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Resilience in Nature

Written by Sia Sin Wei

Resilience of nature is evident at the Thomson Nature Park. Once the location of a thriving village, nature seemed to have reclaimed this tract of land. Pioneer plants, the typical denizens of secondary forests, now grow in abundance in the park. The ruins of the village stand in testament to a time that has moved on, as the agricultural activity of the Hainanese village that existed here a few decades ago has fallen into abeyance. Today, this patch of forest acts as a refuge for some of Singapore’s threatened flora and fauna and acts as a buffer for the nature reserve next to it.

At first glance, the forest appears to be a dense growth of plants to the untrained eye. But upon a closer look, the forest reveals its botanical diversity. Some plants grow as trees, looking imposing like sentinels looking over the entire landscape, while some plants thrive as climbers or as small herbs growing on the forest floor. Nature is a resilient force, growing over the remains of human settlement in triumph while having the last laugh when human civilization disappears.

An even closer look reveals characteristics that make each species of plant unique – all two hundred of them in this patch of forest, recovering from human impact and still hanging on. It would take time to learn the various subtleties of classifying and identifying every species of plant in this forest – from the mahang trees to the fig trees.

But such an effort would be worthwhile, for plants are the key to understanding how this precious forest works. The plants of the forest are essential to the forest ecosystem as plants are the base of their food web. Plants form interesting intricate relationships with other more charismatic wildlife such as animals and fungi. Lastly, plants form the three-dimensional environment that animals live in. Ultimately, if we want to understand the natural history of charismatic fauna like macaques and birds, we must understand the plants they live beside.

Entering this forest, the sound of the multiple forest streams crisscrossing this park can be heard. Smoothing and relaxing, it is perfect for taking our minds off the vicissitudes of our daily lives. Ferns, mosses and other moisture-loving plants grow on their banks, giving them a green and living carpet. Dragonflies fly and hover around like multicoloured acrobats, resting occasionally on any convenient perch available. These little living things are eking out a niche in their very own microhabitat, managing a demanding lifestyle with aplomb!

Resilience is not only present in the streams but can be also found elsewhere. The sunlight reflected and gleamed off on the bottom of the forest floor, revealing the spiderwebs attached to the foliage, with the surface of the temporary pools acting as a mirror below. The foliage of the plants displayed their own shiness, as the rays of the Sun contacted the glittering droplets of dew on the leaves. The forest floor also is home to various seedlings from the next generation of trees, waiting patiently for an opportunity to grow and take their place from their seniors.

Walking in the forest allows us to see what such opportunities are. Despite their static look, forests are dynamic places. Every so often, gaps in the canopy develop when the mature trees fall over or fall victim to disease or injury. While it is a tragedy for such mature trees, it provides opportunities for other organisms. The seedlings are now liberated to kickstart their race to the top, while fungi and other decomposers get a feast! The cycle of life continues in this former village, restoring important ecosystem processes and services while recovering from the impact of human inhabitation.

The scars of human inhabitation remain. Patches of ginger and pandan plants still grow in the parks, forming organised ranks and rows not found in nature. Various fruit trees still stand – once grown for human palates, they are now a source of food for animals in the area. Every ruin still standing is covered in moss and climbers – reminding me of the archaeological sites that I saw on TV and dreamed of visiting since I was young. It was the kind of place that every child would like to go so that they can indulge in their archaeological fantasies.

Around the ruins, the calls of the birds could be heard. Chirping, buzzing, and shrilling as the birds go around their daily morning routines. Their cacophony filled the air around us. Suddenly, the branches moved and swayed. The sound of branches as they moved and snapped, revealing a group of beige coloured animals with long tails and a simian-like face.

These are long-tailed macaques – Singapore’s most common non-human primate.

A regular sight in the forests of Singapore, they browsed from tree to tree, searching for tasty edible fruit hidden in the foliage for their breakfast as well. The interaction between plants and animals is on show here, putting paid to the idea that they could be studied independently without consideration of the other. The intimacy of their interaction strengthens the whole forest ecosystem, making the forests resilient in the face of anthropogenic pressure and climate change.

Despite what we have thrown at it, most of the ecosystem processes have remained functioning. This shows that nature can bounce back if we give it a chance to do so at the slow and steady pace that it most often favours. But if we wantonly destroy it before it gets the chance to heal, how can it recover?

The economic advantages we gain from destroying the precious tracts of forest are valuable, but not as much as the forests themselves. We may destroy the forest in one week, but the biodiversity that it contains might take decades to centuries to recover fully, if at all. So what should we choose? The choice is ours to make.

Our journey to Thomson Nature Park has shown the resilience of nature and how it can recover from impacts imposed upon it by our activities. Despite a legacy of human settlement, the forests of Thomson Nature Park are in the midst of recovery with most of their ecosystem processes still intact and working.

From the mahang trees to the long-tailed macaques, these forests are still a refuge for much of our local biodiversity. Thanks to the innate resilience of nature, there is still hope for our wildlife for our future generations to enjoy if we are mindful of the imprint that our activities have on our environment.