew as the other members. Clive and Chris Hails served as advisors. The first proposal was on the conservation of Sungei Buloh. Its success led to the formation Sungei Buloh Nature Park, later to morph into the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve. This was the first nature area to be protected since Singapore’s independence – a major feather in the Nature Society’s cap.

“In 1990, the ‘Master Plan for the Conservation of Nature in Singapore’ was published with Clive as editor. This was a major conservation document then, accepted by Government as a guideline to the national conservation policy. Clive then went on to organise the Nature Society’s first major conservation conference, ‘The State of the Natural Environment in Singapore’ and co-edited the conference document. He did not stop there but went on to publish, together with Sutari Supari, Oxford University Press’ ‘The Birds of Singapore’. Earlier, he had published ‘A Guide to the Common Birds of Singapore’ for the Singapore Science Centre. Clive also contributed many articles to the Malayan Naturalist, Nature Watch and Singapore Avifauna.

“An avid golfer, Clive often combined his two passions of birding and golfing. On one occasion, while playing a round at the Raffles Country Club, he came across a Little Curlew (Numenius minutus), a long-distance migrant. This was the first to be recorded in Singapore and many of us wanted to see the bird. As it was within the private golf club, a few of us hatched a plot. We went to the small back gate of the club early one morning, climbed over and searched for the bird. Upon seeing the bird and observing it for a short time, we beat a hasty retreat before the first golfers turned up!

“In 1991 Clive graciously agreed to step down from the Chairmanship of the Bird Group after he was approached to give way to local leadership. Apparently, the success of Sungei Buloh and the resulting attention of the Nature Society by Government and the public led to some local birdwatchers to seek leadership roles. Unfortunately this move led to the end of what I truly believe to be the golden era of local birding. For the next decade and more, it was very obvious that the Bird Group sorely missed Clive’s vital leadership. Not long after Clive stepped down, things started to spiral downwards and the nature movement has never been the same since.

“My friendship with Clive endured, even after he retired and returned home to the UK. On each of his subsequent visits to Singapore, we would meet up for a meal and a chat.

“Clive continued teaching as a Visiting Research Fellow and Research Associate at the School of Architecture, Oxford Brookes University. His teaching interests included Nature Conservation Management, Environmental Planning, Environmental Impact Assessment, Building Maintenance Technology and Ecotourism. Apart from these subjects, his research interests also included Ecological Network Planning & Design, Environmental Project Management and the Interaction of Built and Natural Environments.

“Clive was highly sought after as an Environmental Consultant while he was in Singapore. He worked on the Potential for Strategic Environment Assessment in Asia, funded by the National University of Singapore; Assessment of Ecotourism Potential in Singapore, funded by Singapore Tourism Board; Proposal for the Introduction of EIA in Singapore, funded by Ministry of Communications and Development, Government of Singapore. Together with the late Prof. Navjot Sodhi of the National University of Singapore, he conducted extensive fieldwork that resulted in a paper on Singapore’s Green Corridors.

“Clive was certainly a major pillar of our nature community and movement in the 1980s and 1990s. He continued to make a difference here and in the region, even after he returned to the UK. He has certainly left his legacy for others to continue to gain inspiration from.

“Clive leaves behind his wife Hillary, his children and grand-children, as well as many friends throughout the world. He will certainly be missed.

“I shall always cherish the many good fond memories. Farewell my friend!”

Subaraj Rajathurai
10th November 2011

Image at top: From left, Hilary, Sham, Subaraj and Clive. Subaraj

If you like this post please tap on the Like button at the left bottom of page. Any views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the authors/contributors, and are not endorsed by the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM, NUS) or its affiliated institutions. Readers are encouraged to use their discretion before making any decisions or judgements based on the information presented.

YC Wee

Dr Wee played a significant role as a green advocate in Singapore through his extensive involvement in various organizations and committees: as Secretary and Chairman for the Malayan Nature Society (Singapore Branch), and with the Nature Society (Singapore) as founding President (1978-1995). He has also served in the Nature Reserve Board (1987-1989), Nature Reserves Committee (1990-1996), National Council on the Environment/Singapore Environment Council (1992-1996), Work-Group on Nature Conservation (1992) and Inter-Varsity Council on the Environment (1995-1997). He is Patron of the Singapore Gardening Society and was appointed Honorary Museum Associate of the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM) in 2012. In 2005, Dr Wee started the Bird Ecology Study Group. With more than 6,000 entries, the website has become a valuable resource consulted by students, birdwatchers and researchers locally and internationally. The views and opinions expressed in this article are his own, and do not represent those of LKCNHM, the National University of Singapore or its affiliated institutions.

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