Earlier this year, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that mainland Singapore might still be home to some rare species. In particular, there was one on the brink of extinction that badly needed a fighting chance at survival. The local branch of the Jane Goodall Institute had called for volunteers at the beginning of the year for a biodiversity survey on the population of Raffles’ banded langurs (Presbytis femoralis femoralis), and I leapt at the chance to do my bit part for local wildlife.
There was a surprisingly diverse array of interested volunteers – families with septuagenarians and primary-school-age children, middle-aged bachelors and couples all listening with rapt attention as a seasoned volunteer expounded on the problems of low genetic diversity and habitat loss that the Singapore population faced. Perhaps, however, the group I went with seemed like a more motley crew. Four teenagers, myself included, met up at the Casuarina Curry outlet near the trail for a quick lunch of roti prata and some friendly ribbing about relationships and gossip. We looked like the sorts of people who would be more willing to spend time at the mall than trekking through a stretch of forest looking for rare primates.
Then, one of them whipped out his handphone to show us a video of two sickened chicks that had barely grown their feathers. “Nightjars,” he had replied off-handedly, and explained how they had died of asphyxiation due to improper feeding. The group was well-armed with the tools they knew they’d need from prior experience along the forest trails – insect repellent, caps, and well-polished telescopes and binoculars. And among this group was my secondary school friend, C. She professed to having walked many kilometres through the nature reserves in her job with the local forestry agency, carrying what she had described as eight kilograms of field equipment. She wouldn’t be taking us along the trails that the volunteers had recommended – she knew the general haunts of a family group of langurs, and would take us to them.
We set out, spirits high, in single file, along the winding road that led into Lower Pierce Reservoir. The intermittent jokes and laughter we exchanged at the beginning died away, and gradually we proceeded in steely silence. All eyes were on the vegetation beside us. Their sharp gazes picked up the husks of felled trees, sprigs of purple wildflowers and the shallow pits dug by wild boars into the grass at the trees’ edge. The roar of traffic and the clamour of restaurateurs was replaced by a tranquil, deep silence.
The denizens of the forest began to reveal themselves to us. I didn’t notice the families of macaques that lined our path until one of my companions casually pointed them out. They stood, huddled up in pairs, watching with a cautious anticipation. There would be drivers through the forest who would ply them with food from plastic bags, and as a result they’d become accustomed to assaulting anyone carrying them. For now, they looked at us like the residents of a neighbourhood would look at strangers from their front porch. A mother suckling an infant exchanged friendly moo-ing calls with a large shaggy male next to her. Two youngsters froze wide-eyed as they saw us coming, and pelted back into the bushes. A third male bared his teeth at us while an alarm call rattled in the background (to C’s bemusement: “we’re not even doing anything, alarm call us for what!”). Every half-kilometre another family would show up, visible in the distance as dark shapes outlined starkly against the tarmac. We were on their land now.
Other little sights along the way broke the monotony of our hike. One of my companions stopped by a muddy brown puddle that had formed in a pothole. “Tadpoles,” he murmured, pointing to a mass of small black shapes that started and wriggled away when we raised our fingers over them. (“What sort of defense mechanism is that!? They’ll be eaten by a bittern or something.”) A ball of frogspawn sat in the middle of another pond, flanked by the spongy foam of a spittle-bug between two blades of grass. A hollow thrumming signalled woodpeckers; a quick flitting at the corner of our vision pointed to flycatchers. The baleful cries of drongos echoed in the distance.
Two kilometres on, and we hadn’t seen any langurs. And yet we’d settled into a pleasurable rhythm. The thing that C liked best about the job was the walking. For me, the walking was a means to a greater, more sublime enjoyment – the feeling that I was stepping between the urbane and the undeveloped, a realm where the looming trees seemed to hold sway over the lone cars driving by and dwarved in their shadow.
Eventually, we reached a location that was ambiguously referred to as ‘Lamp-post 103’. The canopy here grew thickly overhead, bathing us in dappled light. The last macaques we had seen were several hundred metres away. The only sound we heard was the dim whir of crickets. C loitered behind, staring alert into the treetops.
Then we heard a crash. Leaves fell, trembling, onto the area where we stood. Another crash through the trees, and I looked up to see a large dark blur in the branches. A baleful face looked down at us, framed in dark grey fur with large, wet brown eyes. It seemed to be startled at its discovery, seemingly wondering how we had managed to find it. And just as suddenly as it had appeared, it took off for the protection of the forest. Our spirits lifted – we’d found one.
Down in a ditch running along a side path, we found the shell of an old red-eared slider. C picked it up and threw it down a slope towards the reservoir. Its neck and limbs sprang out and it scrabbled gratefully away before melting below the surface of the water. This seemed contrary to our aim of helping to conserve local wildlife like the langurs, and by helping introduce a specimen of an invasive species into the reservoir we might have gotten into deep trouble.
But at this moment we were acting beyond thoughts of conservation. None of us regretted what we did. I had the feeling we were acting out of something deeper. Perhaps it was the peace of the woods that had subconsciously beckoned us towards the simple celebration of Nature herself.