Singapore has developed rapidly into the global metropolis. However, development have its costs, namely, we are losing our local wildlife in the course of development. In an assessment of local extinctions, Brook and Sodhi (2003) found an overall extinction rate for local biodiversity of 28%. Some species become endangered even before researchers have a chance to document them. At this point, the extinction rate almost reached a peak of 73%! A sobering thought, isn’t it?
At the same time, forest cover in Singapore has declined over the same period – over 95% of our original vegetation in 1819 has been lost in the 200 years between Raffles’ fateful visit and the present day. The loss of our native forests is undeniably related to the increase in species extinctions in Singapore over the last 200 years. Development leads to habitat loss and fragmentation. After all, all our modern infrastructure and amenities that we take for granted takes up space! For much of our biodiversity, such habitat destruction is bad news.
The tiger (Panthera tigris) exemplifies the loss of biodiversity that Singapore has experienced for the last two centuries. While it may be hard to imagine, there was a time that tigers roamed freely in Singapore. Before 1819, tigers lived in the forest but they were perceived to be a threat to the villagers.
With the founding of Singapore, the settlement expanded to accommodate the immigrants who wanted to make Singapore their new home. Eventually, some of these people felt that they could make more money planting gambier and pepper. They expanded their plantations. When they ran out of space in the settlement, their plantations encroached onto the jungle areas.
While the people gained profits from their plantations, the tigers found their home intruded. With an increase in tiger-human contact and a decrease in the numbers of the pigs and deer that the tigers fed on, it was inevitable that human-tiger conflict occurred. Soon, coolies working in the plantations had to deal with a new occupational hazard of tiger attacks.
From 1830s to the 1860s, tiger attacks were a regular occurrence in Singapore. Naturally, people disliked tigers as people were killed as a result of such adverse interactions. The colonial government responded by offering a reward of $20 for every tiger killed. Given the continued outcry over tiger attacks, the reward was increased to a much more lucrative $100. With such incentives, it was not surprising that tiger hunting became the latest fad in town.
One enterprising major decided that the Indian convicts should have a much more meaningful way to occupy their time by patrolling certain hotspots in Bukit Timah and Chua Chu Kang. This was effective and eventually, due to prosecution and further habitat incursion, dwindled. However, there was occasional attacks reported at the end of the 1890s. The coup de grace occurred in the 1930s when the last wild tiger was shot dead in Chua Chu Kang. While everyone happily posed for a picture to celebrate their victory, the bell toiled for a top predator of our local ecosystems.
While some may argue that large carnivores like tigers were especially vulnerable to extinction due to human wildlife conflict and the need for large territories, there were actually many smaller animals which were victims of extinction. Take for example, the Cream Coloured Giant Squirrel (Rafufa affinis affinis). It has not been sighted since 1995, and it is presumed to be extinct. Being restricted to primary forests made it especially vulnerable to habitat destruction due to development. Some people may argue that a small population may still exist somewhere in our nature reserves, however, its present survival is unlikely.
These stories of extinction of our wildlife is nonetheless sad and we cannot undo the mistakes. We should conserve the remaining wild habitats which preserves half of our remaining biodiversity. We should also transform our urban environments to make it more hospitable to our local biodiversity.
Protecting our biodiversity should not be left to a small group of conservationists. This is a cause in which everyone could and should participate in. Our biodiversity will remain safe for the foreseeable future only with cooperation from all stakeholders and public that are committed to preserve our natural heritage.