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Of sunbirds, hornbills and Singapore ecotourism

The planned wildlife parks in Mandai raise issues of balancing development and conservation.

The Lion City has embarked on an ambitious ecotourism project that involves developing five wildlife parks in Mandai by 2023.

This is ecotourism the Singapore way, though, for it involves clearing forests in the island's north which are home to native birds and mammals to build parks to house - you guessed it - birds and mammals, including those from far-off lands.

A new Rainforest Park, and the Bird Park which will be relocated from Jurong, will be built on secondary forests on two plots of land next to Mandai Lake Road. They will join the existing trio of attractions in Mandai: the Singapore Zoo, Night Safari and River Safari.

Tourism experts have welcomed the development as one that can help Singapore attract a growing number of ecotourists. But whether such a development meets the International Ecotourism Society's definition of ecotourism, a key component of which refers to "responsible travel to natural areas which conserves the environment", is debatable.

WATCH THE IRONY

At its parks, one of the ways that Wildlife Reserves Singapore (WRS), which manages the Mandai wildlife attractions, champions conservation is through demonstrations of its zero tolerance for the illegal wildlife trade. This is done through posters, signboards and exhibitions at various animal exhibits to educate visitors about the harm caused.

The WRS also has a Conservation Fund that supports local and regional conservation and research projects. Since the fund was registered as a charity in 2009, $1.5 million has been disbursed to more than 30 conservation projects, workshops, and conferences for animals such as the critically endangered Raffles' banded langur (banded leaf monkey) and the Sunda pangolin.


ST ILLUSTRATION : MIEL

But the irony behind the massive Mandai makeover is this: Some of the animals that may benefit from the research and conservation projects also live in the same Mandai forests that will have to make way for the new Rainforest Park and Bird Park. And as the Mandai area sits right outside the Central Catchment Nature Reserve, there are also concerns that the increased human traffic will affect the wildlife there.

Granted, all forms of nature tourism entail a certain degree of environmental damage - think scuba divers who inadvertently damage corals by kicking them, or the construction of boardwalks or rustic accommodation on hiking trails - but the move to replace native biodiversity with imported wildlife is incongruous with plans to tout the area as a "nature and wildlife destination".

Yet, could this be the best choice of development for the Mandai area? Ideally, the land would be designated as part of the reserve. But in Singapore, where land is scarce, that is unlikely to happen, noted wildlife consultant Subaraj Rajathurai, who was involved in the Mandai biodiversity surveys. He summed it up thus : In a country where development is unceasing and relentless, the question is seldom one of whether to build or not. Rather, the choice is about how to develop an area.

The Rainforest Park and Bird Park will be built on two plots of land that sandwich the Mandai Lake Road. Both plots are state-owned, with none of the protection offered to the adjacent reserve, which is also Singapore's largest. Secondary forests had regenerated on the land, which was formerly occupied by the Mandai Orchid Garden, an abandoned village and farmland.

Developer Mandai Safari Park Holdings (MSPH) has given the assurance that the development will be done sensitively, and has taken steps to ensure this. It engaged nature groups about plans to develop the area from as early as 2012, before Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced plans for the makeover in September 2014. MSPH also voluntarily commissioned an Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) - a "significant investment", said a spokesman, who declined to reveal costs. Following the completion of the EIA, the results of which were announced in July this year, the developer also agreed to make changes to development plans.

One of the most significant is the swopping of locations of the new Rainforest Park and Bird Park. This puts the bulk of the Rainforest Park to the north, instead of the south, of Mandai Lake Road, where there are more mature trees that can be incorporated into the park. It also agreed to have a vegetated buffer area between the park boundaries and the nature reserve, ensuring that the development will not go right up to the fringes of the reserve.

Explaining the need for this buffer, Mr Subaraj said: "There are condominiums right outside the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, and that has run into many problems - they are not only an eyesore, but also cause many human-wildlife conflicts."

So in a way, building two wildlife parks there, instead of more condominiums or shopping malls, is the lesser of two evils. At least this way, some of the native biodiversity can be retained.

MANAGED NATURE

The Mandai hub has been touted by tourism experts as an ecotourism draw. But with the right outreach and education initiatives, it also has the potential to reduce the "nature deficit" experienced by many city folk. This is a term used by experts to describe how people are increasingly alienated from their natural world, and lack the chance to experience nature.

Ms Alicia Seah, Dynasty Travel's director of public relations and communications, said there are two main groups of eco-tourists. The first comprises dedicated nature tourists who are tolerant of limited amenities, and less supportive of man-made attractions, she said, but the second group, which most Singaporeans fall under, prefer to get up close to nature without sacrificing comfort.

Visitor numbers support this view. Every year, the zoo welcomes about 1.7 million visitors. The Night Safari receives about 1.1 million visitors annually, and the River Safari, one million. Even the Jurong Bird Park, the least popular of the four attractions, welcomes 800,000 guests a year. In comparison, about 400,000 visited the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve in 2013.

Dr Michael Chiam, Ngee Ann Polytechnic's senior tourism lecturer, said: "For those of us who live in a highly urbanised environment, experiencing nature with modern amenities, such as getting close to animals in the wildlife parks in Mandai, or even a farm stay in the Kranji countryside, would most probably be the first step towards ecotourism before venturing out into the wild."

Professor Peter Ng, head of the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum, said rustic ecotourism may not be for everyone. And it is also not ideal to have swarms of people spilling into natural environments, considering the damage that can be wrought. "What the developers are trying to do in Mandai is to recreate the natural environment in a more managed way, so a greater number of people can be brought in because the environment is not totally natural... it is a compromise," said Prof Ng.

"The animals and plants are real - you know how they look like, how they smell like -it is a great experience. If you link in enough educational messages, they can then learn why it is important to practice conservation. And if you then layer this with enough resources to do real-time biodiversity research and conservation in Singapore and the region, all the better for everyone."

Mr David Tan, a biologist from the Love Our MacRitchie Forest volunteer group, said that one way to do this is to have an increased emphasis on local and regional biodiversity, something that remains lacking at many of the existing parks. "Most children in Singapore can recognise hummingbirds and toucans, which are found only in the Americas, but not sunbirds and hornbills, which are native to South-east Asia" said Mr Tan, a bird researcher.

The new Rainforest Park could provide an opportunity to highlight native animals that live among the mature trees that grow in the area and which will be incorporated into the park. "This way, the space retains its natural character so that it resembles more of a natural space than a zoo. And at least the organisms featured there look like they belong," Mr Tan said.

For now, though, many details need to be worked out between nature groups and the park developers and the outcome of such discussions could affect wildlife in the neighbouring reserve. One example Mr Subaraj cited is how to build fences along Mandai Lake Road to funnel animals to a wildlife bridge instead of having them cross the road, minimising road fatalities.

But he stressed that the plans are far from being set in stone. "These are still early days, we are far from the final satisfactory end product, and we will continue working with developers to achieve this," he said.

Given the ecotourism tag that developers plan to hang over this particular attraction, it is in everyone's interest to ensure its development does not come at the expense of Singapore's original, native wilderness.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 15, 2016, with the headline 'Of sunbirds, hornbills and S'pore ecotourism'. Print Edition | Subscribe