#WCMT Citizen Science research trip: A glimpse into Singapore’s NGO #citsci programmes

Boardwalk at the Sungai Buloh Wetland Reserve

This second blog from Singapore summarises conversations with representatives from two environmental NGOs. The conversations raised an important point: in Singapore, people’s relationship to nature differs markedly compared to a country like NZ where harvesting food from terrestrial, intertidal and marine environments is relatively common along with multi-day back-country explorations by foot or bike. Environmental monitoring in Singapore takes residents into new environments. In a city with a predominantly urban culture and few natural environments remaining, people don’t often get dirty!      

To wrap up a few days in Singapore, I met up representatives from two NGOs who partner on various projects. Birdlife International is exactly that: an organisation with partners spread across the globe while the Nature Society (Singapore) or NSS is an independent local branch of a similar society in Malaysia. Despite the difference in size, both organisations have environmental as well as social goals. In Asia, for example, Birdlife activities include leadership training and mentoring, education and advocacy, sustainable forest use, threatened species protection, addressing wildife trade as well as protecting key bird sites and habitats (including those for migratory species). Anuj Jain who set up the meeting, is charged with preventing extinctions and combatting the trade in birds across Asia. Both Kerry Pereira and Mei Yee Sung from the NSS work locally to foster Singaporeans’ appreciation, conservation, study and enjoyment of local natural heritage. Here’s a summary of the projects we discussed.

Mangrove horseshoe crab. Photo: Dr. Raju Kasambe CC BY-SA 3.0

Understanding Mangrove horseshoe crab ecology

Monitoring these ancient creatures began in 2007 following their accidental discovery during a bird watching trip: the crabs were trapped in abandoned fishing nets. Freeing them triggered research into their little-known ecology. The ‘immersive’ nature of studying the crabs in their muddy habitat is a drawcard for school groups and residents ‘from all walks of life’. Many joined by word of mouth and via positive participant feedback on social media channels. Experiencing the mudflats (getting muddy!) and crab monitoring became so popular that participant numbers were capped – both to protect habitat and facilitate logistics. To maintain participant momentum, research updates and opportunities for upskilling are provided.

Some schools have integrated the monitoring into their school curriculum. For others, credits are received through alignment to a the broader ‘Values in Action’ programme. Here, the monitoring is framed as a learning experience that ‘supports students’ development as socially responsible citizens who contribute meaningfully to the community’.

Thanks to the resulting body of research covering population structure, breeding patterns, distribution and abundance, Mangrove horseshoe crabs are no longer ‘data deficient’ and are being reclassified by the IUCN.

Monitoring bird collisions

A novel project has been set up to study migratory bird deaths from flying into buildings. The superabundance of glass-sheathed high-rises is an obstacle course for avifauna. Research objectives are to determine which species are most at risk of collisions, whether there are any geographical or temporal patterns, and what features of the urban landscape may encourage or discourage collisions. This project relies on crowdsourcing via an online form with no fixed timeframe for inputting data.

Open source map of International Coastal Clean up sites

Coastal Clean-ups

Walking through Sungei Buloh wetlands along Singapore’s north-eastern coast (see previous blog), litter whether half-buried in mud or wrapped around mangrove roots is immediately apparent. Adjacent to Sungei Buloh at Mandai (an Important Bird and Biodiversity Area, and key habitat for horseshoe crabs) monthly or bi-monthly coastal clean-ups take place. The citizen science dimension is the collection of data on waste types following rigorous International Coastal Clean-up protocols.

Popular Singaporean beaches are cleaned frequently, which helps hide litter pollution issues. Most people would also like to believe that the litter is generated offshore, so growing public awareness that some of the litter is locally generated is also part of the long-term coastal clean-up programme.

Part of the website for the ‘Every Singaporean a Naturalist’ programme run by the Nature Society (Singapore)

Every Singaporean a Naturalist

The focus of the new ESN programme is to build practical species identification skills to foster the long-term study of the city state’s biodiversity. The programme leverages off schools’ science/environment clubs which typically have mixed aged students. Over time, this will enable older students to become mentors and trainers of novices once a certification structure is developed that acknowledges student learning (i.e. novice – advanced – expert).

Birds form the basis of the programme with other species groups added as extra modules. Monitoring takes place in the school grounds – this solves logistical issues of travelling off-site and raises awareness of schoolyard biodiversity. Transect maps (100m in length) are made for each school, and students take 20 mins every fortnight to collect data. To help students with species ID, the interactive training includes games and quizzes. Each school’s data are housed on the open source iNaturalist platform (search under ESN). With schools able to see each other’s data, healthy competition has emerged: which school has the most species?

NSS also administers the Butterflies of Singapore and Moths of Singapore (the largest such database in Singapore) on iNaturalist, ensuring the data remain open and accessible.

And onwards…

Next stop: Oxford, UK


One response to “#WCMT Citizen Science research trip: A glimpse into Singapore’s NGO #citsci programmes

  1. Pingback: #WCMT Citizen Science research trip: #ForumCS 2019, Muenster, Day 1 | monicalogues·

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