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  Straits Times 6 Oct 07
Species at risk: S'pore red list being updated
Global list classifies 100 species here as under threat, but problem underestimated: Experts
By Arti Mulchand & Shobana Kesava

CLOSE to 100 plant and animal species in Singapore are classified as critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable by the World Conservation Union (IUCN), on its global Red List of species under threat.

But the local list of creatures at risk, which includes species as varied as the velvet worm and the straw-headed bulbul, may represent only the tip of the iceberg, say experts here.

Professor Peter Ng, director of the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research at the National University of Singapore (NUS), thinks the figure is a 'gross underestimate', and could be between five and 10 times higher.

He explained that the international list is biased towards big plants, birds, mammals and frogs. For example, some freshwater crabs here are considered endangered but the IUCN has not listed them yet, he said.

'This is a problem. The Red List gives you a quick pulse of the situation - how bad things are - but the actual scale is probably much worse.'

Even then, the Red List paints a dire picture: there are now 41,415 species in the world under threat, of which 16,306 are on the verge of extinction, up by 118 from last year.

'Dull, not sexy' plants and animals will be a key part of Singapore's updated red list - the Red Data Book. The first, and only, edition was produced in 1994. It had been put together as a handy list of rarer animals and plants here.

Drawing on the experiences of a slew of academics, the National Parks Board (NParks) and the Nature Society Singapore, the list could be out by January.

'This time...we've covered the bugs, the things people don't like, the very, very small plants, the non-colourful, the un-sexy, the boring. We've put them all in, because everything that is native is important,' he said.

A member of a specialist group on the IUCN, Professor Indraneil Das of Universiti Malaysia Sarawak, said that small animals are just beginning to be seen as significant.

'Some groups of insects have not been studied for years for lack of interest, and...a lack of specialists to tell us what's rare and what isn't. But this is changing.'

Singapore's new book will zoom in on several hundred species, and list several thousand others that have been assessed. It will be printed in colour, unlike its black-and-white predecessor.

The need for the update comes from its increasing use as a reference text by industry, the Government and statutory boards in their various decisions.

The new version therefore aims to be more comprehensive, incorporating new and changing information, as well as new and redefined categories that have been created by the IUCN to make the data more precise. It also includes input from more experts, including those from NUS and NParks.

Dr Lena Chan, deputy director of NPark's Biodiversity Centre, said that changes in species status also needed to be considered.

Some species previously listed as extinct, like the porcupine and pangolin, for example, have since been re-discovered, while other species may have become more threatened. 'Conservation managers need to track changes in rarity so they can respond appropriately,' she said.

Legal aspects will also be discussed - something not done in the earlier version.

'If the last book was valuable, this book is going to be invaluable, and will draw the map for how we look at plants and animals and conservation for another decade,' Prof Ng said.

'When a Van Gogh painting gets burnt, everybody cries... but when species become extinct, people usually take it as a matter of fact.

'It's a shame because a Van Gogh might have taken weeks or months of hard work to do, but each species takes millions of years to evolve. That's why when you look at species lost, only one word can describe it: tragic.'

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