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  Today Online 26 Sep 05
Go greener, please
Letter from Marilyn Khng Wan Gek
Letter from Rachel Chan

Today Online 24 Sep 05
Mean and green in S'pore

Today Online 24 Sep 05
Back to Nature
More Singaporeans are swapping the concrete jungle for the green one on weekends

VOLUNTEER nature guide Ben Lee conducts night tours to Pulau Ubin and the Central Catchment Reserve (that's MacRitchie Reservoir to you and me).

A passionate nature lover, he came up with the idea about 18 months ago, inviting other like-minded trekkers to join him. It began as a trickle, with a handful of Singaporeans willing to meet late at night to spot fireflies and "glowing mushrooms". . These days, he guides groups of up to 60 on his treks, which are always oversubscribed, and sometimes he takes the same trek twice in one day to accommodate the numbers.

The small non-profit group quickly evolved into Nature Trekker, with enthusiasts who, as he put it, "are prepared to dedicate their time to lead nature/adventure trips to share our beautiful and precious mother nature in Singapore". That small group now has over 1,000 members, with newcomers joining daily and plans to set up six new sub-groups to cater to the increased demand.

But Lee and his nature trekkers are not alone. They form a steadily increasing group of Singaporeans who are swapping the concrete jungle of Orchard Road for actual jungles. . And it's not just diehard birdwatchers and eco-tourists. On any weekend, it's easy to spot visitors whether they be student groups, families, friends or guided groups taking in the flora and fauna and the odd wild animal in places such as MacRitchie's HSBC Treetop Walk, Pulau Ubin's Chek Jawa and Bukit Timah Nature Reserve.

Only 5 per cent of the island's land area is made up of gazetted nature reserves, according to the Urban Redevelopment Authority, and yet it seems that Singaporeans are slowly heading back to nature.

The numbers are up

The National Parks Board (NParks), which manages the above sites along with the likes of the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve and the Singapore Botanic Gardens, acknowledged that there has been an increase in the number of visitors.

While declining to give exact numbers for the guided walks, Carrie Too, a spokesperson for the NParks, said: "There was a 13 per cent increase in participants in guided walks in 2004 compared to the figure for the previous year."

These walks around NParks' nature reserves are so popular that they have to be booked in advance. And they attract people from all walks of life, according to Too, from families to corporate groups.

The Nature Society (Singapore) has also seen take-up rates for its outreach projects increase, with more than 2,000 people signing up every year. Its public nature walks see on average of 80 to 100 people. The society started a new group called the Nature Ramblers last month in response to the growing interest in nature trekking (unlike nature walking, nature trekking is more strenuous).

Thank the Crocodile Hunter

More Singaporeans are heading "outdoors", but Dr Geh Min, president of The Nature Society, a Nominated MP and a keen supporter of various environmental causes, isn't surprised.

Globalisation, education and cable television all help to explain the slow but steady rise in the number of eco-friendly people here. "We are definitely more globally aware now, especially younger Singaporeans, so part of it is the global trend to be more aware of the importance of biodiversity and nature areas in our own country," said the 55-year-old eye surgeon.

With environmental studies part of just about every student's school curriculum today, young Singaporeans are often more knowledgeable than their parents about issues such as global warming, the depletion of fossil fuels and fragile ecosystems.

And media personalities like Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin have done their part, too. Many of the youngsters at the HSBC Treetop Walk are part of the cable TV generation.

"It's very heartening to see that this generation of Singaporeans, having watched environmental programmes on the Discovery Channel and National Geographic, don't want to be passive observers anymore," added Dr Geh. "At some point, I think you ask yourself 'Why just watch it on TV? Why can't I go out and see the real thing'?"

It would be shameful, she said, if Singaporeans had knowledge of places such as Yellowstone National Park in the United States, but had no idea about the nature reserves in their own backyard.

Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, for example, contains more species of trees than are found in all of North America, an astonishing statistic, but not one that is widely known. Yellowstone has just under 400 types of animals, according to its website; Bukit Timah has more than 500 (including flying lemurs, ant-eaters, drongos, kingfishers, macaques, monitor lizards and, of course, lots of butterflies).

Escaping the 9 to 5

Of all the reasons to head back to nature, perhaps the most inviting is simply that nature is a long way from the office.

Serena Lim, a chemical engineer who attended a recent nature trek to MacRitchie's HSBC Treetop Walk with her sister, said her own family was caught off guard when the two of them started going on such walks.

They never considered her to be a nature lover. "Being a professional type in a corporation, they were kind of surprised," she said. "But that's the whole point. I have a five-day-a-week job that has me stuck in the office, so I really want to get out on the weekend.

"It's great! You get to exercise, you get to see nature and it's right in your own backyard. I think corporations should organise treks as group outings for their staff."

They already do. The Singapore Land Authority, for example, sends its staff on nature walks on Pulau Ubin. Said its spokesperson: "Some of the pro-environment activities that we have organised include nature appreciation walks to Pulau Ubin, talks on waste minimisation and recycling, as well as clean-up operations on beaches. We will continue to line up nature-oriented programmes for our staff."

How to get to nature?

Ironically, some Singaporeans want to explore nature's green areas but don't know where to begin. It may seem typically Singaporean, but some prefer a tour guide to help them along. Melisa Wee, now a volunteer guide with Nparks, said she had always been eager to go on nature walks but felt she didn't have the expertise.

"These guided tours are helpful that way," she said. "When I started work, which is a deskbound job, I found myself wanting to do these nature walks on weekends to get away from it all. But I didn't know, in MacRitchie, for example, where to go."

On the 5km trek to and from the HSBC Treetop Walk, for example, general information is provided, but a guide who can recite trivia about the animals, flora and fauna in the area, can make a walk come alive.

Groups such as Nature Trekker have enjoyed such success with their guided walks that they now have 10 volunteer guides and Nparks boasts a fleet of volunteer guides who devote their weekends to taking Singaporeans back to nature.

As nature guide Lee told this reporter on one such walk: "It is definitely out of a passion and a love for nature that we do this and it's great that we're seeing new faces all the time. "You can go back to the same spot many times over and find something new every time. It's simply breathtaking."

Today Online 24 Sep 05
Mean and green in S'pore

Deputy Plus Editor Neil Humphreys picks out his top four green spots around the island: .

1) Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve

What: An 87 ha ecological jewel hidden away in the north.

Why: Recognised as a site of international importance for migratory birds, there are over 200 species here. I've also seen a family of smooth otters and a couple of wild boars. A 2m-long crocodile pops up occasionally to sunbathe when the tide is low, but that is a rarity. This place is a million miles away from Orchard Road on a Saturday afternoon.

Where: Neo Tiew Crescent. Board SMRT Bus 925 from Kranji MRT Station. On Sundays and public holidays, SMRT bus 925 stops at the park's entrance.

2) MacRitchie Reservoir Park

What: Once virgin forest, it still has around 100 ha of primary rain forest hidden among the water catchment areas

Why: Hikers, nature lovers (or just lovers), families, school cross country runners, kayak enthusiasts and dog walkers all come here. Besides some of the country's most breathtaking scenery, I also saw a long-tailed macaques monkey rip a plastic bag from an annoying teenager. Priceless. Don't feed them and they won't do it. Also home of the HSBC Treetop Walk. Fantastic, but with the cars steadily piling up, the place could end up resembling Disneyland.

Where: Take bus services 74, 93, 130, 132, 156, 157, 162, 165, 166, 167, 605, 852, 855 or 980.

3) Lower Seletar Reservoir

What: Largely flat parkland, good for jogging and fishing

Why: A little green corner of peace and tranquillity, popular area for eagles. Once saw a huge bird of prey, a kite I think, swoop into the reservoir, grab a fish with its enormous talons and take it back to the trees. I was so excited I nearly wet myself.

Where: Bounded by Yishun Ave 1 and Lentor Avenue, can take bus services 851, 852, 853, 854 and 855.

4) Bukit Timah Nature Reserve

What: Often called the world's most ancient small rainforest reserve

Why: Primary rainforest with more tree species than the whole of North America. Sounds impressive, but most people go for the monkeys and the brisk walk up the slope (took my mother up there once and she swore all the way to the summit) and some mean monitor lizards.

Where: Take bus services 170, 67, 75, 171, 173, 184, 852 and 961. Alight along Upper Bukit Timah Road after the Courts furniture store.

Today Online 26 Sep 05
Go greener, please
Letter from Marilyn Khng Wan Gek
Letter from Rachel Chan
Offer Geography in Normal stream to raise interest
Learn hands-on with eco-friendly tours

YOUR report, "Back to nature" (Sept 24), provided me with inspiration for an idea to cultivate and heighten environmental awareness in our society.

In relation to the current plan by the Government to allow students from the normal stream to take a large variety of elective modules, I feel that Geography could be included as one of them.

The syllabus could revolve around Singapore's ecology, due to the need for people to be more environmentally aware of their surroundings. It may spark an interest in the students since the main purpose of the elective modules is to give them insight into the various types of jobs and industries.

This might inspire some students to work in the green sector and thus help sustain Singapore's garden city image.

IT IS heartening to note that more people are interested in local ecology. However, there are few or no guided tours to such green spots specifically catered to students.

As a student, I feel such programmes can be integrated into the school's curriculum as part of its experiential learning, in line with the push towards "teach less, learn more".

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