Image crisis: Why some wild animals simply can’t catch a break

  • Singapore is globally hailed as a City in Nature. While the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat all rely on biodiversity, to what extent are Singaporeans truly connected with it? Are we focusing on certain plants and animals and ignoring others?
  • TheHomeGround Asia speaks to ACRES, Nutrinest, and Herpetological Society Singapore, uncovering the plights of uncharismatic fauna living on the sunny island, including macaques, lizards, snakes, and bees.
(Photo courtesy of ACRES)
(Photo courtesy of ACRES)

On October 15 2021, the Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (ACRES) posted a video on Instagram, headlined “WILD ANIMALS ARE NOT PESTS!”. 

The post detailed a tragic incident of a paradise tree snake discovered on a university campus. By the time ACRES’ Wildlife Rescue Team arrived at the scene, it had been stepped on and sprayed with an oil-based aerosol insecticide by a pest control company. 

Despite their wildlife veterinarian’s best efforts to provide it with oxygen therapy, fluids, and medication, the snake did not survive the night. 

Mr Sivasothi N, senior lecturer in the Department of Biological Sciences at the National University of Singapore (NUS), commented, “This is horrific and disappointing.” 

This incident did not occur in isolation. In 2021 alone, ACRES reported seven similar cases of wild animals being sprayed with chemicals, trapped unethically, or otherwise mishandled in ways that led to suffering and death. 

“There have been incidents of herpetofauna (snakes and lizards) dying in the process of relocation. Pest control units would often use sprays with the intention of just flushing out the animals, but these sprays can be toxic enough to be fatal,” adds Mr Shivaram Rasu, secretary of the Herpetological Society Singapore (HSS). 

Mr Xavier Tan, urban beekeeper and founder of bee garden Nutrinest, recounted a similar incident on his social media on 5 October. 

One of his clients in Sengkang estate, Mr K Balasubramaniam, 51, had reached out to him regarding a beehive outside his HDB flat — the second one in the past one and a half years. 

“The first time, the hive was very close to the lift at the common corridor, so our neighbours were quite scared of the bees,” Mr Bala tells TheHomeGround Asia. One of his neighbours wanted to call the town council to “get rid of it”, but his daughter came across Mr Tan online and they managed to relocate the hive to Nutrinest’s bee garden. 

“Initially, I was also afraid of bees. Such fear is common,” he says. “But seeing how Xavier removed the bees, I actually realised that they were not dangerous at all. In fact, they were friendly. It was an eye-opening experience.” 

When a second hive formed, Mr Bala decided he wanted to keep the bees and coexist with them. He even knocked on the doors of all eight neighbours on the same floor to explain that the bees pose no real threat. All of them agreed. 

“In my culture, it is believed that when bees build a hive at our doorsteps, it represents our ancestors coming to visit,” he says. “I appreciate the bees’ contribution to mankind and respect the lives of thousands of bees living in the hive.”

The hive was happily settled within their estate without any complaints for 50 days. Mr Bala even put up a “stay away” notice and provided the bees with an umbrella to shield from heavy storms.

Mr Bala designed his sign with cartoons “so that people won’t be afraid of the bees”, and put up an umbrella to shield the bees from bad weather (background). (Photo courtesy of Mr Bala)

Unfortunately, on the afternoon of 5 October, Star Pest Contractor came without any prior notice and exterminated all the bees. “My neighbours tried to stop the pest contractors from destroying the hive, saying, ‘Mr Bala is on his way back, please wait for him or talk to him on the phone now,’ but the contractor refused to take my call,” he says. 

Addressing irrationalities 

It is a tradition to call pest control as Singaporeans are busy making ends meet that they don’t have time to understand or prioritise wildlife, says Mr Tan. “By now, we must realise that a lot of bees are dying, and without them, we will suffer too,” he adds. 

As the world’s main pollinator, bees are the unsung heroes of the global food supply chain. Out of 100 crop species that provide 90 percent of the world’s food supply, 71 are bee-pollinated, and bee pollination is valued at more than $15 billion in crop values in the United States alone. 

In parts of rural China, the use of pesticides has eliminated bees to the point where humans have to painstakingly hand-pollinate their crops. This is why Mr Tan has decided to raise awareness about these uncharismatic but ecologically critical creatures, and address misconceptions that people have while helping citizens relocate beehives. 

“For an animal to be classified as a pest, they have to fit certain criteria, such as being a vector for spreading diseases. But bees don’t do that,” he says. 

ACRES deploys a wildlife management team to address the public’s lack of knowledge, managing more than 140 human-wildlife conflicts in a month. Snakes, Ms Anbarasi Boopal, Co-CEO of ACRES says, often have “the worst rep”. They take the brunt of the damage when complications happen. 

ACRES’ wildlife rescue team relocating a reticulated python. “We’ve seen cobras being torched, poured hot water on, or restrained with rubber bands all around its mouth,” says Anbarasi Boopal, Co-CEO of ACRES. (Photo courtesy of ACRES)

Agreeing that snakes unfortunately, have a bad reputation which they certainly do not deserve, Dr Sonja Luz, Vice President of Conservation, Research & Veterinary, Mandai Wildlife Group says they are “amazingly beautiful and most species are actually quite harmless unless provoked”.

“It is important to recognise that just like humans, snakes have a lung and needs to breathe, and they have organs throughout their elongated body that can be injured when you step on it. Because of misconception and fear, often people treat them like creatures that have no feelings, no pain receptors. They put them in plastic bags, tie them up and put them in the hot car and then the disaster happens,” she says.

Dr Luz says encountering snakes in the wild is “a privilege and opportunity to admire them from afar”. “For most parts, the snakes will leave on their own, otherwise there are wildlife experts who can assist in conflict situations – for the safety and wellbeing of both humans and animals,” she adds.

“Most often, these cases arise from a lack of awareness which leads to fear. When people are fearful, they do the wrong things, which also puts themselves in danger. Handling these cases actually gives us an opportunity to raise awareness on the issue,” says Ms Anbu, who sees more value in engaging with the unconverted. 

“Not every wild animal is going to come up to you and hug you like a pet would. I always say that neutral experiences are positive experiences, whereas having no experience is a negative experience when it comes to wildlife,” she adds. 

Everything involves a risk, Mr Tan points out. “The last known fatal incident involving bees in Singapore happened in 2014, and that was due to many factors, one of which was that the bees had been provoked beforehand,” he says. 

In contrast, about 2.73 in 100,000 citizens are involved in fatal road accidents in Singapore — higher than the road fatality rates of London, Hong Kong, and Tokyo. “But people are still on the road. The difference is that people think they can control the situation when they are on the road, but when it comes to bees, they feel (that they are) not in control,” he says. “So if we can educate people on the minimal risks, maybe they wouldn’t be so worried.” 

What it means to live in a City in Nature 

Ms Anbu believes that a key root cause of the issue is Singaporeans’ estranged connection with nature. “I see on Facebook that some of our citizens still don’t really know what a monitor lizard is and are alarmed by sightings of them. This shows that we still have a lot of work to do,” she says. 

Apart from the fast-paced lifestyles that Singaporeans lead, an additional reason for this could be that the government’s rapid greening efforts in recent years has driven more wildlife into the urban area than what the average Singaporean is prepared for. 

Hence, the first step is for Singaporeans to familiarise themselves with their island-state’s native biodiversity — and to stop calling monitor lizards “Komodo dragons”, Ms Anbu says.

Secondly, taking simple measures to minimise conflicts with wildlife can go a long way. “Maybe some people are scared. It’s okay to be scared and not love wildlife, but there’s no need to hurt them, right?” says Ms Anbu, who draws an analogy to living next door to neighbours one might not get along with. 

She says should you be faced with noise nuisance from maintenance works, you might choose to use earplugs while sleeping. Similarly, if you live in an area just outside of a nature reserve, then you should consider simply securing the cupboards with baby locks to prevent curious macaques from accessing the things inside, she adds.

ACRES empathises that residents living near nature reserves might be facing actual disruptions from wild animals, and it would listen to their challenges, offer long term solutions, explain why there is no need to fear, and tell them about the ecological roles these animals play. 

At the same time, Ms Anbu urges the public to recognise that biodiversity “comes as a package deal”.

“Biodiversity encompasses the animals we like and the animals we don’t. So I urge the public to embrace nature as it is, and learn to coexist with it,” she says. “Otherwise, what’s the point of calling ourselves a City in Nature?” 

Evolving practices 

When articles are written about wild animals, ACRES usually appeals to the media to be mindful of the language used to describe their behaviours. For example, instead of saying, “the wild boar jumped out of the bush to attack the woman”, a fairer account would be “the wild boar, already spooked by something else, charged at the woman”, Ms Anbu says. 

In 2020, the Bill to amend the Wild Animals and Birds Act was introduced in Parliament by Member of Parliament Louis Ng, giving rise to stiffer penalties for the feeding, releasing, or trapping and killing of wildlife. 

While this was a significant stride, Ms Anbu feels certain loopholes have yet to be addressed. “The current Wildlife Act states that one can destroy an animal which enters his property and is proven to cause damage to it. This allows people to trap wildlife that enters their premises — but this is not a solution. It’s just a quick fix,” she says. 

“I think the law should mandate removal to be a last resort measure. This means that as a household owner, you would need to have taken all possible efforts to minimise entry of the animal through exclusion measures, before trapping it for removal,” she adds. 

Moving forward, any company wanting to handle wildlife — including pest control units — will have to go through mandatory certification training by NParks to attain their permits, but Ms Anbu still cautions against using pest control to handle human-wildlife conflicts.

“I would very openly say that the moment people call up pest control, it becomes very difficult to advocate for the idea of coexistence with nature, regardless of whether or not they are trained. When our wildlife is treated as pests, it completely goes against the ideals of a City in Nature,” she explains.

“Part of the process of how nature works is chaos; that is the entire basis of evolution. We can’t expect to control all of the chaos,” adds Mr Shiva. “We can educate ourselves on how to coexist with wildlife, and we shouldn’t try to overly police nature.” 

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