Home Front

Don't let humans be the death of nature

Otter pup with fish hook highlights need for regulation, education and volunteers' help

More Singaporeans are venturing outdoors to get closer to nature - such as going hiking, fishing, mountain biking or taking photographs of nature.

But the downside is that Singapore's wildlife and nature areas can be damaged by unethical recreational practices.

Last month, a wild otter pup was found with a fish hook lodged near its eye. Instead of using a barbless hook, irresponsible fishermen had used a barbed one, which national water agency PUB advises against.

And bird photographers hungry for "action shots" were caught last October apparently baiting eagles using live fish injected with air and styrofoam, so they would remain afloat.

Fishermen are venturing into illegal areas to fish, leaving in their wake fishing lines and hooks that ensnare other animals. Hikers go off trail and tread on sensitive vegetation. Mountain bikers have caused damage to soil and roots in nature reserves.

The nature community recognises that nature sites are increasingly being used as places of recreation by urban folk, and welcomes this.


But conservationists are calling for ways to better manage the human impact.

There is also a need for city-dwellers to be aware of how to interact with nature and wildlife. Wild boars, long-tailed macaques and otters have been spotted in urban areas such as Bishan Park.

The answer cannot be in extreme solutions, such as making all nature areas off-limits, or else simply letting people do whatever they please.

A balance has to be found. This could lie in regulation, which could help ensure protection in the short term, and education, a longer process to help people recognise the importance of interacting with nature sustainably.

On May 17, the BBC reported that the Thai authorities are set to close the island of Koh Tachai as tourism is wrecking the environment.

Singapore should move to ensure that its nature areas do not degenerate into such a state.

Unlike countries such as Thailand, the Republic's nature areas are scarce. Only 0.28 per cent of Singapore's land is covered with primary lowland dipterocarp (a family of plants predominantly seen in South-east Asia) forest and freshwater swamp forest.

Without adequate protection, the last remnants of Singapore's natural history could be lost.


In countries such as Sweden, people are given the "freedom to roam" - they have a right to enjoy the great outdoors on their terms. They can walk, cycle, ride, ski and camp on almost any land. But small Singapore cannot afford to do this.

The Republic's nature reserves, for instance, are designated to protect representative sites of key natural ecosystems. But they are also being used by mountain bikers and hikers.

As for the 17 reservoirs here, the PUB says they are primarily for the country's water supply - but a growing number of anglers (and otters) are using them for relaxation.

The growing interest in nature is all well and good, but there should be a limit to the number and types of activities that can be conducted.

As wildlife consultant Subaraj Rajathurai, 53, points out: "There should be a space for everybody. But when everybody wants to be in the same space, then we have a problem."

Regulation, however, need not necessarily come in the form of restrictive or prohibitive measures.

Mr Luke Gino Cunico, 39, owner of the Fishing Kaki online forum, suggests that a licensing scheme could weed out irresponsible and illegal amateur fishermen. His forum, which has a code of conduct for anglers, has grown fourfold over the past five years and has about 450,000 members.

Under such a scheme, Mr Cunico suggests that anglers have to obtain a licence to fish, for which they must apply for and pay a fee. They must also adhere to certain guidelines, such as the amount of fish they can catch, or the types of hooks they can use.

This increases accountability and prevents anglers from feigning ignorance about established fishing etiquette, details of which the PUB lists on its website. This includes measures such as using barbless hooks, and disposing of fishing lines and hooks properly.

The PUB has already limited recreational inland fishing activity to designated areas at Pang Sua Canal, and at 10 out of Singapore's 17 reservoirs.

But recent cases such as the hooking of the young otter have shown that PUB's current measures - such as listing etiquette on its website, and designating fishing areas - are not enough to stop irresponsible and illegal fishing activity.

The PUB said it is studying the feasibility of a licensing scheme here, although a spokesman pointed out that reservoirs in Singapore are primarily for water supply.

An encouraging example of regulation is what the National Parks Board (NParks) is doing at the Sisters' Islands Marine Park.

It has imposed a cap of eight divers on each of the two dive trails at the park at any given time to protect marine biodiversity and avoid overcrowding.

"This allows the public to appreciate nature without creating unnecessary stress on the environment and allowing conservation and recreation to take place in harmony," said Ms Sharon Chan, NParks' director of the Central Nature Reserve.


Manpower is an issue when it comes to enforcement, but there is also a wide network of passionate volunteers who can be the eyes and ears protecting the environment.

Volunteers from nature groups and scientists conducting research in nature areas spend a lot of time in these places and can help to guide fellow users on correct ways to conduct themselves.

"Enforcement officers cannot be everywhere, and the continual presence of wardens in the nature reserves, especially on weekends, will help create a sense the forest is being monitored," said biologist David Tan, 26. He is from the Love Our MacRitchie Forest volunteer group, which hopes to get more people to appreciate Singapore's primary rainforest.

NParks has been working with the community to manage and encourage appropriate behaviour in our green spaces through measures such as its Nature Warden Scheme. This enlists the help of volunteers from the nature community to advise the public on the responsible use of reserves.

Mr Subaraj, who has been a nature warden for about 20 years, suggests that the scheme be made more robust by giving wardens limited enforcement powers, such as being able to take the details of those caught behaving irresponsibly and damaging the reserve.

In the face of declining plant and animal species due to factors including human encroachment, the Republic cannot afford to be lax with enforcement in nature reserves, he said. For instance, birds such as the scarlet minivet and a lizard known as the large forest gecko have disappeared from places such as the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve.

"Nature reserves are for the protection of biodiversity, and activities that jeopardise this should not be allowed there," Mr Subaraj said. "There are other areas where activities such as mass runs or corporate events can be carried out, such as at the more than 300 parks."


For nature areas to be sustained even as they are used for recreation, Singapore needs to nurture in its people a respect for all living things.

Environmental education starts at home, said Dr Vilma Ann D'Rozario, co-founder of environmental education group Cicada Tree Eco-Place.

"Parents and children should explore Singapore's wild areas together, where parents can be the role model and demonstrate ethical ways of interacting with wildlife," said Dr D'Rozario.

In schools, the Ministry of Education said environmental awareness and stewardship are developed in students through the humanities and science curriculums, and co-curricular programmes, such as environmental clubs.

Field trips to nature reserves and parks also help students learn about trail manners and park etiquette.

Come 2020, all Secondary 3 students will be exposed to rustic camping on Pulau Ubin or Coney Island.

To supplement this, all teachers should be equipped with an understanding of wildlife and nature, so they can explain their importance to students when a teachable moment arises, said Mr N. Sivasothi, a lecturer at the National University of Singapore's department of biological sciences.

I witnessed such a moment last Friday. A raptor chick had been found near the Reflections at Bukit Chandu, a World War II heritage site. Two scientists being interviewed responded to the call for assistance.

A s one of them - a bird researcher - monitored the chick's progress from a distance, he explained to students who had gathered around how to identify signs of distress: It had a gaping mouth and seemed to be stunned.

Juvenile birds on their maiden flight can sometimes fall, and they might recover if given time; it was important to keep a distance from wildlife, he told them.

At the National Institute of Education (NIE), trainee teachers are exposed to environmental issues. "Ecological literacy is covered in both core and elective courses in NIE initial teacher education programmes," said Associate Professor Lim Kam Ming, associate dean of programme planning and management at NIE's office of teacher education.

"Armed with such content knowledge and practical experience, NIE's graduates would be ideal ambassadors to educate future generations to appreciate and preserve the delicate balance of nature."

The students had gone to the heritage site for a field trip, but ended up with a valuable biological lesson.

Nature Photographic Society (Singapore) president Fong Chee Wai summed it up when he told The Straits Times: "In nature photography, you cannot force a bird to perch where it doesn't want to perch.

"We must know when to back off when necessary if we truly love nature, as our goal should be to ensure that nature blossoms, rather than degenerates in our hands."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 26, 2016, with the headline Don't let humans be the death of nature. Subscribe