Lessons from Singapore on Biodiversity Conservation

Flickr/CC/Travel Oriented | Chek Jawa Wetlands, Singapore

By Beatrice Loh

Singapore is a city-state in Southeast Asia, one of the most biodiverse regions of the world. With a population of 5.6 million people, it is also one of the most densely populated cities in the world. The combination of limited land, high population and significant industrial activities requires major planning efforts to manage competing land use. While economic development drives decision-making, biodiversity conservation remains a top priority in Singapore.

Singapore is a treasure trove for many researchers in the field. A year ago, a slender woody tree known as Alangium ridleyi was discovered hiding in plain sight in the middle of Singapore’s heavily visited Botanic Gardens. It was previously believed that the tree was lost to development. New discoveries are made often – a species of shrub brand-new to science called Hanguana neglecta, a shin-high spray of blade-like leaves, was found beside a footpath in a nature reserve and a mud-snake species not recorded in Singapore before was found in the country’s last remaining patch of swamp forest.

None of these discoveries happened by mistake. Singapore may take biodiversity more seriously than any other city in the world. While the country’s tropical location gives it a biological advantage in terms of diversity of species, the city makes a conscious effort to establish connections between built-up urban environments and nature.

Here are 5 initiatives by the Singaporean government to preserve biodiversity:

  1. Reserving Land for Nature Reserves and Parks

The National Parks Board (NParks) manages over 300 parks and 4 nature reserves, with the land area of these exceeding 13.6 percent of the total land area of Singapore. Singapore’s decision to set aside land for nature reserves and parks – while intensifying land use elsewhere – is a conscious choice.

“[The choice] is never easy, especially when you consider the competing uses for housing, industry, defence and transport infrastructure. We consciously do so for the benefit of all Singaporeans, because a connection to nature is a must-have, not a good-to-have,” said then-Minister of State for National Development Desmond Lee, in a speech at the launch of the Festival of Biodiversity.

Singapore’s first marine park was launched in 2014. A 40-hectare area encompassing the land and waters surrounding a pair of small islands known as Sisters’ Islands and some nearby reefs, the park will be a platform for outreach, educational, conservation and research activities related to the country’s native marine biodiversity.

  1. Creation of the Singapore Index

The City Biodiversity Index, commonly known as the Singapore Index, is a set of indicators to measure and rate how cities are increasing their native plant, animal and other species, protecting habitats from development and fragmentation and involving municipal agencies, local companies, schools and the public in biodiversity-awareness programs, among other things.

The creation of the Singapore Index has helped not only Singapore preserve its biodiversity, but has aided other cities around the world. The idea for the index was that rating cities on their biodiversity efforts might spur some friendly rivalry among them and encourage the island-state and other cities to swap ideas on how to give wildlife a boost.

The Singapore Index is used by 80 cities around the world, from Edmonton, Canada to subtropical Curitiba, Brazil. It allows cities to benchmark their progress in biodiversity conservation and gives them a tool to close management gaps and work out their conservation priorities.

“For the last 20 years, we have been looking at biodiversity, so we had a lot of data on that,” said Machteld Gryseels, a director in the City of Brussels’ environment department in Belgium, in a report by the Convention on Biological Diversity. “[Using the Singapore Index] showed we lacked precise data on how many programs and visits to nature areas that we have.”

  1. Integrating Nature into Singapore’s City Landscape

The first tree planting campaign was held in 1963 by then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. Since then, specific initiatives have been implemented to ensure that adequate provisions would be made for urban greenery.

Restoration works are underway. A major highway built in 1986 between two nature reserves resulted in habitat fragmentation. In 2009, planners began re-linking the two nature reserves with a large forested bridge over that highway. New initiatives like “nature ways”, strips of native vegetation along roadsides or canals that enable the movement of birds and butterflies are also being introduced. Recent surveys of these plantings found that forest-edge species like the Horsfield’s Baron Butterfly and the Common Gliding Lizard were present where they were not commonly seen before.

Increasingly, nature is being integrated into the city’s very skyline. NParks helps fund the cost of installing green roofs and walls to temper air quality and insulate high-rise buildings from harsh tropical heat. Singapore is in the unique position to experiment with such solutions. By building upwards, Singapore has managed to conserve more green space. Singapore’s Tree House Condominium is the largest vertical garden in the world and an example of new ways of integrating habitat into dense urban spaces.

“I think we need a city like Singapore to show some scientific leadership by seeing how the new structures created around high-rise buildings provide opportunities for biodiversity that cannot be created by the normal landscape between buildings,” said urban sustainability expert Peter Newman of Australia’s Curtin University, who has done a study on biophilic urbanism in Singapore.

  1. Conducting Frequent, Comprehensive Wildlife Surveys

NParks has an active program of biodiversity surveys and monitoring of its nature area. In the past decade, 35 species of plants and animals new to Singapore have been discovered and seven species thought to be extinct have been rediscovered.

In 2010, Singapore began a comprehensive survey of its marine life. To date, the survey has found dozens of species possibly new to science, such as a distinctive red-lipped anemone and an orange-clawed mangrove crab. Apart from those, more than 250 different hard corals – a third of the world’s species – were documented.

An important aspect of such surveys is the increase in public and corporate involvement. Recently, NParks invited volunteers to participate in an island-wide survey of herons, birds whose presence is an indicator of water quality and environmental health. Other surveys include the Garden Bird Count and Butterfly Count. These surveys are a way to engage the public on the importance of biodiversity conservation.

  1. Implement Species Conservation and Recovery Programs

Many programs designed to conserve and recover native species are being carried out in Singapore. Current initiatives include bird, dragonfly and plant conservation. In particular, Singapore’s conservation work with Oriental Pied Hornbills has received national and international attention and such work is now being extended to other species. The designs of parks such as Jurong Central Park, Admiralty Park and Gardens by the Bay were also improved to enhance dragonfly habitats.

Rare species of plants are conserved in their natural habitats. Plants are also rescued from areas undergoing development and their numbers are increased through seed planting, cuttings and tissue culture. These are also kept in secure areas for protection. The Yishun Arboretum was established in 2008 for the ex-situ conservation of rare dipterocarp trees.

Similar efforts are made for Singapore’s marine biodiversity. Coral reefs in Singapore, though small in size, boast a relatively high biodiversity. However, these are threatened by various human activities. In order to enhance and restore the current coral cover in Singapore, a coral nursery was established off Pulau Semakau in 2007. It is the first coral nursery in the region that uses “coral of opportunity” (coral fragments that lie free on the reef having been fragmented by some impact) as seed corals for growth and transplantation.

“Singapore has done more to conserve our natural heritage than a nation our size might be expected to do,” said Lee in the same speech. There are many lessons that can be learnt from this small island city-state on balancing land management and biodiversity conservation.