Rainforest in a City

  1. Reviewed by Professor Leo Wee-Hin TAN, Director (Special Projects), Dean’s Office, Faculty of Science, National University of Singapore

The title on the cover of this “must read” book says it all. Where else in the equatorial tropics except in Rio de Janeiro, would you expect to find a rainforest in a city? Unlike Rio which  is a sprawling city with a vast hinterland, Singapore is city, province, country all rolled into a compact 720 square kilometres. Yet this highly urbanised metropolis boasts a rich biodiversity which we can all be proud of. Still, most of us have not been privy to the vast richness of nature in our midst  and hence oblivious to its worth, as we go about our daily lives. From the first picture on the cover (a colourful and rare spotted tree frog) to the last one on the back cover( the aerial tree top walk in the Central Catchment), the author surprises the reader with unique glimpses of and insight into the flora and fauna in our nature reserves.

It is significant to note that this book is the result of Chua Ee Kiam’s labour of love. Spending more than three years of his life chasing forest wildlife,(by day or night, in rain or sunshine, risking personal dangers) and capturing them in dramatic or sedate photographs, he has created in this book, a precious repository of knowledge, a connectivity with the natural environment and a visual feast of the beauty of nature.

There are many books on rainforests but this one is different.  It offers a kaleidoscope of the diversity of life present in an urbanised environment. Despite the competing demands for land and resources, nature still thrives and surprises us not only with new species (500 newly discovered in Singapore in the past decade of which 100 are new to science), but also reveals we have mammals ( eg banded leaf-monkey), snails (eg green tree snail), shrimps (eg  temasek shrimp), crabs (eg  Singapore freshwater crab) etc which are true blue Singaporeans found only on this island.  Indeed they are ours to treasure.

I found this book a fascinating read, made more captivating through the vivid and natural photographs, painstakingly taken mainly by the author and other nature photographers. The contributions of many researchers, NParks staff and volunteers add to the educational value of the publication.  I am sure  laypersons, researchers, teachers, students, visitors to our region and anyone interested in the biodiversity and natural history of the tropics would be equally enthralled as I am and would want a copy in their personal collections.  As an added bonus, the author has provided worksheets for both teachers and students, with permission for them to use 112 photographs in educational, non-profit settings. These are contained in a CD inserted in the book. 

 National Parks Board Singapore and the author deserve kudos for producing this comprehensive and inspiring volume that will surely spur more of us to love and help protect our fragile natural heritage.

Black n red Cicada, Cinnamon Tree Frog, view from Jelutomg Towers

Keruing, Little Grebe, rainforest floor (image by Choo M E)

2. Book reviewed by Shawn Lum, President
Nature Society (Singapore)

‘For our rainforests to thrive in our city, we must pay the utmost respect to the natural world and recognise its right to exist’.

– Dr Chua Ee Kiam, Rainforest in a City

Dr Chua Ee Kiam is back. Some twenty years since the publication of his landmark Ours to Protect, Dr Chua has published his seventh book, Rainforest in a City. People not well acquainted with Singapore – or rather, not well acquainted with Singapore’s natural heritage – might think six large-format books on nature in Singapore (2004’s Borneo’s Tropical Eden – Sabah, was Dr Chua’s only book devoted to a place other than Singapore) might be a tad excessive. This view is, however, thoroughly refuted by Dr Chua’s latest book, which features many plants and animals that few have had the privilege of observing.

I have worked in Singapore’s rainforests for over 25 years, yet I have not seen many of the organisms highlighted in this enchanting book. Examples include the banded flower mantis (Theopropus elegans), the critically endangered orchid Bulbophyllum flabellum-veneris, flowers of the woody climber Kadsura scandens, or the red-cheeked flying squirrel (Hylopetes spadiceus). Even species that are not particularly rare, such as the blue-throated bee-eater (Merops viridis) or fruits of the small tree Gomphandra quadrifida, are captured in astonishing detail.

When Dr Chua published Ours to Protect, keen photographers shot photos using Kodachrome or Fujichrome. With the advent of digital cameras, photography has become accessible to most of us. Nature photography has become a popular pastime, at least relative to the specialised niche it was in the days of film. There are now thousands of nature photographers out every weekend, many armed with cutting edge cameras and mouth-watering gear. Numerous photographers upload their photos online, and there are some wonderful photos of Singapore wildlife for anyone with an internet connection to see. So what makes investing in Rainforest in a City an experience far removed from scanning the web for photos of Singapore flora and fauna?

Though not a good photographer, or because of it, I know the work and patience required to come across a rare or otherwise photo-worthy scene or organism, the skill needed to execute a successful shot, and the aesthetic sense that distinguishes exquisite photography from mere documentation. In Rainforest in a City, Dr Chua has raised both his naturalist’s intuition and knowledge and his photographic art to new levels.

Something else elevates Dr Chua’s work: his care for Singapore’s forests, his concern for its future, and his belief that we have the ability to preserve its indescribable beauty and priceless heritage if we commit ourselves to it. This passion comes through in the book’s many images and in the absorbing text. Whether describing the excitement of seeing novel things, celebrating new discoveries, or introducing readers to the amazing people committed to studying and saving Singapore’s forests, Dr Chua both informs and inspires.

There is a cautionary note to Rainforest in a City, however. The final chapters remind us that much of our natural heritage is gone, and that the future of many species is far from secure. Pressures on our rainforests will grow with a larger population, the demands of development, introduced species, increasing human-wildlife conflict, and many other factors. Dr Chua presents a convincing case that a worthy challenge lies in the preservation of “our most prized natural asset and a legacy for future generations of Singaporeans.”

BOOK LAUNCH (some images by Foo Sai Khoon)