Pockets of wild growth: Are they worth conserving?

posted in: Conservation | 2

In January 2013 a group of Pasir Ris residents went public with their unhappiness over the proposed clearing of a piece of scrub-land to build an international school (Straits Times 1st January 2013, below). The group even threatened “legal recourse to save the forest.” The Nature Society got involved in the controversy when birdwatcher Dr Ho Hua Chew chipped in, claiming that the area harboured 30-40 species of birds. This, reasoned Dr Ho, was because “the carrying capacity of the nature reserves has exceeded for some species. That’s why they are resorting to these areas outside nature reserves.”

I see Dr Ho’s reasoning highly flawed, based on unproven speculation. A wooded area harbours plentiful birds of whatever species, as long as the trees and undergrowth provide shelter and food. Furthermore this area has been left undisturbed, as even birdwatchers will not enter it – maybe only walking around the periphery to undertake a casual survey. And I am sure almost all nearby residents (except maybe poachers), will similarly not enter the area. I strongly suspect that many residents want the area as a sanctuary for its population of creepy crawlies, as once cleared, they fear these creatures may find their way into their nearby homes.

In my letter to the Straits Times of 11th January (above), I went public against acceding to demands of conserving pockets of wild growths just because “x” species of birds have been documented during a period of “y” months. And as “y” increases, so will “x”. So what if x+ species had been recorded in and around the area, maybe even passing through?

Do birdwatchers not know what happens once the area is cleared? First, the birds would move off to other wooded areas – and there are plenty of parks, gardens or whatever for them to relocate. Second, if the cleared plot is left to regenerate, the birds would once again return LINK. What this means is that such habitats are easily recreated within a short time. This is reminiscence to the Marina South patch of reclaimed land that the Nature Society wanted conserved a few decades ago – a flawed move.

The series of media controversies of the late 1980s and early 1990s saw birdwatchers demanding each and every wild growth with plentiful birdlife to be conserved. This came after government acceded to the society’s request to turn a degraded mangrove at Sungei Buloh into a bird sanctuary. After this success and with locals taking over the Conservation Committee, areas of old wild growths were systematically lost as these birdwatchers mishandled their demands via media confrontations and uncompromising attitudes in negotiating with the relevant authorities LINK.

[Map showing Bukit Timah Nature Reserve (A) and Central Catchment Reserve (B) courtesy of Google Maps.]

Singapore has already conserved what needs to be conserved. By this I mean that we already have a piece of the original Singapore in the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve (above). We also have the Central Catchment Reserve, a much larger area of matured secondary forest, with patches hundreds years old (also above). Also, a patch of coastal forest in the Labrador Reserve. Finally the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve comprising somewhat degraded mangroves and mudflats that is a haven to migratory birds – a result of behind-the-scene negotiations by Mr Richard Hale, the then Chairman of the Conservation Committee. All these areas are legally protected as Nature Reserves.

Currently, what we have left of the non-protected wild areas are patches of very young growths. Because these areas are undisturbed by human activities, birdlife proliferates. There is absolutely no conservation value here.

For the Nature Society to support the conservation of these areas (directly or via outsourcing, consciously or otherwise), would mean that it has failed to learn from past experience. Consider that the society has only a single conservation success (Sungei Buloh) and many failures (Senoko, Khatib Bongsu, Kranji, Woodlands, Marina South…). Involving in such frivolous ventures would only result in credibility loss once again. This would put it in a difficult situation should our Nature Reserves be threatened in the near future – when the population of Singapore reaches 6.5-6.9 million by 2030.

The Nature Reserves were once thought of as land banks to be accessed when needed for development. There is no guarantee that policy makers may not once again eye these “undeveloped” areas when the situation demands. After all, golf courses were once thought of as sacred cows, not so now with the publication of the Population White Paper.

YC Wee
February 2013

Francesch-Huidobro, M., 2008. Governance, Politics and the Environment: A Singapore Study. ISEA, Singapore. 395 pp.
2. Wee, Y. C. (ed.) 1992. Proposed golf course at Lower Peirce Reservoir – An environmental impact assessment. Nature Society (Singapore). 80 pp.
3. Wee, Y.C. & R. Hale, 2008. The Nature Society (Singapore) and the struggle to conserve Singapore’s nature areas. Nature in Singapore 1: 41-49.

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