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City Parks: A sideways look at nature in the city 

Being able to visit natural spaces and parks is something most developed city-dwellers expect. But what if we turned our cities into parks in their own right? Daniel Raven-Ellison thinks most cities have plenty to offer as they are. By Jeremy Torr. 

London, 29 October 2015- Having visited all of the UK’s national parks, photographer and naturalist Raven-Ellison says something is missing. An urban nature landscape. His suggestion is that instead of thinking that we have to travel to remote areas to enjoy nature, why not explore what nature has to offer in our cities? What if the planners made London a National Park City?

He bases his arguments on the UK, but his suggestion that most major cities contain a little bit of everything from meadows and hills to open spaces and wetlands applies to most of today's big cities. Raven-Ellison says most countries have specified inspirational and distinctive protected areas that all include every kind of major habitat apart from one – the landscape-scale urban habitat.


Open park spaces are tightly interwoven together to form a contiguous cover of urban greenery in Singapore. From anti-clockwise: Pasir Ris Park, East Coast Park, Hort Park, and Henderson Waves bridge linking Telok Blangah Hill Park and Mount Faber Park.He says the reality is that cities, our biggest urban habitats, can be more ecologically diverse and valuable than many parts of the surrounding countryside. They can also be equally good for outdoor adventures and, by their nature, be much more accessible and inclusive for all aspects of society. He notes that the Greater London sprawl (and possibly many other major cities) cover up to 10% of the entire land space of the country they are built in. Even more importantly, up to 80% of the population live in cities which means they are hotbeds of biodiversity by both resident and opportunistic flora and fauna.

London is a great example, he says. It is well known as a financial, cultural and technological centre, but it is also one of the UK's biodiversity hotspots too. As well as being home to millions of homo sapiens, London boasts 8.3 million trees (Singapore, despite being a fraction of London's size has some 2 million) and 13,000 species of wildlife. Just under 50% of London's surface is physically green and it has 142 local nature reserves, 37 Sites of Special Scientific Interest and two National Nature Reserves.

But generally speaking, a city cannot be designated as a national park. It is usually classified as an area ‘outstanding for outdoor recreation’, ‘beautiful’ and ‘open-country’. Many cities have plenty of spaces like this, says Raven-Ellison, that pass the first two criteria of these three tests, but are not open-country.

"For me, the purpose of national parks is more interesting than how they are classified," he says. He says that usually, the purpose is to conserve and enhance natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage, and to promote the understanding and enjoyment of the special qualities of the national park by the public.

"But when looking to satisfy these requirement, National Park Authorities also have a duty to seek to foster the economic and social well-being of the communities they serve," he says. "This way of thinking about a landscape is extremely powerful - and one that many cities could benefit highly from."

Inspired by the city's landscape, there is a growing movement calling for London to be declared the world’s first National Park City. Supported by thousands of individuals, many organisations and politicians, the main driver is not that London should be thought about in the same way as England's national parks – but that planners should start using national park thinking in London itself.

This new kind of city-based national park would learn and take inspiration from existing national parks, but be distinctively different, says Raven-Ellison. Unlike rural national parks, a London National Park City would not have any formal powers prohibiting planning or development. Instead it would focus on helping residents and visitors to better understand and improve the environment and their enjoyment of it.

He cites the need to increase the number of children exploring, playing and learning outdoors as one of the greatest motivations for pushing for city national park developments. Indeed, one recent research paper from the UK revealed that as many as one in seven parents have not taken their child to play in a natural environment in the past year. Exact figures are not available for Singapore, but there is no doubt the figures would be high here too.

"We can act together to turn these figures around," says Raven-Ellison. "One of the aims of a National Park City would be to connect 100% of the resident children to nature. This would not only have positive effects on young people’s education, mental health and well-being, but no doubt increase how much they understand and value urban natural heritage, increasing the likelihood of them protecting and enjoying it not only on their doorstep, but in far more distant places too," he asserts.

Raven Ellison is convinced this approach would bring other benefits too. It would help to protect green space, improve the richness and connectivity of habitats, inspire new business activities, improve air quality, and foster a new shared identity for city dwellers.

"It is possible," he says. "All that is needed is for lots of people to join the movement by declaring their support."

Daniel Raven-Ellison is a ‘Guerrilla Geographer’based in London

For more info on City National Parks go to: www.nationalparkcity.london


Kayaking in Kuching 

River kayaking offers a refreshing alternative perspective of Kuching city for travellers. By Shona Lall Parekh.

22nd October 2015 - Only a half-hour scenic drive to the south of Kuching city awaits a breath-taking river kayak adventure.  The 11-kilometre escapade down Semadang River begins from its shallow, pebbly tributary Sungei Abang.  After a safety briefing by our friendly, safety-certified guides and decked in life jackets, we paddled in pairs towards the main river - about 100 metres away. 

Lush greenery alongside river banks offers a rejuvenating experience for kayakers. Photo credit: Semadang Kayak The gently meandering, easy-to-manoeuvre river cuts through magnificent green rainforest – offering spectacular scenery of flora and fauna along the way – giant bamboo clusters, protected Ketapang trees (terminalia catappa), distant bee-hives, monitor lizards, fresh-water fish and more. 

Luke Kenny, a guide from Semadang Kayak explains, "The river is accessible throughout the year, however during the rainy season from the month of October to April the river's depth increases, especially after a heavy downpour - which makes navigation easier."  

The skilful guides led the enthralled kayakers along the scenic route, often pausing to savour the sights and even to take dips in the river’s clear, cool waters. 

At the halfway mark, the group of twenty ravenous kayakers stopped at a riverside kampong (village) for a sumptuous homemade lunch including delicious stir-fried leafy forest vine, and nutritious brown rice from the cook’s son-in-law’s paddy field.  Other dishes in the spread included Sarawakian fish curry, barbequed chicken, fried lady’s finger (okra), dragon fruit and a sweet coconut glutinous dessert wrapped in leaf.

Spectacular geological formations observed along the river course. Photo credit: Semadang KayakOur sensational journey continued despite a sudden light, tropical rainstorm.  The rain showers stopped after just twenty minutes but enough to lower the surrounding temperatures a little, and ignite a chorus of birdsong high in the canopy.  Further down the Bornean river, the views became increasingly breathtaking.  Stunning giant rock formations lined the riverbanks. Towering limestone peaks rose from the surrounding rainforest, dominating the river vistas.  Paddlers passed a small waterfall and even spotted a tiny cave.  The showers also resulted in stronger currents and the kayakers skilfully navigated through occasional rapids and dodging boulders.  It was indeed reminiscent of an expedition in an epic Indiana Jones movie.

Kayaking – An Eco-Friendly Tourist Activity

Kayak explorations are an eco-friendly way to discover a destination in its natural glory.  It is environmentally friendly as there is no pollution.  Such eco tourism choices have a light-touch effect on the surroundings - as the activity requires no additional major infrastructure.  This preserves natural surroundings in its original state and has the added benefit of bringing income directly to the local inhabitants, encouraging the appreciation and promotion of local culture and practices.

Some Points to Note:

Kayak boats moored by the riverside. Photo Credit: Semadang KayakSeveral tour operators offer kayak expeditions including Semadang Kayak. Safety is taken seriously and all kayakers are thoroughly briefed on the dos and don’ts and rehearsed in safety drills. Life jackets are mandatory. Typically children are paired with an accompanying adult and we recommend confirming with your tour operator on safety provisions for children.

Usually the entire journey lasts between 4-6 hours and guests are provided two-way transport to the start point, and picked up from the end point.

A moderate level of fitness is recommended.

Waterproof long sleeve tops and long bottoms offer good protection against the sun and sand flies.  Water shoes or sandals are appropriate footwear; bring drinking water (if not provided), camera (and waterproof bag if not provided) or waterproof cameras.  Do not forget sunscreen, caps, insect repellent.  

The kayak river expedition in the midst of lush Sarawak rainforest is an outdoor activity that is hard to top.  It provides four hours of water fun but will leave a lifetime of memories. 

Gaia Discovery thanks Sarawak Tourism Board for making this trip possible.


Rescuing Bornean Orang Utans 

The Semenggoh Wildlife Centre and the Matang Wildlife Centre in Sarawak help rehabilitate orang utans in distress. By Shona Lall Parekh. 

Sarawak, 4th October 2015- Everyone stood in silence as the conservation officer repeatedly called into the forest.   After about 10 minutes, our patience was rewarded when he nodded, indicating the presence of an orang utan in the vicinity.  A delicious offering of local fruit awaited the magnificent creature. 

Rehabilitated orang utans at Semenggoh Wildlife Centre Shortly, a sharp-eyed boy pointed to the high trees of the rainforest.  Murmured excitement spread and soon everyone eagerly strained to catch a glimpse of the deep orange coat amongst the green foliage.  Broad smiles erupted as the giant primate gracefully swung its way towards the keeper, taking its time, as if knowing it was the centre of attraction. 

Sadammiah, a 13-year old orang utan appeared with her adorable baby, Ruby.  The mother and her two-year old fed on fruit, mostly banana and a coconut.  Sadammiah broke open the hard coconut effortlessly by hitting it against a tree trunk with several powerful strikes, while Ruby frolicked about her mother.

This precious glimpse into the world of semi-wild orang utans took place at the Semenggoh Wildlife Centre, a 30-year old centre that opened in 1975 for rehabilitating wild animals that are orphaned, hurt, or even incapacitated by long-term captivity “with the objective of subsequently releasing them back to the wild”. 

The successful rehabilitation of orphaned orang utans propelled the centre to fame.  Due to its overwhelming successes in orang utan rehabilitation – the forests have reached their maximum holding capacity - the centre now engages in the study of orang utans.  In its place, the Matang Wildlife Centre focuses on rehabilitating injured or orphaned orang utans. 

According to Kevin Nangai, Assistant Manager of Communications at Sarawak Tourism Board, "Semenggoh Wildlife Centre is sprawled over 700 acres where 27 thriving orang utans live in the wild under the watchful eyes of their keepers.  Rehabilitation is also carried out at the newer Matang Wildlife Centre where orphaned orang utans are taught to survive in the wild."

Orang utans are specific to South East Asia. The word orang utan comes from the Malay/Indonesian word for ‘person’ – orang, and ‘forest’ – hutan, literally translating to “forest person”.  Two known species, the Bornean orang utan and Sumatran orang utan, are both endangered; in fact, the Sumatran orang utan is listed as critically endangered.  As of 2015, wild orang utan populations are estimated at 20,000 to 27,000 between Borneo (20,000) and Sumatra (7,000).  Reasons for decline include habitat encroachment and destruction mostly through the raging annual fires caused by man, the cheapest method of clearing rainforest for agriculture primarily for palm cultivation. Other factors for decline – poaching and capture of these primates as illegal pets.

About Orang Utans

Highly solitary, orang utans rank amongst the most intelligent primates, and are arboreal by nature – making them the largest primates that live and nest in trees.  Males and females vary in size and features: males are larger, weighing up to 100 kgs (220 lbs) and stand at 150 cm (5 feet) in height, while females are about half the size, weighing in the 50 kg range. 

Mature adult males have cheek pads called flanges. Orang utans have a lifespan of approximately 45 years in the wild, fruit being the main source of diet.  Durian, jackfruit, mango, lychee and other forest fare such as tree bark, shoots, egg, insects and sometimes even small lizards.  Orang utans have single or twin babies, and stay with their mothers for the first seven to eight years of their lives, to the point where they have learnt to survive on their own.  The slow replacement rate makes it even more difficult to reverse the decreasing wild orang utan populations.

Semenggoh Wildlife Centre is open from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m. and 2 p.m. to 4.45 p.m. However, the recommended time to see the orang utans is at feeding time.  There are two daily feeding times:

Mornings          -           9.00 a.m. to 10.00 a.m.

Afternoons       -           3.00 p.m. to 4.00 p.m.

Do note that when the forests are abundant with fruit, orang utan encounters may decrease, and a visit to Matang Wildlife Centre may be more fruitful instead. 

For enquiries and information on the frequency of orang utan sightings, contact National Parks Booking Office Tel: (+6) 082 248088, and visit www.sarawakforestry.com for more information on various programmes conducted by the centres. 

Gaia Discovery thanks Sawarak Tourism Board for making this trip possible.



RWMF: Mangrove Tree Reforestation Conserves Biodiversity

In its 18th year, the Rainforest World Music Festival (RWMF) kicked off the high energy concert performances with slowmo tree planting, an acitivity that has been held for four years running.

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Montane Bird Guide of Cameron Highlands Launched

Cameron Highlands' only bird identification guide is packed with photos and characteristic description based on visual, sound and habitats.

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MEM Alumni Seminar 2015 with Nature Society

NUS Alumni and NSS joint seminar explores how communities can help nurture nature

Singapore’s natural landscape has undergone an immense transformation over the last 50 years, along with the city state’s rapid social and economic development.  Singaporeans have gradually shown their realisation of the value of the country’s flora and fauna, especially in the past two decades.

Singapore treads carefully between development and nature, thanks to active involvement of conservation communitiesAs part of the celebration of this year's SG50 golden jubilee, alumni from NUS's Masters in Environmental Management (MEM) course, together with the Nature Society (Singapore), will hold an interactive program of free seminars and walks to share their reflections on how conservation has been fostered in our communities.

The four-week program, which starts on 16 May, is titled "Nurturing Nature with Community Involvement". It aims to highlight how Singapore's view of nature and community conservation has changed since 1965.

Speakers including Dr Shawn Lum, President, Nature Society (Singapore), Dr Liew Kai Khiun, Nanyang Technological University, Tony O'Dempsey, Nature Society (Singapore), and Mallika Naguran, Gaia Discovery.

Topics will cover current issues including including nature-friendly development, ecology in the community, conflict resolution, the role of social media, education, and heritage-sensitive conservation across Singapore's varied community groups.

The half-day seminar session, from 8.30 - 14.00 on 16 May, will be held at the Auditorium, Shaw Foundation Alumni House, NUS, 11 Kent Ridge Drive, S119244.

It will include a vegetarian lunch and a free book exchange for attendees, specialising in nature and conservation publications.

The seminar will be followed up by weekly Saturday-morning Guided Nature Walks, held at the Botanic Gardens (looking at heritage trees), the Central Catchment Reserve (exploring Singapore's biodiversity) and at Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve (investigating mangrove and coastal biodiversity). These will be held on May 23, 30 and June 6 respectively. Expert guides from the Nature Society (Singapore) will be on hand to expand on the topics previously covered in the seminars.

For more details, location maps and registration on the MEM Alumni Seminar 2015.


Bee habitats: Natural, industrial, even underground

Bees aren’t all alike. Tens of thousands of different bee species exist around the world, and they all like different habitats. Encouraging different species to settle in restored habitat is even more complex. By J.Green

Megachilid bees have been the subject of much research

Edinburgh, 17 March 2015- The UK currently has more than 260 bee species, with some 26 of those being social (that is, they live in swarms, nests or hives). There are also 25 native bumblebee species but sadly two have recently become extinct. While there are still many types of bees, research shows bee diversity has significantly decreased in more than 50% of the UK’s landscapes since 1980.

Recent research from the UK-based Centre for Ecology and Hydrology has confirmed that the situation for British bees is pretty dire. Some 75% of the UK is agricultural land. And because of that, researchers estimate around 97% of natural bee habitat - wildflower meadows, small woods, open heather moors – is gone. As a result, “bees have significantly declined over the 20th century,” says the report. That is an understatement.

But bee help is at hand. To combat these trends, the authorities have initiated a program that pays subsidies to landowners for the “intensification of landscape quality.” Farmers chose wildlife-friendly options to qualify for those subsidies, which can total GBP280 a year. One common outcome of this subsidy is natural strip of land left at the edge of existing farmland. There, a mix of agricultural plants and grasses that bees like are added. Bumblebees take to agricultural legumes, while sunflowers are also good for bees.

Strips of land at the edge of a field provide essential bee habitat

In one recent project, ecologists tested a few different options. In land where were there simply crops, there was no value for bees. In areas without pesticides, there was likewise a limited response. Where the “natural generation of plant communities” was allowed, there was also only a limited response. The key to making bees feel at home is creating sites that offer pollen and nectar, with a diverse seed mix. This, says the research, results in a “significant response” from bees.

Bees and Seeds

But a single seed mix, no matter how diverse, will “not have sustained benefits,” say researchers. There is also a seasonal component; some plants die off. So flowering plants that offer nectar need to be re-sown every 3-4 years, and a diverse plant mix ensured that includes perennials.

Former mining sites are a surprising potential bee habitat, and are found everywhere in the world. Given all the untapped land, there are lots of opportunities to restore them as habitat for bees. Karen Goodell, an ecology professor at Ohio State University has investigated mining sites as a potential new home for bees.

She says reclaimed mines “can aid bee conservation,” but they will not be as good as remnant or untouched habitat. It’s difficult to restore plant communities that existed in mining areas before. Forests can be re-created, but a full ecosystem is more difficult. Goodell says “floral diversity and abundance will positively affect bee recruitment,” so consequently bees will be less diverse in reclaimed mining sites than in remnant habitats.

Karen Goodell researches bee ecology at Ohio State UniversityIn a study of 24 sites at The Wilds, a leading conservation site in Ohio, Goodell netted bee species, counted floral resources, and assessed nest habitat. She looked at sites that were closer and further away from natural habitat, looking specifically at Megachilid bees, which are more solitary than honey bees and nest on or in the ground. Strikingly, she found that the abundance of floral resources wasn’t really important - but restoring nesting substrate was far more critical. The ‘nesting subtrate’ includes stem wood and bare soil but the use of additional artificial nest substitutes didn’t help the bees feel at home. “It’s important that habitats, whether they are restored or not, have ample hollow stem wood lying around, shrubs, dead wood, and bare ground, if you want to attract (Megachilid) bees,” she noted.

Ecosystem Restoration

Another bee expert, Neal Williams from the University of California, Davis, confirms the transformation of wild areas into agricultural areas is the primary reason for bee habitat loss. Near the Sacramento River in California, a group of farmers and other activists are restoring an 80-kilometer stretch along the river banks from Red Bluff to Chico. Williams’ is studying the community of pollinators in the restored fragments and comparing them to remnant riparian forests while looking for “persistent differences” that stand out between the two areas.

Williams says the sites were successfully restored - a mono-cultural walnut orchard landscape was turned back into a forest - but now there is no understory which meant the bees came back, but not to a thriving overall ecosystem composition.

But bees are essential for both ecosystem health, and for the honey industry too. With around 85% of the world’s flowering plants needing a bee or other pollinator in order to reproduce, these tiny insects are crucial to our survival.

So much so that in California, more than 3,500 truckloads of bees are trucked in every spring from other, less intensively-farmed parts of America to pollinate over 1 million acres of almond trees during their three-week spring bloom.

So it looks like although some dedicated activists are working hard to keep the bees happy with new homes, there is nothing like original, pristine habitat for a happy hive. Farmers in the UK are doing their best, thanks to the government subsidy, but simply describing empty land as a potential bee haven is not realistic. Bees need a complete ecosystem to thrive. The best way to ensure that – and a good supply of honey for us all – is to avoid turning pristine land into mines or wheat fields.

For more information look to : https://eeob.osu.edu/people/goodell.18; http://www.ceh.ac.uk; http://www.helpabee.org




The Ubin Project Update: What Singaporeans Want

Friends of Ubin is a project set up by the Ministry of National Development (MND) to preserve and enhance the island. Pulau Ubin has a long and rich history, therein lies its uniqueness as it retains much of its old rustic charm and biodiversity.

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Habitat Highs with Pulau Ubin Reforestation

One hundred trees were planted at Tanjong Tajam, Pulau Ubin. This was the first dig into a series of reforestation efforts to reverse the damage done to three hectares of burnt area that was once lush secondary forest with diverse flora and fauna.

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Singapore's First Marine Park to Protect Ecosystems

Singapore's first Marine Park was announced last week at the Festival of Biodiversity. The Sisters' Island Marine Park will span some 40 hectares around Sisters' Islands and along the western reefs of St John's Island and Pulau Tekukuor.

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Economic Benefit of Hawaii National Park Tourism

A total of 4.9 million visitors to Hawaiian national parks spent $312 million and supported 3,665 jobs in the state last year - according to a new National Park Service (NPS) report.

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Javan Rhino Threatened by Invasive Palm

The last of Indonesia's critically endangered Javan rhinoceroses have survived poachers, rapid deforestation and life in the shadow of one of the archipelago's most active volcanoes. But an invasive plant is now posing a new threat to the world's rarest species of rhino.

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Philippines Deforestation Threats and Reforestation Issues

A couple of years ago, the Philippine Congress released a study that said about 123,000 hectares of the country’s forest cover are lost every year. Unless reforestation is started, the study further stated, there would be no forest left in the country by 2036 – that’s exactly 23 years from now.

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Trees Save Lives: US Forestry Report

Everybody knows trees are nice. They are green, shady, they smell nice and they provide fruit and flowers to keep us happy. But new studies by the US Forestry Service and others have discovered that trees can help you live longer too. By Jeremy Torr & Phil Stamper.

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Trees Reclaim Shipwrecks in Sydney Harbour

Industrialisation doesn’t always wreck the environment. Sometimes it provides a new opportunity for nature to re-establish its roots; literally. In Homebush Bay, off Sydney Harbour in Australia, the native bush has found an unlikely nursery – on an abandoned ship.

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Monkey Business: Living with Macaques in Urbanised Singapore

Singapore's increasing need for housing has led to development encroaching onto the edge of nature reserves, the home of wild creatures such as macaques. And there are challenges as nature brushes against human comforts, with macaques being lured towards entrapment and taken away permanently from their natural habitats. Fiona Childs speaks to primatology student Amanda Tan on these issues, to explore how residents can better manage the situation, and to put the whole monkey business to a peaceful rest.

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Pulau Ketam: Potential Ecosystem Nucleus in Singapore 

A group of passionate people are putting their heads together (and getting their feet muddy) to create a learning centre on Pulau Ketam. Not just any ordinary centre, but a low impact, self-sustaining and ecological friendly zone to promote learning and nature appreciation. Mallika Naguran from Gaia Discovery joins this group as a volunteer and brings us the inside story.

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Philippine Wildlife Species Declining Rapidly

What does it take to save the iconic eagle and saltwater crocodiles that are endemic to the Philippines? What causes species decline?

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Jungle in Crisis: Indonesians Act to Stop Deforestation

Recent efforts to save the forests of Borneo and Sumatra provide evidence that with help from concerned people, the current tide of jungle destruction can and will turn. By Kayti Denham.

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Mangrove Forest Deforestation in the Philippines

Many think deforestation happens only in the uplands as cutting the trees means loss of lives and livelihoods as the raging waters from the higher areas bring floods and landslides. Unknowingly, deforestation continues unabated, too, in the lowlands – particularly those near the seashores and rivers. Mangroves, which most people consider as unimportant, are fast disappearing.

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