Sunday, November 23, 2008

Leopards in Singapore?

Back in school, we studied the early history of Singapore and the wildlife that once walked this island.

The most impressive beast by far was the Sumatra Tiger. Then there are the hordes of moneys that are still around, lots of snakes, the odd civet cat and the occasional scaly anteater.

Growing up in Bukit Timah right smack in the nature reserve, we always had our fair share of wildlife encounters - a baby python curled up on a chair, monkeys raiding our Rambutan trees when they were in season and every now and then I would spy a black cobra what lived in a pandan bush. But I never knew Singapore was once home to leopards.

So this was the big discovery I made when I recently visited the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research located within the grounds of the National University of Singapore.

Apparently there were a few clouded leopards like this mounted specimen pictured above taking pride of place in this tiny museum gallery. But that was like 100-odd years ago and the leopards have long since gone extinct.

Given the tiny size of the country, I guess peaceful co-habitation was simply out of the question.

But still, smaller cousins may still yet exist to this day.

Two leopard cats were found within the last decade. One was run over by a vehicle along Mandai Road near the Bukit Timah Expressway on 11 June 2001. The other was found on Pulau Ubin in 1997.

Then there was the very sad story behind this forlorn specimen of the banded leaf monkey.

Apparently there are only like 20 surviving in Singapore and this elderly female, probably the leader of the group, was attacked and killed by dogs a few years ago when she climbed down from her tree sanctuary.

As a person very interested in nature and conservation, the visit to this museum was certainly well worth the effort.

It is a pity that this little gem of a museum has received so little attention. They do good work not just in preserving our natural heritage but they are also actively involved in research and conservation.

I hope we can preserve as much as possible of our little natural heritage. We after all, share the planet with plants, bugs, big cats - they have have as much right to life as you or I.

Before I left the museum, I gazed once more into the face of that banded leaf monkey - that look of pain frozen on her tiny weathered face as her little heart surrendered the fight to her killers. I wondered what her world was like. The forest was getting smaller, the colony she loved so much and led so valiantly seemed doomed to perish as their numbers were just too small to remain viable.

The savageness of her own death in her advanced age heralded what must surely be the beginning of the end for her troop. But Nature has surprised us before. Maybe in the depths of our forest reserves, a small band still struggles to survive. They don’t want our help. They don’t need it. All they ask for is to be left alone.

And for this we can only hope …

[The museum had a special workshop on Novermber 20 2008 to get children interested in Singapore's Natural History. This was part of the National Heritage Board's festival - Explore Singapore]

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