Opening Remarks by 2M Desmond Lee at the JGIS Human-Wildlife Co-Existence in Asia Conference

Nov 26, 2019

Good morning and a warm welcome to all of you, especially those who have joined us from overseas.

We are indeed very honoured to have the UN Messenger of Peace, Dr Jane Goodall, here with all of us. Dr Goodall visited Singapore two years ago, in 2017, for the 10th anniversary of the Jane Goodall Institute (Singapore). And before that, she also came in 2015. I’ve had the distinct privilege to host her on all three of her visits to Singapore, and to hear her share her invaluable life stories and experiences. 

I’d like to thank the team at JGIS for organising this Conference – the first of its kind in our region – to discuss how we can better co-exist with native wildlife.

Human-wildlife interaction and conflict has been a feature throughout our tropical island’s history. Some of you may know that this is our Bicentennial year – 200 years since the arrival of the British. And in our Bicentennial year, we’ve had exhibitions and publications to take a closer look at our natural heritage and natural history.

Before 1819, historians recorded that Singapore was largely covered by tropical primary rainforest. When Sir Stamford Raffles first set foot on the bank of the Singapore River, the island he saw would have been blanketed with a dense primary lowland jungle, with mangrove forests covering the coastal areas. The eastern slopes of what we now know as Fort Canning in central Singapore had groves of fruit trees, including durian, rambutan and pomelo – which were probably planted in the 14th century. 

After the arrival of the British, and as Singapore grew as a trading port, large tracts of forest made way for agriculture and plantations for cash crops such as nutmeg, pepper and gambier. The prominent British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace described Singapore as a thriving town with vast tracts of jungle inland, interspersed with plantations for agriculture.

By the end of 1880, some 90 per cent of our primary rainforest had been cleared to make way for settlement and plantation. In fact, areas that we now associate with lush greenery, such as Thomson Nature Park, Rifle Range Nature Park, Chestnut Nature Park and Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve, were, at various times in our past plantations, prawn and fish farms, as well as villages and human settlement. They evolved over time, and in fact, in recent history, nature has begun to take root again.

Because of attacks on plantation workers back then, Malayan tigers which were native to Singapore were hunted to their extinction, with the last being slaughtered in the 1930s. This is an early example of human-wildlife conflict in our early days as human settlement began to push out native wildlife. 

Post-independence, our pioneers recognised the importance of greening Singapore, and from the start incorporated greenery into development in order to set us apart from other countries and cities in the world. 

In 1963, our founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew planted a Mempat tree at Farrer Circus. This marked the start of Singapore’s greening campaign. For the last 56 years, we continue to observe the annual Tree Planting Day to commemorate our tree planting efforts. This must continue because as each successive generation comes to the fore, we must be mindful that Singapore is green not because it was always green, but because of these pressures. Hence, we have to inculcate in our young the habit to plant trees. 

In 1967, we launched a Garden City campaign, and in the same year, also set up a specialist Parks and Trees Division. To better oversee policies and coordinate activities for greening the whole island, we set up the Garden City Action Committee in 1970. In the 1970s and 1980s, the initial push was to green up the island with as many trees as possible in the shortest time – this was done to provide shade and soften the concrete landscape. 

But today, we have evolved into being more than a Garden City. We are aspiring to be a City in a Garden, and we continue to green our city even as we continue to urbanise. 

But making our city truly biophilic is a constant work-in-progress. Let me briefly share some of our strategies to green Singapore today, amidst tremendous urbanisation pressures.

Over the past few years, we have enhanced our nature parks, put in place plans to restore our secondary forests, and expanded our species recovery efforts. We continue to incorporate greenery into our long-term planning. We are also acutely aware of the existential threat of climate change, and will be turning to nature-based solutions to deal with sea-level rise and rising temperatures. 

We can certainly do more, to be a leading biophilic city – a sustainable living environment that is both urban and green. But as we weave greenery more intensively into our cityscape, where people live, work and play, the challenge then becomes this: how can we co-exist with wildlife? 

Indeed, human-wildlife conflict is not unique to Singapore. We regularly read about raccoons invading homes and urban spaces in US cities and Canada. In 2016, Toronto spent CA$31m on “racoon-resistant” bins, and reports are that results have been mixed. Hungry bears have been known to wander into urban spaces such as playgrounds, and break into vehicles across many cities in the US. In Colorado, I am told that there have been close to 5,000 incidents involving bears in 2019, including sightings in populated areas as well as home break-ins. In southern parts of Japan, there are reports of wild boars in train stations, shopping centres, schools and parking areas. There have also been isolated incidents of wild boars attacking humans.

In these countries which are much larger than Singapore, nature areas are usually set far away from the core of the city. But in Singapore, greenery and nature are tightly integrated into our urban landscape. In fact, within a half an hour drive, we are in easy reach of four conserved eco-systems, such as the Central Catchment Nature Reserve and Bukit Timah Nature Reserve in the heart of the city, which are primary and secondary rainforest, the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve with mangrove and mudflats in the north, and Labrador Nature Reserve with rocky shores to the south. That shows how small Singapore is, and how precious these eco-systems are. 

Homes fringe many of our nature areas, and Singaporeans live right next to our urban or nature parks, and even our nature reserves. Living this close to nature also means that we have to expect the frequency of human-wildlife interaction and conflict to be much higher.

For example, wild boars had been spotted roaming around our housing estates. They are usually not aggressive, but there have been one or two incidents of wild boars attacking humans in recent years. We also continue to receive feedback about long-tailed macaques entering homes in search of food, and there was even one incident of a girl who was bitten by an otter. 

Which is why the theme for this Conference – “Human-Wildlife Co-existence in Asia: Conflicts and Mitigation” is particularly apt. This allows us to see how we can tackle conflict issues using a science-based approach, and at the same time, consider community-centric solutions as well. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, but we can all learn from each other and explore how various strategies can be adapted to our own contexts.

Science-based Approach to Animal Management

In Singapore, a science-based approach seeks to underscore our animal management strategies. This helps us design more targeted, effective interventions to mitigate human-wildlife conflicts. For example, the long-tailed macaque is one of our most commonly seen wildlife neighbours. NParks is collaborating with primatologists, veterinarians and other scientists to better understand the population dynamics and health of these animals. 

Studies have shown that the macaque population in Singapore is stable, with most of them dwelling in our rainforests. Some troops are also seen in parks in residential neighbourhoods like Yishun and Admiralty in the north. But macaques are known to prefer living at the forest fringe – this means that they often are near urban areas, increasing the instances of human-wildlife interaction, and conflict. My colleagues in the National Parks Board (NParks) have placed GPS collars on some adult macaques to help us better understand their behaviour and movement patterns. This data shows us where macaques are venturing into residential areas, and enables NParks to focus on enhancing management efforts at these typical hot spots.

Our science-based approach also informs our strategies to conserve and protect our native biodiversity, to mitigate the impact of human activity on the survival of wildlife. In addition to macaques, the critically endangered Raffles Banded Langur and Sunda Slow Loris are other examples of our native primate species. Their population numbers are much smaller than macaques. But reforestation and enrichment planting have improved the habitats for the Raffles Banded Langur, and the current population stands at around 60 individuals.

We opened Thomson Nature Park last month. This is a stronghold for Langurs in Singapore – and the enhanced habitats and ecological connectivity improvements were done with them in mind. We currently do not know much about the Sunda Slow Loris but studies are ongoing to get a more accurate sense of their numbers, range and activity.

Next year, NParks and the National University of Singapore (NUS) will embark on a new study of non-human primate species in Singapore. The data that they will collect will help us to better understand and implement strategies to support conservation and management efforts. 

In tandem with our research efforts, we will continue to use technology and design infrastructure to protect our wildlife. Just last month, NParks and the Land Transport Authority (LTA) launched a 12-month pilot of the Roadway Animal Detection System (or RADS) at Old Upper Thomson Road. We close off the road in the evenings to allow vertebrates to cross the fragmented patches of forest. In the daytime, to better support wildlife protection, this 12-month pilot RADS uses machine learning and detection systems, as well as funnelling efforts for animal crossings, to alert motorists when wildlife are close to the roads. We hope that this will reduce incidents of roadkill. NParks has introduced rope bridges and culverts in areas to provide safer passage for our wildlife.

We are also moving our efforts upstream, and studying possible design measures that can be introduced when planning our residential spaces.

Partnering the Community

But even as we implement strategies at the systems and planning levels, we must continue to work together – government agencies, our stakeholders and the community – to bring greater awareness about co-existing with wildlife, as well as nature conservation. NParks is already working with schools, resident committees and nature groups to educate residents and visitors to our nature areas about the dos-and-don’ts when encountering wildlife. NParks also has guided walks to encourage the public to better appreciate nature.

To mitigate human-wildlife conflict, JGIS, NParks and the Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (Singapore) (or ACRES) have been working together to train “monkey guards” in some residential estates where macaques are known to come into homes. Residents get involved in solving the issue by understanding human behaviour and animal behaviour, why macaques behave the way they do at the forest fringes where people seek to live, and helping to guide macaques away from the estate.

We must also be mindful not to alter wild animals’ natural behaviours by feeding them, and making them dependent on human food. This in turn may cause them to encroach into our living environments to seek out human food.

This morning, I am happy to announce that JGIS, in partnership with the Long-tailed Macaque Working Group (LTMWG), will be launching a “No Feeding” campaign focusing on long-tailed macaques. Over the next three years, JGIS and the working group aim to reduce and eventually stop the provision of food to macaques by humans. Supported by data and feedback, outreach and education activities will be scaled-up, and “monkey guarding” efforts will be carried out in more areas. More details will be shared in the coming months, as the plans continue to take shape, and get implemented. We will support JGIS in this very meaningful endeavour. 

Living in Our City in a Garden 

As our city continues to grow, develop and transform, it will be even more challenging – and yet even more important – for us to remain green. All around us today, green spaces are an essential part of our home, work and play environments, and we must continue to treasure our very special biophilic City in a Garden.

As we look ahead, Singapore will be faced with external global pressures such as climate change, and internal pressures to continue to urbanise. But we need to strike the right balance, protect our greenery and our native biodiversity, and engage communities to have a greater appreciation for nature. Our city is not just steel, concrete, and glass. We inhabit this island together with native wildlife that has been here for centuries.

Let us all continue to work together to be active stewards and custodians of Singapore’s natural heritage. Thank you and I wish you a fruitful day ahead for the Conference!