Destination

Singapore

The Garden City may be Singapore's pitch from the decades past but not many would equate the city state more famous for its skyscrapers and economic ascent to a wild haven. But all that may change, C T reports. Photographs by Sharon Seow

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When Asia's Mecca of Money abruptly announced its lockdown to battle Covid-19 in the spring of 2020, its citizens suddenly found themselves grounded and trapped in a surreal plane of existence where malls were shuttered and shopping was confined to supermarkets with mostly empty alleys. With 2 of their great loves - holidaying and shopping, effectively curtailed, many urbanite Singaporeans began to venture into unfamiliar terrain to find escapism. Pre-covid, the country's nature reserves are nary enticing to residents, much less tourists, and indeed, wilderness isn't a very convincing pitch for a country that has so little of it. So much so that when facets of nature emerged in plain view, like rivaling packs of otters squabbling along rivers and even a lone mandarin duck playing house in a monsoon drain, they become immensely sensational and are hotly followed. One might therefore safely conclude that out of Singapore's 6 million population, a large chunk might be blithely unaware that there are roughly 111 species of reptiles, 31 species of amphibians, 326 species of birds, 687 species of fishes and 53 species of mammals sharing this tiny island with humans. And these are just the vertebrates. They might also be surprised to know that less than 3% of the country is forested and harbored within are 4631 species of plants and cultivars, many of which are endemic and immensely important to the local biosphere. But awareness on the fragile state of conservation is rising in the country and its nature reserves are now packed with nature enthusiasts. An uproar was caused when 20 hectares of woodlands in Kranji earmarked for conservation was mistakenly cleared by contractors in early 2021 and plans to clear a pocket of forest in Dover for housing projects has received spirited public and parliamentary debate. Nature it seems has reclaimed the hearts of some Singaporeans within this concrete jungle as the nation grapples with its natural heritage.

Fundamentally, Singapore has plenty of other allures for foreign travellers and environmental tourism just isn't particularly gravitational when the country sits right in the midst of a region so rich with natural heritage. Most people would happily opt for a few days' 'city stopover' after a lengthy stint exploring the wilder, more rustic parts of Indonesia, Malaysia or Thailand. It is a fabulous springboard into the region's untamed wilderness where some of the world's best diving spots and hiking routes may be accessed. But for an abridged version of this region's biodiversity, Singapore can prove to be a treasure trove of surprising discoveries. Firstly, most if not all of its nature reserves can be easily accessible and covered within a few hours. If for nothing, it is indeed amazing that these pockets of primary forests are so remarkably intact that urban realities simply vaporise from its interiors - no sight and sound of traffic, no trace of modern settlements, but yet far from falling off the face of civilisation. Such ethereal realms in one of the most densely populated countries of the world present pure escapism.

 

In a day, one can start explorations at primeval looking Windsor Park, a nature reserve popular with joggers and walkers, from the crack of dawn, before embarking on a 13 km trek to scenic MacRitchie Reservoir, the oldest in the country. Along the way one might chance upon ubiquitous packs of wild boars, troops of monkeys, squirrels, birds and if one is lucky, a secretive mousedeer, rare serpents or a swooping raptor that sometimes hunts them. For the big game, the safe bet is at Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve where a community of Estuarine crocodiles can be sighted basking placidly close to shore. Amongst them is a superstar named Tailless, a badass juvenile with a misshapen tail that had survived attacks from larger rivals and fended off otter clans. King cobras, the world's longest venomous snake, are also regularly sighted here, sometimes ingesting smaller snake preys in plain view. For a foray into Southeast Asia's enigmatic mangrove habitats, Pasir Ris Mangrove Boardwalk will reveal scenes of schooling fishes, crabs, mudskippers, water birds and vipers. For an unusual nature walk, Bukit Brown Cemetery is a highly verdant historic enclave popular with culture buffs.

Incredibly only less than 3% of Singapore is made up of primary forests. These isolated pockets of primal ecologies harbour over 800 species of fauna and 4600 species of flora across the tiny country. Here is a dramatic canopy view from a treetop walk accessed from Windsor Park Nature Reserve.

Although Singapore's natural state is a far cry from its pre-colonial days where Malayan tigers lord over its forests freely, much of the lifeforms residing within are protected from modern ills and thriving. The explosion in the numbers of nature enthusiasts and photographers over the past 12 months have imbued a lively vividness to the city state's natural heritage. A resident had remarked to me that it is surreal for him to realise that pit vipers and large eagles can be commonly sighted within Singapore's nature reserves when he had previously travelled to foreign national parks just to get a glimpse of 'true' wilderness. Evidently, many people residing on this island are still unaware of the ecological treasures that exist quite literally at their suburban doorsteps. Let's hope the surge in nature here isn't seasonal and as Singapore gradually opens up to foreign visitors, more would find it gratifying to explore these natural enigmas in a country that has so little of them.

Story - C T   Photographs - Sharon Seow