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Singapore’s ugly mangrove swamps

by Ron Yeo

Shorebirds: Many migratory birds stop by Singapore’s mudflats to feed and rest before continuing their journey.

Dark, smelly, dirty, muddy, scary, mosquito infested, illegal immigrant infested… Ask the usual Singaporeans what they think of our mangroves, and these are some of the common responses. In fact, I even had a friend telling me that he did not like going to mangroves because he was afraid of snakes dropping down from the trees.

Indeed, many Singaporeans consider the unruly mangroves to be an ugly sight compared with the manicured parks and gardens we find around us. There are even some who questioned why the remaining mangroves in Singapore are not cleared to make way for development. The fact that we have already destroyed over 90% of our mangrove forests means nothing to them.

Are our mangroves really so dangerous and ugly, or are they just poorly understood, or even misunderstood in some cases?

The friend I mentioned earlier, together with his family, finally braved a trip to Pasir Ris Mangrove Boardwalk with me some time ago. At the point of writing this article, they are still very much alive and kicking, thank you very much. We were not attacked by snakes falling from trees, bitten by disease-carrying mosquitoes, or robbed by illegal immigrants. It was an unforgettable trip for them nonetheless. Finally, they managed to see the beauty in what they had thought was an ugly mangrove forest.

Tree Climbing Crab: The tree climbing crab climb up trees during high tide to avoid marine predators.

When we arrived, little tree climbing crabs were slowing climbing down the trees as the tide were receding. Giant mudskippers were frolicking in the water, grapping worms that got flushed out by the outflowing water. A pair of grey herons was nesting near the viewing platform, obliviously to the crowd of quiet onlookers. The teruntum merah trees were blooming, adding splashes of red to the otherwise green foliage.

How much money are Singaporeans spending to enjoy such little bits of nature overseas, when all along they can enjoy a similar experience at their doorstep?

If you have more time to spare, I would suggest heading northwest to Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve. More scenes you would expect to see in nature documentaries await: flocks of migratory birds feeding on the mudflat (from September to March every year); a crocodile or two lazing on the river bank; and if you are lucky, a family of otters hunting for fishes in the river.

But of course, the importance of mangrove goes beyond their value as a venue for leisure activities and relaxation.

Teruntum merah: The teruntum merah has pretty red flowers that attract birds to feed on the nectar and perform pollination.

In land-scarce Singapore, protecting our coastlines from erosion is all-important. The dense network of mangrove roots not only holds the soil together, but provides the environment for coastal deposition to take place – natural land reclamation in action!

Mangrove plants also filter waste matter from the land to the sea, and vice versa. It is thus no wonder that many people find the mangroves to be dirty with lots of rubbish – these plants are working hard to help minimise the rubbish from reaching the open sea and polluting our source of seafood.

The mangrove forest itself, of course, is already an important seafood supplier. Mud crabs, stingrays, clams, tiger prawns… seafood lovers will cry on the day when all mangroves are destroyed.

And not to forget the various useful things such as timber, rope, charcoal, tools and traditional medicine came from mangrove plants and animals.

Like the Ugly Duckling, there is beauty in our “ugly” mangroves, and this beauty can only be appreciated with patience and an open mind.

Otter : The smooth otter can regularly be seen at Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve, hunting and eating fishes in the river.

The writer is a nature enthusiast who conducts regular tours to nature-spots on the mainland, as well as to off-shore islands. He also keeps a blog, Tide Chasers.