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Mike Barclay: Conservation should begin right at your front door

The Wildlife Reserves Singapore CEO says loss of habitat is causing species to adapt to human settlements

Wildlife Reserves Singapore CEO Mike Barclay. Photo: WRS
Wildlife Reserves Singapore CEO Mike Barclay. Photo: WRS

The densely populated city of Jodhpur in Rajasthan is renowned for the Mehrangarh Fort and the buzzing market at Ghanta Ghar. But this city of over a million people is also home to the grey langur, which seems to have adapted seamlessly to human settlements.

Similarly, Singapore is home to the Long-tailed Macaque (Macaca fascicularis), the most commonly seen species there. It’s adaptable, and survives in close proximity to humans. There is conflict—but there are also attempts to resolve it.

Mike Barclay, chief executive officer of Wildlife Reserves Singapore (WRS), was in India recently to sign a memorandum of understanding with travel company Thomas Cook India. According to the WRS website, its four current parks attract some 4.6 million visitors every year. And, one of its top international markets (in terms of visitors) is India. “It represents about 28% of our foreign visitors.... Our night safaris are really popular with the Indian market and central to that is a tram ride. We now have Hindi as one of the language options on the tram ride," says Barclay.

In an interview, Barclay explains their focus on education, and why it’s important to ensure national parks are properly resourced and protected. Edited excerpts:

You have been with WRS for over two years now. Could you tell us about the urban wildlife scene in Singapore?

Singapore is surprisingly rich. It’s very small but we call it a “bio-diverse city" rather than biodiversity. To give you a flavour: We have more species diversity in Singapore than the whole of continental US. It’s quite an extraordinary fact. We’re also a very green city. Even in the urban areas, there’s a lot of tree planting and lots of verges. So, inevitably, the native wildlife gets intermingled with city life. And, we are also getting involved in understanding how to educate people to coexist with our native snakes, our native monkeys (the long-tailed macaques), pangolins, wild boar and civet cats.

It is very interesting to know that our own wildlife parks are fantastic nature reserves in themselves. At night, we have an amazing array of species coming into the park and taking it over when all the guests go home. We are very rich in insect life, amphibians, snakes, reptiles, etc.

Squirrel Monkeys at the River Safari. Photo: WRS

The WRS website mentions that you have supported over 50 wildlife conservation projects across South-East Asia. How many of these are in the urban wildlife space?

We advocate that with conservation, you should begin right at your front door. The work we do in Singapore is, by definition, working with wildlife. To give you a couple of examples, on our coastlines we have a Horseshoe Crab. This crab gets a pretty rough time—it gets caught in fishing nets; fishermen don’t like it because it has a very sharp spine on its tail. So they tend to kill them when they catch them or use them as bait for fishing. They’re basically endangered now.

We’re working on a major education programme with relevant parties to try and get it across to Singaporeans that we can coexist perfectly with this fascinating, ancient creature.

Another example is a very small freshwater crab in Singapore: It’s called Johora singaporensis. It’s only found in five pools in three freshwater streams in the world. They are all in Singapore. We are monitoring their habitats and also seeking to breed them in captivity so we can develop or breed an insurance colony so that we can release them and help them grow back in numbers.

We face a lot of these issues in Singapore. Whenever people visit our zoos—we have really disconnected urban populations—we spend a lot of time getting across how important wildlife is to human existence, how interconnected we are and how we need to protect habitats. If the habitats don’t exist, the animals don’t exist. And if the animals don’t exist, we don’t exist.

Have you seen a change in approach by conservationists and the general public in that you don’t have to look at just wildlife parks?

It’s always a push-pull situation. We get quite negative coverage of conflict with macaques and the wild boar. Sometimes, snakes. The reassuring thing is that every time there is negative publicity, there’s a good wave of positive publicity, saying how important these species are. For example, we have put together a coalition to teach people about how to interact with monkeys or macaques. If you take food out of the equation, they are much less aggressive. Even understanding facial expressions: A grinning macaque is an angry macaque, not a happy, smiling macaque.

And if you smile back at a macaque and show your teeth, it thinks you are being aggressive.

If India had to learn from the Singapore model, what would be a good starting point?

I think culturally and traditionally, Indians are often much better at living with urban wildlife than in some other countries. There are some nice examples of good coexistence with potentially threatening animals. I think that’s something that needs to be applauded.

The reason we normally have conflict is because of loss of habitat. This is not necessarily a message just from Singapore, it’s (the position) globally. The first thing you need to do is have some proper protected areas of habitat and make sure they are protected from illegal wildlife trade, poaching and degradation. The next thing you need to think about is having connectors between those areas to allow animals to move between them without coming into conflict with people. And then I think education is critical: educating people about coexistence and being able to live with wild animals.

I think there are a lot of places where India could teach. There are other parks of Asia which are in a much (more) precarious situation. If you step back, mankind is still growing at an alarming rate and that’s causing a natural pressure in our habitats. We really need to be active in our conservation intent to correct that.

Have you come across any other country that has managed its urban wildlife well?

I’m a very optimistic person, but it is hard to point to a single country that’s cracked this because even in areas like Europe, where the agrarian parts are very clearly demarcated, they are having their own mini crises right now about loss of insects and small birds because of the use of insecticides and artificial fertilizers in their fields, etc.

I think the way that we all need to start thinking is establishing clearly demarcated national parks, making sure they are properly resourced and protected. That is a more sustainable future.

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