Conserving native biodiversity in a high density city: the Singapore Experience

Conserving native biodiversity in a high density city: the Singapore Experience

By: Lena Chan National Parks Board, Singapore

The twenty first century is the Age of Cities. Since 2008, more than half of the world’s population resides in urban areas. This trend is escalating, with cities growing larger and more densely populated. Research, however, increasingly indicates that the quality of life and the physical and mental health of city-dwellers depend on a close connection with nature. How can a city ensure that its residents enjoy the positive benefits of biodiversity as well as reap the advantages offered by urbanisation? (For more on related topics, please see our collection on “Science and the Sustainable City,” and our conference of the same name.)

Singapore embarked on its greening journey in 1965. As Singapore matured as a Garden City, dotted with parks and an extensive network of tree-lined roads, the National Parks Board (NParks), which is responsible for the greening of and biodiversity conservation in Singapore, raised the bar to evolve it into a City in a Garden.  Recognizing the importance of nature to the well-being of humans and sustainability in a city, NParks has now consolidated, coordinated, strengthened and intensified its biodiversity conservation efforts under a Nature Conservation Masterplan (NCMP) that was formulated in 2015.  The NCMP applies to terrestrial, freshwater and marine environments. 

There are four foundational underpinnings of the NCMP: 1) Conservation of key habitats; 2) Habitat enhancement, habitat restoration and species recovery; 3) Applied research in conservation biology and planning; and 4) Community stewardship and outreach in nature. 

To comprehensively implement Thrust 1, actions taken include: 1) safeguarding of representative sites of key ecosystems, 2) surrounding core areas with buffer areas where only activities compatible with biodiversity conservation are allowed, 3) enhancing and managing additional nodes of greenery throughout Singapore, 4) developing ecological connections, in particular via park connectors, roadside planting, nature ways, etc., and 5) integrating nature with the broader urban landscape, creating an urban ecosystem. 

It is inevitable that disturbed habitats occur in cities.  Thrust 2 focusses on enhancing, restoring, and rehabilitating habitats. Under the NCMP, NParks’ Forest Restoration Action Plan seeks to strengthen the resilience of our native rainforests by restoring ecological processes, and enhancing the biodiversity and ecological connectivity in these areas. This aims to improve habitats for native biodiversity.  Identifying rare and endemic species and carrying out targeted species recovery programmes complement habitat enhancement and restoration projects. In 2018 alone, NParks’ species recovery programme has seen the successful hatching and release back into the wild of two critically-endangered endemics – the Singapore Freshwater Crab (Johora singaporensis) as well as the Hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata). Many side-events at the Fourteenth Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) held from 17 – 29 November 2018 showcased habitat restoration and enhancement projects.   This indicates the recognition of the role of habitat restoration in biodiversity conservation. 

Applied research underpins NParks’ biodiversity conservation and greening work.  In Thrust 3, an integrated and holistic approach has been executed on 2 fronts, i.e., integrating multiple disciplines and integrating research and operations.  There is a diverse spectrum of on-going projects, including, to name a few, 1) comprehensive biodiversity surveys and long-term monitoring of ecosystems and species; 2) ecological research on the interactions and inter-dependency of species; and 3) application of up-to-date tools like agent-based modelling to determine sources and sinks of keystone species. Biodiversity conservation research in Singapore makes use of cutting edge tools, including genomics, geographical information systems, mathematical modelling, etc.   

Community stewardship and outreach in nature cannot be overemphasized.  The Community in Nature (CIN) initiative is a national movement that connects and engages different groups in the wider community to help conserve Singapore’s natural heritage.  Citizen science is growing in popularity and their contributions will help build a biodiversity atlas. Biodiversity has been incorporated in to curricula at all levels of the education system.  The Greening of Schools for Biodiversity programme, where students survey, learn about and document the flora and fauna in their school grounds and their immediate environs and enhance the habitats around them, is a very popular initiative.   

Beyond outreach in schools, the Friends of the Parks is a ground-led initiative to promote stewardship and the responsible use of parks. The initiative consists of localized communities who play a dynamic role in promoting the active and responsible use of parks and nature reserves through ground-led programmes. The biodiversity community comes together to celebrate Singapore’s natural heritage during the annual Festival of Biodiversity, held in conjunction with the International Day for Biological Diversity. Indication and recognition that attest to the effectiveness of the NCMP are, firstly, NParks was named the laureate of the 2017 UNESCO Sultan Qaboos Prize for Environmental Preservation, and secondly, the MIT Senseable City Lab ranked Singapore as the city with the second highest Green View Index score. Please share your experiences with us and visit us in Singapore to see our greening and biodiversity conservation efforts.

Dr Lena Chan is the Senior Director of the International Biodiversity Conservation Division, National Parks Board (NParks) of Singapore. Some initiatives that Dr Chan has worked on include the development of the Singapore Index on Cities’ Biodiversity, drafting of NParks’ Nature Conservation Masterplan, supervising the Pulau Tekong Coastal Protection and Mangrove Enhancement project, overseeing the Bukit Timah Nature Reserves Comprehensive Biodiversity Survey, etc.

Lena’s current official duties cover being the National Focal Point for the Convention on Biological Diversity, a Governing Board member of the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity, a member of the Biophilic Cities Network’s Advisory Board, etc. She has published scientific papers on ecology, parasitology and women and the environment, and chapters in books on conservation biology.

She obtained her M. Sc. from McGill University and her Ph. D. from Imperial College, London.

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