””

Science Talk

Protecting diversity in Singapore and Southeast Asia

Diverse stakeholders must join forces to fight threat of extinction

The goal of modern zoological institutions is to offer the visitor a chance to get close to wildlife. Ideally, they leave with a sense of connection to wildlife.

But that is no longer enough.

Today, scientists agree the world is on the brink of a sixth mass extinction, exacerbated by population growth, attendant habitat degradation and loss, as well as climate change.

In particular, the South-east Asian region we are in is a global biodiversity hot spot in which a high number of endemic species are under threat because of land use change, plantation agriculture for crops such as oil palm and rubber, hunting and the illegal wildlife trade.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) Species Survival Commission (SSC), which assesses the conservation status of species globally, notes that there is an alarming concentration of critically endangered species in the region.

The world is not just losing flagship species such as the critically endangered Sumatran rhinoceros, of which there are fewer than 200 left in the wild, or the Malayan tiger, which fares no better. Experts are racing against time to describe fishes, reptiles and amphibians in disappearing habitats.

The Night Safari is the first park to successfully breed the Sunda pangolin under human care. Pangolins are the most heavily traded mammal in the world, captured and killed for their scales for traditional medicine - which actually have no medicinal
The Night Safari is the first park to successfully breed the Sunda pangolin under human care. Pangolins are the most heavily traded mammal in the world, captured and killed for their scales for traditional medicine – which actually have no medicinal value – and their meat. Four out of the eight species can be found in Asia and all are on the brink of extinction. PHOTO: WILDLIFE RESERVES SINGAPORE

The problems are so complex that only a coordinated effort by diverse stakeholders can mitigate against the crisis. In our commitment to species conservation, veterinarians and zoologists at Wildlife Reserves Singapore (WRS) work with biologists, academics and government agencies in a myriad of projects.

Breeding programmes ensure that we can fight extinction and establish colonies for endangered species. There are also continuous improvements to behavioural enrichment, husbandry, health and nutrition to ensure animals in the collection are well cared for.

Over the years, we have embarked on sound relationship-building across diverse sectors. This means our conservation department actively facilitates dialogues, runs workshops and ensures that experts meet on common ground to coordinate conservation strategies for a diverse range of species, regardless of whether they are charismatic, or too innocuous to be noticed.

Examples of coordinated regional conservation strategies include:

•The IUCN SSC-initiated Asian Species Action Partnership which focuses on the most threatened and uncharismatic non-marine vertebrates of South-east Asia, such as the Philippine bare-backed fruit bat and Krabi mouth-brooding betta (a fish). WRS hosts its secretariat and sits on its executive committee.

•Since 2011, WRS has worked with partner organisations to implement freshwater-turtle conservation strategies in Cambodia, Myanmar, Vietnam, Rote Island (Indonesia) and the Philippines. WRS parks hold "assurance colonies" for a number of critically endangered turtle species so that genetically diverse individuals can be bred for eventual reintroduction- a key way that zoos can help prevent extinction.

•Listed as Endangered by the IUCN, just over 40,000 Asian elephants remain in the wild across Asia. For the past five years, we have been supporting field researchers in Malaysia to mitigate human-elephant conflicts and look at the role that elephants play as seed dispersers in our dwindling forests.

•WRS has played a critical role in establishing the Asian Captive Elephant Working Group, which brings together veterinarians, researchers and conservationists to improve welfare standards of captive elephants across Asia.

Conservation efforts also need to begin at home. In Singapore, the four wildlife attractions - the Jurong Bird Park, Night Safari, River Safari and Singapore Zoo - currently house more than 1,000 species of animals, of which one in five is threatened.

The parks strive to educate guests on why threats to wildlife exist and persist; and what they can do to protect threatened animal species. An ongoing campaign on the illegal wildlife trade draws the link between the animals in the zoo and the threats these species face in the wild due to poaching and trade.

Though regional work forms the backbone of our conservation efforts, protecting biodiversity in Singapore is no less critical.

The WRS Conservation Fund (WRSCF), set up in 2009, supports key local conservation projects to protect species such as the Singapore freshwater crab, Sunda pangolin and Raffles' banded langur.

The inconspicuous 3cm freshwater crab plays a role in nutrient recycling in hill streams and is found in Bukit Batok, Bukit Gombak and Bukit Timah Nature reserves. WRSCF has been supporting a two-year project by the National Parks Board and the National University of Singapore to study its habitats. The project also supports a breeding facility currently housed at WRS to better understand the crab's biology and, in time, support a sustainable population in the wild.

Pangolins around the world are in dire straits. They are the most heavily traded mammal in the world, captured and killed for their scales for traditional medicine - which actually have no medicinal value - and their meat. Four out of the eight species can be found in Asia and all are on the brink of extinction.

WRS hosted the first IUCN-SSC Pangolin Specialist Group Conservation Conference in 2013, to draft a Pangolin Conservation Action Plan, and gives ongoing support to field research and conservation efforts in Singapore and the region.

While multi-stakeholder efforts continue, the Night Safari became the first park to successfully breed the Sunda pangolin under human care.

Small institutional successes notwithstanding, challenges lie ahead. With nearly 10 per cent of the global population living on just 3 per cent of the land mass that constitutes South-east Asia, the threat of extinction will inevitably grow. Social scientists, biologists and conservationists have to work together as dialogue across disciplines is the only way to ensure actions have lasting impact on the ground.

We also need to become better storytellers. This will ensure we educate and inspire both the curious zoo visitor and the indifferent bystander to become a steward and ambassador for the biodiversity hot spot we call home.

• Dr Sonja Luz is director of conservation and research at Wildlife Reserves Singapore. Ms Vinita Ramani is assistant manager of conservation and research at Wildlife Reserves Singapore.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 30, 2016, with the headline 'Protecting biodiversity in S'pore and S-E Asia '. Print Edition | Subscribe