The Life Interview With Subaraj Rajathurai

The Life Interview With Subaraj Rajathurai: Self-taught naturalist stumbled upon his calling

The nature guide and conservationist found his calling during a trek up Bukit Timah Hill at the age of 18

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Self-taught naturalist Subaraj Rajathurai believes in education as the best way forward for the conservation cause and uses walking tours to expose people to Singapore's nature.

Wildlife expert Subaraj Rajathurai holds up the skin of a snake. He knows that it belongs to a black spitting cobra and that it was sloughed off about an hour ago as it is still soft and moist.

Retrieving the 1.5m-long skin from the undergrowth seems par for the course for Mr Subaraj, 53, who later washes his hands in a stream along the trail through the forested areas of Venus Loop near Upper Thomson Road.

The tour guide licensed by the Singapore Tourism Board has been conducting nature walks like this one since 1990.

He is a self-taught naturalist who has been studying wildlife for about 35 years and his experience shows.

During our walk, which takes more than two hours, he points out a female Malayan colugo, or flying lemur, gripping the top half of a tree trunk. He knows that the deep croaking that fills the air is the call of a four-ridged toad.

He gestures towards a towering species of wild pandan, a giant compared with the fragrant pandan used in cooking.

He also spots a Nibong palm and says it was used to build kelongs in the past, but only after its copious, ferocious-looking thorns were removed.

Wearing a purple bandana from his 100-piece collection to protect his head from sunburn and sporting hair past his shoulders, he rocks an avuncular, easy-going vibe.

White-bearded and burly, he looks a little like Santa Claus, one bearing gifts of knowledge of the wild.

Our trail is so close to houses in the Upper Thomson area that the smell of cooking wafts into the green space at one point - a microcosm of the relationship between Singapore's wilderness and built-up areas.

People live cheek by jowl with nature in land-scarce Singapore and he is aware that conservation has to fight for its place in the sun.

"There is a need for other aspects in Singapore like housing and recreation. It's all about balance," he says.

Animal encounters in urban spaces, for instance, have sparked calls for culls in recent years.

Mr Subaraj is rooting for nature - and has been doing so for a long time. The director and founder of Strix Wildlife Consultancy was one of the first few tour guides in Singapore who chose to focus on nature.

Now, there are at least 18 other such licensed tour guides, as well as a plethora of groups involved in conservation issues.

A decade ago, he founded his consultancy, which does research, wildlife surveys, educational outreach, eco-tours and other work in conservation.

A member of the Nature Society (Singapore) since the 1980s, he helped to work on a proposal to save bird haven Sungei Buloh, which had been slated for redevelopment. The proposal was submitted to the Government in 1987.

The wetland officially opened in 1993 as the Sungei Buloh Nature Park and was eventually gazetted as a nature reserve.

It was the first time a civil society group successfully lobbied the Government to change its plans.

The veteran conservationist is still active in the scene. He has worked on Environmental Impact Assessments and wildlife surveys, with fieldwork ranging from Lower Peirce Reservoir in the early 1990s to the Lentor and Mandai areas in recent years.

Although he has a modest formal education, Mr Subaraj, who comes from a family of teachers, including his late parents and some aunts and uncles, believes that education and public awareness are key to conservation.

He estimates that he has taken "thousands" of people on nature walks to share his knowledge and hopefully win some sympathisers, advocates or activists to the conservation cause.

"The more information we share, the better chance we have of saving nature through others having a better understanding and respect for it," he says.

Although Mr Subaraj says he was born with an interest in nature, it bloomed only in his teens.

As a child, he liked to make scrapbooks with animal pictures and was familiar with conservation icons. He read books by Gerald Durrell and watched documentaries by Jacques Cousteau and David Attenborough.

He, his older brother and a younger sister were raised in a conservative household with little interest in nature apart from occasional excursions to the zoo. The broad expectation was that he would eventually be "a doctor, lawyer or engineer", he says.

He recalls "a kind of restlessness" in his childhood.

He did well in primary school, but "never quite found" his way in secondary school at Tanjong Katong Technical School. He managed to get his O-level certificate, but dropped out after a year at Stamford College, a private institution for qualification to university.

This put paid to his fledgling ambition of becoming a zoologist. But he was soon to discover his life's purpose.

At the age of 18, he trekked with schoolmates up Bukit Timah Hill, where he had an epiphany.

"Once I got there, it was like coming home. I was in a place where I belonged and I never looked back," he says. "I realised then that I wanted to work in nature, but I didn't know how."

He had to do his national service, but he started educating himself in earnest after that.

For about four years in his early 20s, he spent his days wandering in the wild areas of Singapore such as the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve and Pulau Ubin, learning about flora and fauna. In the afternoons, he was at the library doing research.

Humming with facts on the wild

He went on regional field trips to places like Endau-Rompin National Park in Johor, learning from mentors such as reputed Malaysian naturalist Dennis Yong, and joined the Nature Society (Singapore) in 1985.

But family members who wanted him to get a job during those years gave him "a hard time", even though his parents supported him emotionally and financially, he says.

He did not apply for jobs at the zoo or bird park as he refused to work with captive animals.

Once, he caved in and tried an office job at the stock exchange. He lasted only a day.

Eventually, after taking some birdwatchers on walks, he decided to conduct nature walks as a professional and took a six-month course at the Singapore Tourism Board to get a tour guide's licence. He was finally employed at the age of 25 as a freelance nature guide.

"I followed the family tradition and became a teacher outdoors without having to do any marking," he says.

His wife, Ms Shamla Jeyarajah, 51, who works with him at his consultancy, explains his single-mindedness: "He is independent and solitary in some ways and he knew what he wanted and didn't let go."

Before they got married in 1994, he told her his priorities were God first (he is a Hindu), followed by nature, her, then their family.

"I'm No. 3. I accepted it immediately because I'm a very easy-going person," she says.

Their two sons, who have been out on nature walks with their father since they were infants, are named after birds.

Saker, who is named after a falcon, is a 16-year-old junior college student. Serin, named after a finch, is 21 and doing his national service.

Influenced and guided by his father, Serin already regards himself as having a "career" in nature, having joined his father on surveys and research programmes in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Borneo. He plans to pursue a university degree in life sciences and is the co-founder of the Herpetological Society of Singapore, which focuses on the conservation of reptiles and amphibians.

Mr Richard Hale, a former chief executive officer at HSBC in Singapore, has known Mr Subaraj since they worked together as part of the group calling for Sungei Buloh's conservation.

The 79-year-old British retiree and avid birdwatcher recalls how, in the 1980s, he knew nature watchers who were keen on specific groups of animals such as birds or butterflies.

"In contrast, Subaraj was one of the first people I knew who realised that everything was interconnected. I've seen how his incredible knowledge can hum out of him," says Mr Hale, who is a Singapore permanent resident.

The pair took a walk in the Dairy Farm area recently and Mr Hale saw a Rufous Woodpecker tapping on a street lamp. He had never seen such behaviour before. Mr Subaraj, on the other hand, explained that to attract others, the woodpecker was using the metal to amplify its drumming.

Mr Hale also notes how his friend keeps a comparatively low profile even while being an effective advocate for nature. "He's not a great publicist. He just gets on with it. One of the great things about Subaraj is that he puts his point of view across in a sensible, non-confrontational way, quite firmly but gently. He's actually very persuasive."

For his part, Mr Subaraj is concerned that, while there has been an increasing awareness of conservation in recent times, some Singaporeans are "loving nature to death (by) flocking to nature reserves" in large numbers.

"Animals are being disturbed. A lot of Singaporeans don't realise the fragility and sensitivity of these habitats," he says.

As a nature warden with the National Parks Board for about 20 years, he has seen people jogging in vulnerable areas of nature reserves, potentially impacting the eco-systems there, even though they can use the more than 300 parks here to exercise instead.

He has also observed the large forest gecko and a bird, the Scarlet Minivet, vanish from the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve since he started studying the reserve in the 1980s.

Mr Subaraj is reflective about the times when the authorities chose development over conservation.

"You pick your battles. In Singapore, you don't lobby - that's for other countries. If you start getting rowdy and protesting, in the end, nature is the loser," he says.

"Emotions don't work. You have to use facts. Dialogue is better for finding solutions. You have to keep working at it."

He will keep fighting on, he says.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 20, 2017, with the headline The Life Interview With Subaraj Rajathurai: Self-taught naturalist stumbled upon his calling. Subscribe