Photographer fined for baiting birds

He gets $3,800 fine for feeding three birds at Botanic Gardens, venturing off-trail

The man was captured by a witness peering through a camera set up on a tripod while on the wrong side of a rope barrier.
The man was captured by a witness peering through a camera set up on a tripod while on the wrong side of a rope barrier. PHOTO: COURTESY OF ST READER

A nature photographer was yesterday fined $3,800 in total for flouting the law just to get good pictures of birds - the second time in seven months that a nature enthusiast has been rapped for unethical photography practices.

Johnson Chua, 51, who works in the information technology industry, was fined $3,000 for feeding birds with live mealworms at the Singapore Botanic Gardens without authority. He was fined $800 for venturing into an area of the national park which is closed to the public.

Last October, orthopaedic surgeon Lee Soon Tai, 63, was fined $2,000 for feeding endangered grey-headed fish eagles with live fish injected with air at Bukit Batok Town Park, a public park.

Under the Parks and Trees Act, national parks and nature reserves are accorded greater protection than public parks. Those guilty of unauthorised entry into closed areas of all parks and nature reserves can be fined up to $2,000. The penalty for unlawful feeding of animals in national parks and nature reserves is a fine of up to $50,000, up to six months' jail, or both.

In what is believed to be the first case of baiting for a photo in a national park to be brought before the courts, Chua was photographed by other visitors going off-trail at the Rainforest Trail within the Singapore Botanic Gardens - one of the remnants of Singapore's primary rainforests - on Jan 14.

One photo taken by a witness seen by The Straits Times captured him peering through a camera set up on a tripod. He was on the wrong side of a rope barrier, despite a signboard warning people against climbing over or feeding animals.

A white plastic bag was hanging from the tripod. According to court documents, the bag held a container filled with mealworms.

Chua went off-trail at about 4.30pm. He grabbed a handful of live mealworms and scattered them on a fallen tree log before returning to his camera. The bait attracted a silver pheasant, which ate the mealworms as photographers snapped away.

Chua did this three more times within the next half an hour, attracting two other species of birds - an orange-headed thrush and a red-legged crake.

All three species are not commonly sighted in Singapore. The red-legged crake, a Singapore native, is considered locally vulnerable to extinction. The silver pheasant was likely brought to Singapore via the pet trade, while the thrush seasonally migrates here from northern South-east Asia.

Photographers use bait to lure birds closer to the camera to obtain highly sought after "food in mouth" shots , said National University of Singapore bird scientist David Tan.

And with the number of amateur nature photographers here growing, the uptick in the number of baiting incidents could lead to more severe consequences, warned Mr Tan.

Other than potentially causing imbalances in the animals' diet, baiting also alters their natural behaviour, which can lead to negative side effects, as in the case of macaques in Segar Road, he noted. People fed the monkeys there, and they started entering residents' flats, stealing food and biting humans.

"Baiting could also result in a loss of fear of humans, which can lead to animals being more easily poached, or killed by vehicles. It can also heighten the risk of disease spread and vermin abundance at baiting sites, since these are hardly ever cleaned," said Mr Tan.

Dr Nigel Taylor, group director of the Singapore Botanic Gardens, said members of the public should practise proper etiquette when taking photos and avoid manipulating any flora or fauna.

  • Additional reporting by Elena Chong

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 26, 2017, with the headline Photographer fined for baiting birds. Subscribe