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Official Magazine of the Nature Society (Singapore)
Conserving Singapore's Biodiversity
Main article | Nature areas of importance | Map of Singapore's nature areas

By Lim Kim Seng
Chairman, Conservation Committee
Nature Society (Singapore)

It's New Year's Day 2000. I'm standing at the edge of MacRitchie Reservoir, looking at the forest across the water. This is the Central Catchment Nature Reserve forest, a part of the remnant terrestrial forest, a mere 2,000 hectares, making up roughly 4% of the original forest cover in Singapore. The sun was coming up and a dawn chorus of birds and insects was in earnest. A Greater Racket-tailed Drongo chirped its metallic melody to he followed by a sudden chatter from a Plantain Squirrel.

Even this was small consolation when I reflected upon the many extinct species which have been the result of the near-complete devastation of forests that followed Singapore's establishment as a colonial trading post in 1819. Insects, mammals, birds, fish, plants—it took man just a little over seven decades to wipe out the magnificent work of millenia by Mother Nature. More than half the native freshwater fish, one-third of our birds and a quarter of the seed plants and mamrnals are now extinct. Daunting statistics!

In Singapore, the tiger is already extinct. So is the leopard, clouded leopard, sambar and barking deer. The hornbills, trogons and broadbills are gone too. Even gloomier are the indications that there are limits to the regenerative ability of our forests after decades of fragmentation and isolation. The complex ecosystem that was once our rainforest is coming apart at the seams, slowly and steadily. This is despite being officially protected as Nature Reserves.

Three weeks later and I'm at the abandoned sewage works and dumping ground of Lorong Halus. This was once a very rich area of mangrove, rnudflats and ponds adjoining the Serangoon Estuary. During annual migrations, waterbirds in their tens of thousands used to swarm here to feed voraciously. These included some globally threatened species such as the Chinese Egret, Asian Dowitcher, Nordmann's Greenshank and Spoon-billed Sandpiper. Stints, sandpipers and plovers could be seen by the droves on the mudflats while scores of egrets and herons were to be observed feeding in the estuary, grasslands and ponds.

Such amazing sights have disappeared, extinct since the habitat was destroyed in order to create a rubbish dump. All that remains are remnant riverine mangroves, two small ponds and bits of grassland. Reclamation and solid waste dumping put paid to one of our richest bird sites. Although both the density and diversity of birds here had declined drastically, it is still the only home of the nationally threatened Little Grebe. There are less than 10 birds now eking out a tenuous and temporary existence.

The incessant activity that has made Singapore an economic powerhouse in the region also decimated our coastal biodiversity. Less than 5% of the original mangroves is left and mostly in the north of Singapore in a much degraded state. Several extinctions have occurred, the most spectacular being the arboreal orchids, none of which have survived.

MacRitchie Reservoir
fronting the Central Catchment
Nature Reserve which comprises
only 4% of the original forest
area in Singapore

Khatib Bongsu
is one of the 19 nature areas in
the Singapore Green Plan but it
does not have legal protection.
It is threatened by a proposed
semi-espressway cutting
through its core.

Bukit Timah Nature Reserve
Can the regenerative ability of
this detached rainforest
ecosystem survive decades
of isolation?
Photo by Goh Si Guim

Photo by Kenneth Kee

Senoko—Paradise Lost
Once a beautiful wetlands area
that was home to over 200 bird
species, this mega-biodiversity
site was levelled in 1995 to make
way for housing development

Lorong Halus wetlands
Reclamation activities destroyed
most of the coastal ecosystem
but its remnant ponds are home
to the nationally threatened
Little Grebe

Some Sobering Statistics

97 (39%) of all native coastal plants (251) are extinct.

Only 4% of mangroves are left.

26% of all seed plants are extinct and 65% threatened.

25 % of 91 mammals are extinct, 58% of remnant 53 mammals are at risk.

34% of birds are extinct and 38% of the extant residents are at risk.

The damage is not limited to mangroves as natural sandy, muddy and rocky shores have also been reclaimed or altered. The loss in biodiversity is tremendous. In addition to the losses in birds, crustaceans, molluscs and corals have also been depleted. The loss of coastal plants alone has been estimated at 40%.

Keeping Our Natural Heritage
What can be done? The losses in our natural habitats and native species can be considered nothing short of a calamity. But there is still time to repair the damage and ensure that a semblance of the original flora and fauna remains for future generations to learn, love, understand and guard like the irreplaceable, natural, national heritage that they are. The Ministry of the Environment published its Singapore Green Plan (SGP) in 1993. Most of their sites of merit were modelled after the Nature Society's own Conservation Masterplan formulated in 1990. A total of 19 areas were designated as "Nature Areas", based on their wildlife or scenic qualities. However, since then, no real action plans have been put in place to develop the SGP. Apart for the existing two Nature Reserves (Central Catchment and Bukit Timah), none of the 19 areas have any legal protection and can be developed at any time. The best example of this is Sungei Khatib Bongsu, a wetland site, which is threatened by the proposal to have a semi-expressway cutting through its core.

Another critical issue is that the size and boundary of all these sites, except for the nature reserves, have not been confirmed. What happens when there are conflicting needs like a condominium project in or near these areas? Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) are still not a legal requirement in Singapore so you end up with condos being allowed to be built at the doorsteps of Bukit Timah Nature Reserve where Long-tailed Macques run away with your laundry. What happened to the so-called buffer zones that are supposed to protect the nature areas?

Even if legal protection is proferred and areas and boundaries and buffers demarcated, there are many other problems. Firstly, activities within the nature areas must be completely compatible with the objectives of biological and ecological protection. The success of such areas should not be measured by the number of visitors per year (on the contrary, visitorship should be regulated to prevent negative effects like vandalism, harassment of animals, poaching, excessive noise and disturbance). Rather, the indicators should be the number of breeding successes of native species, the eradication of alien ones, the number of school projects and exchange students doing research plus the presence of a volunteer nature warden or guide programme. The introduction of other types of activities such as fishing and boating should only be allowed if these do not impinge on the primary objectives of nature reserves, that is, as a depository of our natural wealth.

Nature areas also need more than an opulent visitor centre and visitors to succeed. Management plans should be put in place for every site. For starters, species inventories need to be made for each site and this is where the help of non-governmental organisations like Nature Society has contributed, for example in the National Parks Board's Nature Reserves Biological Survey of 1993-1997. Habitat restoration programmes need to include action plans for threatened or declining species, reforestation, eradication of pest and alien species, and safeguards against pollution. Reintroduction should only be considered as a last resort.

Once the nature areas are legally protected, there will come a need for a national database to record species inventories for all nature areas and from this formulate Species Recovery Plans for nationally threatened species. Merely setting aside areas for wildlife is not enough. We need to study their ecological requirements and decide on action programmes that are needed to resstore both the species and its ecosystem. This is where the help and expertise of conservation-minded NGOs (Non-Governmental Organisations) like the Nature Society (Singapore) can add to the talents of the staff of National Parks Board to help fulfil a common objective: the conservation of Singapore's biodiversity.

Call to Action
The Singapore Green Plan is currently being revised, with inputs from various quarters including the Society which has representatives sitting in selected subcommittees. The Society's Conservation Committee has submitted a comprehensive report, recommending existing nature as well as new sites to be preserved. Later this year, a new plan will be published following a public forum. Then it will be finalised by the Ministry National Development. Until then, our natural heritage will be under close scrutiny. Add your voice to the many who want to conserve Singapore's biological diversity for now and for ever.

Conserving biodiversity is no easy task ...

We must take the first step towards the protection of our existing, nature areas. Once destroyed, their unique flora and fauna will never return again.

Some recommendations:

  1. Identify all the remaining areas of nature conservation merit and include the-se in the Singapore Green Plan
  2. Demarcate the size and boundaries of all nature areas.
  3. Legislate legal protection for the nature areas.
  4. Formulate compatible and comprehensive management plans for all nature areas
  5. Legislate the requirement for EIAs (Environmental Impact Assessments) in or near nature areas.
  6. Formulate plans for the restoration of biodiversity in nature areas.
  7. Formulate species recovery programmes for threatened species.
  8. Formulate programmes for the control of alien species
  9. Educate and empower the public
  10. Dialogue and partnership between governmental and non- governmental bodies concerned with biodiversity conservation must exist.


  • Briffet, C and Ho, HC (eds.) 1999. The State of the Natural Environment in Singapore. Nature Society (Singapore)
  • Ho, HC (1996) The Singapore Green Plan Endangered. Nature Watch Vol 4 No. 3 (jul-Sep 1996)
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