By Chen Jinwen
If wildness can stop being (just) out there and start being (also) in here, if it can start being as humane as it is natural, then perhaps we can get on with the unending task of struggling to live rightly in the world.
– William Cronon, Uncommon ground, towards reinventing nature
When you think of nature, what automatically comes to mind? Perhaps the rainforests of Borneo, or the thousands of animals crossing the wild Serengeti; more often than not, the ‘nature’ you have imagined does not have humans in it. Nature is seen as something ‘out there,’ something that urban cities like Singapore cannot have, unless it is in the form of manicured and nicely maintained gardens (think of Singapore’s new tagline, City in a Garden). This assumption that nature is separate from (urban) society is something so ‘normal’ and unquestioned, summarised in the title of a crowd-sourced documentary showcasing nature in Singapore: Singapore got wildlife, meh? So, when I told people my Geography Honours Thesis was on wild boars in Singapore, many stared at me in shock and slight concern – wild boars can actually exist in Singapore?
Yes, and in fact, wild boars (a.k.a wild pigs or sus scrofa) are found right in the heart of mainland urban Singapore. If you have been following the news since the middle of last year, you should have heard of the reappearance of wild boars, at Lower Pierce. Their presence in the forest and forays into ‘human’ space have been a concern notably to NParks, which has, in spite of opposition from residents and some civil society groups, decided to cull the wild boars because they ‘destroy forests’ and are a ‘threat to public safety.’ Just recently, the culling of wild boars at Lower Pierce forest has started, and NParks intends to reduce the number of wild boars from an estimated 100 to perhaps no more than seven.
Now, you may be wondering what Geography has to do with all these. You might also be thinking that it is perfectly logical (albeit not as ethical) for wild boars to being culled, for they do not belong in our parks or residential areas. Yet, it is precisely this ‘common sense’ that wild boars (nature) do not belong in urban space (society) that is problematic and needs to be unpicked. Using Geography’s sensitivity to space, my thesis thus looked into how people conceived of nature and wild boars in the spaces of Lower Pierce and Pulau Ubin.
At Lower Pierce, there is an obvious conceptual and physical boundary separating nature and society, held strongest by NParks. Nature and society should not mix, and the forest space (nature) is neatly separated from the fringe/parks and urban space (society). This corresponds to the taken-for-granted notion invoked in my introduction, of nature being outside of society. With this conceptualisation, the movement of wild boars from the forest into the parks or residential areas is seen as undesirable. This attitude towards boars can be seen from the negative portrayal of wild boar diggings at Lower Pierce Park and Singapore Island Country Club’s golf course. Even though parks and golf courses are considered ‘green spaces,’ they are evidently human-dominated landscapes where boars’ ‘unsightly’ diggings (and hence boars’ presence) are not welcome.
Moreover, the notion that boars should not belong in ‘human’ space was further cemented by media reports of the ‘wild boar attack’ at Bishan Park which swiftly escalated into ‘public safety’ concerns by NParks and a zero sum game between babies and boars by minister Khaw Boon Wan.
Despite this perception that the spaces of nature and society are distinct and that wild boars thus should not ‘wander’ out of the forest, there were other perceptions challenging this. Residents and park users had peaceful embodied encounters with the boars at parks or near their homes. They understood how to coexist with boars by minding their own business and not provoking the boars, and came to accept boars’ presence on ‘human’ space. Moreover, the “Make A Difference for Wild Pigs” sessions by Cicada Tree Eco Place for children and their parents introduce wild boars’ activities at Lower Pierce park, therefore rewriting these spaces which were previously exclusively ‘human’ as a legitimate place for boars.
This goes even further at Pulau Ubin, where the residents do not conceive of nature and society as separate but interlinked. In other words, humans and nature can and do share spaces, as evidenced by the wild boars that frequently wander around and at Chek Jawa, and boar encounters outside residents’ homes. Boars are thus accepted as rightful inhabitants of the island.
With these examples, two conclusions can be drawn. The first: one’s conception of natural or human space and whether they are separate or interlinked is not pre-given or essential but something that is socially constructed and therefore can be changed. The three different groups of people (NParks, Lower Pierce residents and Pulau Ubin residents) hold varying ideas of the boundary between nature and society, ranging from a strict boundary to one which is blurred and almost non-existent. More importantly, these different ideas shape very different – and sometimes fatal – consequences for nature (i.e. wild boars): in Pulau Ubin, where nature and societal spaces overlap, wild boars’ movements are not seen as transgressions and their presence is therefore accepted or even welcomed.
Conversely, in Lower Pierce where space is strictly demarcated by NParks and media reports as being either nature or ‘human,’ wild boars’ movements and digging behaviour in the parks/golf courses and residential areas are deemed as a nuisance, or worse, a threat. Even with the “Save the Wild Boars” petition by residents who have themselves encountered the boars and felt no ‘public safety threat,’ their ‘lay’ experiences were overlooked in favour of more ‘expert’ ones from scientists, civil society groups like Nature Society Singapore, or NParks itself, those who were deemed more able to ‘speak’ for the wild boars or for nature.
Yet, is science or scientific knowledge, or the speaking of nature in ecological or biological terms, the best and only way to make sense of nature and nature-society relationships? For example, the Lower Pierce forest is portrayed as a fragile ecosystem which is, “through careful management and restoration, slowly recovering.” The ‘health’ of the forest ecosystem is thus the sole marker to measure the value of wild boars. This singular valuing of boars based on their role in the overall ecology of the forest shuts out other, particularly ‘lay,’ methods of valuing them. Moreover, using overarching ecological values reduces the individual lives of boars to a faceless, disembodied group. This allows culling to be rationally justified for the sake of a ‘greater good’ instead of dealing with the messy ethical problems behind killing individual animals.
Despite the dominance of scientific language in understanding nature, ‘lay’ knowledge from ‘non-expert’ ordinary people who encounter nature (wild boars) on a regular basis should be recognised and valued in itself. For example, when it comes to understanding wild boar behaviour, the scientific categorisation of wild boars in Singapore under one species sus scrofa gives the impression that the nature of all boars is fixed and unchanging.
Yet, a simple conversation with the residents of Pulau Ubin, or two chance encounters with different boars at Ubin will lead you to another conclusion: there are actually two different types of boars at Ubin! The first type of wild boar is more common, ‘afraid of people’ and minds its own business. For the second, ‘wild’ is a bit of a misnomer, for the boars – specifically found at and around Chek Jawa – have little or no fear of humans. Possibly the most famous example is ‘Priscilla the Pig,’ the ‘friendliest’ wild boar which followed visitors around and became Chek Jawa’s unofficial mascot until ‘her’ death. Why this difference? The reason is simple – different human-boar interactions have led to different types of boars; because Priscilla and her fellow wild boars were fed in the past by humans, they have become comfortable with human presence.
In this light, it is no longer sufficient to understand boars through the words of (scientific) ‘experts’; neither does it make sense to portray all boars as dangerous and a ‘public safety’ threat based on a few incidents which were in themselves not thoroughly revealed. Instead, it is more important to listen to, and find out from those who actually encounter the wild boars – the residents and frequent park users – how the boars are like and how to live with them.
Perhaps it is too late to save the wild boars from being culled at Lower Pierce. But after this round of culling, if the population rises again, the same issues will resurface and hopefully have different consequences. The place of nature in our urban societies will forever be debated, but what I hope to do is to offer a better and more ethical perspective on how we should see it.
If you had unquestioningly thought of nature and society as strictly separate, you are probably one of the many, but ask yourself where and why this view comes from. For inasmuch as your views may be common sense to you, they are just one of the many ways we can see nature. More importantly, such ‘harmless’ views are the prerequisite first step to excluding and driving animals out of ‘our human spaces,’ and in extreme cases lead to the their ultimate eradication: culling. It is therefore imperative to rethink how we perceive nature in space.
Simply put, nature can and should be allowed to exist in here, amidst our very urban lives. The term urban nature should no longer be considered an oxymoron, and having wild boars in mainland Singapore should be as ‘normal’ as having parks. I am not suggesting the complete removal of physical boundaries between nature/animals and society but the pre-conceived mental ones instead, for it is the mental boundaries that prevent us from imagining better alternatives before we even experience nature in our midst. For places like highways, physical boundaries should be drawn to prevent boar-vehicle altercations.
But for most other places, the drawing of boundaries and ethical decisions on how to ‘deal’ with animals should not be left to scientific or nature ‘experts.’ Instead, the ‘lay’ knowledge and lived experiences of residents should be utilised, for they have encountered and learned how to live with animals, and can therefore share with us how best to coexist with animals in our midst. Culling or boundary making should only be considered when ‘lay’ experiences fail. After all, as much as we can persist in expelling nature/animals from what we erroneously deem as our exclusive human space, nature always finds a way to mess up these boundaries, and it is only a matter of time before our feigned ethical ignorance catches up with us.[divide]
The writer is a final year Geography undergraduate at the National University of Singapore. For more information regarding the thesis, please contact the writer at [email protected]