Vilma D'Rozario: Passionate about wildlife

Gaia Discovery connects with Vilma D'Rozario of Cicada Tree Eco-Place for Mallika Naguran's MEM Alumni Group and the Nature Society talk titled "Face of the Conservationist". Originally presented at the SG50: Nurturing Nature with Community Involvement" Seminar. By Shermaine Wong.

Singapore, 12 May 2015.

How did you first get involved in conservation advocacy?

Vilma D'Rozario, co-founder of the Cicada Tree Eco-Place. Photo credit: Yeo Suay Hwee.

Vilma D'Rozario, co-founder of the Cicada Tree Eco-Place. Photo credit: Yeo Suay Hwee.

I first started as a member of the Nature Society Singapore (NSS). I was the chairperson of the NSS education group from 2000 to 2008. And prior to that, as I was growing up I was always encouraged by my parents to enjoy nature outdoors, so I think it was kind of natural. I had come back from the United States in the mid-1990s, and felt that there was really not so much nature around compared to the US, but then I joined the NSS and then learnt from experienced nature guides that there was really a lot of nature to see and enjoy. Hence I started to serve in the society as education chairperson. After that I felt that we would like to branch off on our own to start our own NGO so that we can just focus on education and education outreach and also wildlife, nature, conservation advocacy. I would say about 2007 to 2008, my friends and I started the organisation Cicada Tree Eco-Place; what we do is to help kids and their families know a bit more about nature, biodiversity and conservation.

I am still a member of the Vertebrate Study Group of the NSS, I do a lot of biodiversity surveys and I have been consistently active as a nature surveyor and help NParks to survey biodiversity. We also have our own surveys. I would say we have quite a good contact with wildlife in Singapore. 

What were some challenges that you faced in the past 10 or so years that you have been in conservation advocacy?

Juggling time, because I work full-time as a teacher educator at NIE. Wildlife is my passion, so time is a challenge, to do whatever I want to do, over and above what I have to do.

The other, I think is the struggle to advocate for wild places in a very small island which rapidly develops and faces the constant pressure for developing land for the human population rather than a population of native fauna. I see humans as part of the animal kingdom too but it feels that it is always a constant struggle to give non-human animals a place, a rightful place and space to live; because our island is very small, use of land is just tough, it’s a fine balance between development and conservation. I found that it is tough advocating for wild places, as developments and plans are in the pipeline, there’s this constant need to be engaged with the government I think, in order to protect and safeguard wild habitats. So I see that as a constant struggle but I would say that in the past 10 years the struggle has become easier, I do feel that the government is listening, I would say that there has been a vast improvement in conservation of wild places.

I want to do a lot of things for wildlife but I struggle because I don’t have a lot of time.  The other one is the fact that we have very little space to conserve and develop for humans, to conserve wild space as opposed to use the space for development for human population.

What nature and conservation work are you involved in and what are plans for the future?

With Cicada Tree Eco-Place, I help with the programming, so coming up with events for children and their families. We are focusing on programmes for younger children from kindergarten to primary school. We do have programmes for secondary school children, but we are focusing on younger children. So that’s one of the things that I’m looking forward to, planning, programming and helping to arrange for these to happen. I’m not one of the nature guides but when there isn’t anyone to guide, I do. And I assist the nature guide, look for sponsors, attend meetings.

Save the Malayan Tiger Fundraiser for Malaysian Conservation Alliance for Tigers (MYCAT) Photo credit: Marcus Chua | Cicada Tree Eco-Place blog

Save the Malayan Tiger Fundraiser for Malaysian Conservation Alliance for Tigers (MYCAT) Photo credit: Marcus Chua | Cicada Tree Eco-Place blog

The other things we are very much involved in this year is to partner MyCAT in tiger conservation raise funds 40,000 SGD for MyCAT, we have given them 20% of funds raised, 8,000 SGD. 60% of the funds raised is going towards bringing people from Singapore to Malaysia Pahang Sungei Yu forest area. So we bring citizens from here, whether international or Singaporeans, over to Malaysia and together with our MyCAT partners, we patrol poaching hotspots to look for snares and persuade poachers to stop poaching. I am the Cicada rep for two of these walks, and the other members are the reps for the other walks. So we are very much involved in this. We are planning to have all those in the catwalk to come together to see what we can do in future to continue to take action and stop poaching in the area, and especially to help conservation. Once you help the conservation there, you not only help the tigers but also other wildlife. I am also helping out with Vertebrate Study Group, we are involved in surveying other parts of Malaysia, surveying for biodiversity.

Through my work at the NIE, together with Susanna Ho from MOE outdoor education, we are doing research on nature’s benefits to kids, whether being outdoors benefits the wellbeing of kids. We have completed a literature review on this subject and we are starting on the second part. We are intending to interview ten master nature educators on kids being outdoors, the benefits and effects on wellbeing and how they got to nature education. What we are doing to select these people, is that we are going to ask the community to nominate people who are the best of the best in nature education and we will then interview them. We hope this study will inform us better and will in turn inform how we can include nature education in the formal school system.

Future plans are very linked to the present.  We are looking to come up with a book for kids, one would be for younger children, primary 1 and primary 2. There will be a colouring book and an accompanying book on nature, wildlife and wildlife interactions, though this is just something we would like to do. We would like to continue catwalks and we might be doing a seminar where we will get speakers from both Singapore and Malaysia to talk about conservation and taking action, corporate business CSR with biodiversity, that’s something I was thinking about. I am quite passionate about wildlife surveys; it’s only when you know about the wildlife in your country and the region then you can conserve them.

And hopefully I get less busy with work and really focus on nature outreach and conservation but that will be probably 5 years down the road.

I feel very much for young researchers, I really feel for young people, my wish is for young people to develop a better understanding and passion for biodiversity. Cicada Tree Eco-Place has raised some funds from the tiger fund raising last year and the money is to help young researchers, who want to research in biodiversity, to actually to do the studies they want to do. We can help with very small grants for young researchers, because I think there is a need for fundamental research in wildlife, locally as well as regionally. One of my dreams to help young people do this kind of research.

What troubles you still with regard to the conservation of nature and biodiversity in Singapore?

The fact that we are a very small island and there is constant competition, in terms of conservation of wild habitats and development. I see the challenge for Singapore is the growth in human population, I am afraid that this might displace wild habitats. My dream is for wild habitats to remain status quo, they have been encroached on ever since Singapore started developing many years ago, since its founding in 1800s till now. So population growth, I would see that this would pose a problem. I am for the population to not grow anymore unless there is a creative way of having more balance, means no more forest or marine environment should be encroached on anymore.

Vilma (left) and Teresa Teo tied themselves to a tree at Hong Lim Park to appeal to LTA to re-route the proposed Cross Island MRT Line. credit: Marcus Chua | Yahoo Newsroom

Vilma (left) and Teresa Teo tied themselves to a tree at Hong Lim Park to appeal to LTA to re-route the proposed Cross Island MRT Line. credit: Marcus Chua | Yahoo Newsroom

One case study that I have been involved, this is in my personal capacity, was for Love Our MacRitchie Forest. We actually tied ourselves to a tree for 24 hours to make a statement in response to the Cross Island Line (CIL), my friends protested with permission from NParks and the police. That sparked off interest, I think that was the best thing that happened. There weregroups like Toddycats, BES Drongos, I think we kind of started the ball rolling, as the young people went ahead and got trained and now we have the two groups guiding at MacRitchie. I really am thankful for being part of this movement. This is an example of how development could encroach upon a habitat.  All the conservation advocacy work, I would say, involves quite close communication between nature groups and government groups. In discussing the CIL, I’m really happy to say that things are promising in my mind, because there is a lot of discussion and I would say genuine clearing out of concerns from the nature groups, I am happy with that, but this is an example of one of my fears and challenges, competition for land use, between development and wild habitats.

Finally, what do you think are some probable solutions to addressing these problems?

Well I think that it’s very good to have open communications between the government and the community, there needs to be a certain partnership between both, and I see that happening very much, especially in the last 5 years where there is very much more in discussion. Whenever there is a development, we are invited to hear about what the development is about.

Members of Friends of Ubin Network (FUN) met with MOS Desmond Lee to brainstorm ideas for furthering the Ubin Project.

Members of Friends of Ubin Network (FUN) met with MOS Desmond Lee to brainstorm ideas for furthering the Ubin Project.

Perhaps a solution to this, if we could be involved upfront, a little bit more ahead of development, to be engaged more, sooner rather than later, rather than have the plan already made, then to ask our opinions. To have us involved in the making of the plans, that would be better, there is some move towards this, like Pulau Ubin, there is a quite a lot of discussion with community and nature groups. So if we could come in the planning stage more upfront rather than at the end.  

The other solution that I believe very much in is action, if the young can be outdoors, in order to appreciate wild habitats, to enjoy a playground, go to a wild habitat to learn about wildlife and their interactions in the forest or mangrove, I think that’s very important and should be in the formal education. We see very little interaction between kids and wild habitats in Singapore, so I would say that’s the challenge. Our solution is try to know come out with some concrete evidence, that kids will be better off, or maybe academic achievements will be heightened with interaction with nature. This would inform our education ministry, some evidence to support outdoor learning, it is implemented somewhat in schools but we want to establish that there is rightful place for outdoor learning. If kids learn that wild habitats are beautiful places, for the fact that they’re home to animals and wildlife, which is part of the whole ecosystem of our planet, there is more hope for a better planet for the human population, as well as caring for the non-human animal population.