The news that Singapore Botanic Gardens has been awarded Unesco World Heritage Site status by the United Nations is a great feather in the country's biological and heritage cap.
The Gardens is the first botanic gardens in Asia to be awarded heritage status. While its heritage values won the award, it also represents a nature area which provides an important service as a sanctuary in the city for both biodiversity and people.
Biodiversity is the variety of life, of plants and animals, and makes our earth glorious.
In Singapore, we have representatives of primary and secondary forests, mangroves, grasslands, and coral reefs scattered across this relatively tiny island. Many of these areas are teeming with wonderful wildlife and extraordinary plants.
There are the insect-hungry pitcher plants, the pigeon orchid which bursts into bloom in fright following lightning storms, and the towering dipterocarp trees which playfully release winged seeds that swirl like helicopters down to the many shades of green below.
There is the colourful and conspicuous oriental pied hornbill, the enigmatic scaly ant-eating pangolin, and the Singapore freshwater crab found nowhere else in the world.
The Botanic Gardens houses a diverse range of native and exotic plants, with some majestic trees being over 100 years old. These plants attract both native and exotic wildlife, representing an island of refuge in the city and providing connectivity for wildlife through the landscape. The Gardens also provide captivating areas for children and adults alike to learn more about nature.
In its jubilee year, at a time of national stock-taking, Singapore has a unique opportunity to make a choice about the future of its natural areas. This is a choice about whether future Singaporeans will reminisce about the nature that used to be in Singapore, or whether they can actually go out and see it for themselves.
What does future Singapore want to look like? Do we want to be a concrete jungle, or one with green spaces and wildlife?
In a country where land is heavily managed, our natural areas should be managed or planned with careful thought and precision. What might constitute a reasonable nature conservation or management policy in Singapore?
This is a delicate affair, with passion, science, and land-use demands often in conflict. This is especially so in a city like Singapore which has limited space, unlimited endeavours, and increasingly interested citizens.
While protecting native biodiversity is top priority, what is possible in Singapore is a nature conservation policy with a diversity of goals that satisfies the needs of a diversity of people. Some examples of such goals could be:
Areas of high biological significance should be protected for perpetuity, not until they are needed for development. These areas would offer limited or no access to the public, with the purpose of protecting their biodiversity and ecosystems.
They could include places such as the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve and Nee Soon Swamp Forest.
FOR EDUCATION AND RESEARCH
With representatives of each vegetation type still remaining (though declining), pockets of each can be used to teach young Singaporeans about diversity in life, about each unique ecosystem, and about the history of Singapore's environment. Experiencing it for themselves trounces any classroom learning. The Botanic Gardens gives students a space to learn about our colonial history and the ecology of a diverse urban garden, complete with a tiny remnant of native primary rainforest.
At school, I did not learn about our biodiversity and discovered the wonders of nature only while studying overseas. Imagine my delight as an ecologist returning from overseas when I learnt of Singapore's incredible creatures.
It disturbs me to think of the many other students who left, or did not pursue biology studies, because they did not realise the biodiversity in their own country. We could solve this by improving native biodiversity education in our education system and having nature areas to facilitate this. Some areas could also be set aside for ecological research, critical to understanding our natural history and how to manage it.
FOR PHYSICAL AND MENTAL WELL-BEING
Without regular visits to MacRitchie Reservoir, I get frazzled and make plans to leave the country. Spending time in nature areas recharges my energy and clears my head, and gives me a relaxing place to exercise. The plethora of joggers and walkers I see tell me I am not alone. The ability of nature to improve mental health and well-being is well-documented by scientific research. Keeping nature areas for recreational use (and mental health) may also contribute to talent retention in the country.
Few tours or tourism brochures advertise Singapore's biodiversity or nature areas. Yet we sit in a region popular with eco-tourists.
Eco-tourism in Costa Rica, for example, is poised to be a major revenue-generating industry, with exorbitant tourist and guide fees for national parks which tourists willingly pay. While our forests may not be as sizeable as Costa Rica's, Singapore can provide a "soft" introduction to tropical rainforests for city-loving tourists.
Certain natural areas could be demarcated for guided tours, with strict guidelines and limits to the numbers allowed in each day. These would be outside the most biologically sensitive areas and could be rotated through a set of specific areas. Compared with other rainforest experiences around the world, Singapore is special in having a dense rainforest just 10 minutes from the city.
Certain areas can be set aside for fishing, cycling, walking, bird-watching, setting up vegetable gardens and other hobbies. Living in harmony in a dense place means accepting and respecting others' joys. Apart from existing nature areas, we can also add biodiversity anywhere and everywhere through replanting or habitat creation.
NParks is already replanting our road median strips with what will, hopefully, become little strips of forests, instead of strips of turf. These strips will provide important corridors for animals to move through our city.
If we strengthen biodiversity in our nature areas and enhance the diversity of nature areas for multiple purposes, then perhaps the whole of Singapore, and not just the Botanic Gardens, will be celebrated internationally for its nature areas.
The writer is principal ecologist at Ecology Matters, an environmental consultancy providing ecological advice and biodiversity studies for environmental impact assessments.
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