Grass and Green Amidst Glass and Steel

As Singapore’s population has been growing, so too has the amount of green areas on the island. And this commitment to quality of life has kept the city among the top ranks of Asia’s greenest cities.

By Dr Ho Hua Chew


Photo: Lee Xin Li

Here’s a surprising fact about the urban city state of Singapore. A 2011 satellite study reported in Gardens’ Bulletin Singapore revealed that more than half the island is dominated by greenery in the form of parks, gardens, lawns, golf courses and spontaneous or wild forest vegetation, including mangrove.

What’s worth noting is that the green areas have grown by 11% from 1986 to 2007, according to a 2008 study by CRISP (Centre for Remote Imaging, Sensing and Processing) and NUS (National University of Singapore).

The increase in green areas is part of the ongoing realisation of Singapore’s Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources and Ministry of National Development to have 0.8ha of green space for every 1,000 people in Singapore by 2030.

With a growing abundance of natural habitats for wildlife, further bids to conserve what nature Singapore has left hold validity. This is bolstered by increased recent sightings of endangered wildlife in and beyond the nature reserves. Sunda Pangolins, Oriental Pied Hornbills and traw-headed Bulbuls, a vulnerable species of songbird on the IUCN Red List, have been spotted in many areas of the main island. The IUCN or International Union for Conservation of Nature is the world’s main authority on the conservation status of species.

Hard Numbers

With only 4.5% of total land protected as “nature reserve”, the call to increase such areas of protection remains justifiable. Other green areas that are important niches for biodiversity are officially recognised as “nature areas”. These spaces remain untouched only for as long as development there is not required. They are either completely designated as parks like Kranji Marshes Park, or patches of wild greenery within public parks, such as Serapong in Sentosa. Parks, with or without nature areas, account for 5.5% of Singapore’s total land area.

When Sir Stamford Raffles landed in Singapore in 1819, he sailed through mangrove forests that covered 13% of the country. Only 1% of this vital habitat remains today. Of the remnant patches left, only Sungei Buloh’s is a nature reserve.

Although tiny, Singapore’s  mangroves have huge global importance— 35 “true”  mangrove species thrive here, plants that grow only in the mangrove environment.

This number accounts for half of those identified by the IUCN. For example, only 250 mature Bruguiera Hainesii trees exist globally, and several of these critically endangered mangrove individuals are in Singapore.

Mangrove trees are part of an intertidal habitat — the area between the high and low tides — vital for wetland wildlife such as the local critically endangered Smooth and Small-clawed Otters, and migratory shorebirds. Sungei Mandai Besar has the highest density of Mangrove Horseshoe Crabs in Singapore. This nationally vulnerable species is recognised by the IUCN as one of three Asian Horseshoe Crabs urgently needing conservation action for long-term survival.

In the Shadows

Endangered wildlife also lurk in the unprotected wild forests of Khatib Bongsu, Kranji, Clementi, Bukit Brown, and beyond. Where else outside of nature reserves could local raptors like the White-bellied Sea Eagle, Changeable Hawk Eagle and the Grey-headed Fish Eagle nest if not for trees in these forests? The last two species are nationally endangered.

Squeezed for living space, fringes of the nature reserves have become extended foraging grounds for many wildlife species of denser forests. The Malayan Colugo (flying lemur) has been spotted at Bukit Brown, as have many forest birds like the Asian Red-eyed Bulbul, a nationally endangered species. At thin forest patches along the tracks where the Malayan Railway used to ply, the forest dwelling Copper-cheeked Frog and the nationally vulnerable Banded Malayan Coral Snake have been recorded.

Development around the world comes at the loss of natural habitats and destruction of wildlife. Nature’s tentative signs of recovery in Singapore should be valued even more as the country gets more crowded.

What would it mean to be one of the wealthiest nations in the world if we do not protect what remains of our wildlife legacy?

What does it say about us as a people? What does it mean for our children and our future?

Dr Ho Hua Chew is Vice-Chairman of the Nature Society’s Conservation Committee. Views expressed here are in his personal capacity.

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