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‘Gentle giant’ and iconic conservationist Subaraj Rajathurai dies

SINGAPORE — Veteran nature guide and wildlife consultant Subaraj Rajathurai has died at the age of 56.

Veteran nature guide and wildlife consultant Subaraj Rajathurai has died at the age of 56.

Veteran nature guide and wildlife consultant Subaraj Rajathurai has died at the age of 56.

Singapore

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SINGAPORE — Veteran nature guide and wildlife consultant Subaraj Rajathurai has died at the age of 56. 

His son, Mr Saker Subaraj, told TODAY that he died after suffering a heart attack at home. After his wife, Ms Shamla Jeyarajah Subaraj, posted the news on Facebook at around 4pm on Tuesday (Oct 22), tributes quickly poured in from environmentalists as well as others including Social and Family Development Minister Desmond Lee who called him a “true giant and pioneer in our local conservation scene”. 

Adding that he was “deeply saddened” by Subaraj’s death, Mr Lee said he was a “dear friend” of the National Parks Board (NParks) — an agency under the Ministry of National Development where Mr Lee is Second Minister.

“Subaraj was larger than life with his long beard and hair, and his trademark bandana. Although he towered over many in his achievements (as well as physically), his demeanour was gentle and his smile, always welcoming and reassuring,” said Mr Lee.

“If you happened to bump into Subaraj in the forest, where he was often found, he would point out a bird that was hidden from view from everyone else except him. That was his magic, his intimate understanding and his beautiful connection with nature. With his passing, we will greatly miss that magic.”

Mr N Sivasothi, a National University of Singapore biological sciences lecturer and a conservationist, said the death of his mentor — whom he has known since he was an undergraduate — will leave a “big gap” for the environment community in Singapore.

Mr Sivasothi, 52, said he conducts an anniversary walk at Sungei Buloh every year to commemorate how earlier efforts by Subaraj made such a nature reserve possible.

Subaraj was always very supportive with all types of environmental efforts “big or small”, said Mr Sivasothi.

He added that Subaraj’s enthusiasm for the environment never stopped. Even after he had a spell in the hospital last year, he remained very active in engaging with stakeholders, giving talks and mentoring younger people. 

“We were quite nervous, we thought he will slow down, but he was still very active in stakeholder engagements, and coming in and giving talks and encouraging people and mentoring them, he was always ready to do it,” said Mr Sivasothi.

A SELF-TAUGHT NATURALIST 

A self-taught naturalist, Subaraj’s conservation efforts go back to the 1980s.

In 1988, Subaraj was part of a group who drafted a proposal to save Sungei Buloh, a mangrove forest in the northwest of Singapore which was slated for redevelopment. In 1993, the Sungei Buloh Nature Park was opened. He was also part of a research team that helped save 123.8 hectares of forest at Lower Peirce Reservoir, in 1992.

He also has been conducting nature walks since 1990. He was the very first tour guide licensed by the authorities to specialise exclusively in eco-tourism, according to a biographical page on the website of his company, Strix Wildlife Consultancy.

Veteran nature guide and wildlife consultant Subaraj Rajathurai has died at the age of 56. His son, Mr Saker Subaraj, told TODAY that he died after suffering a heart attack at home. Photo: Raj Nadarajan/TODAY

He has since designed and conducted over 50 tours around Singapore alone. 

He spent more than 30 years in nature, studying and observing animals, and has been involved in the research and study of wildlife by sitting on several committees and writing several reports and papers.

He also participated in several field studies and Environmental Impact Assessments in Singapore, making proposals on how to mitigate any impact which development plans would have on Mandai Reserves, for example. 

Most recently, he was part of a working group of nature experts in talks with the Land Transport Authority on the Cross Island Line. 

HIS LEGACY 

Subaraj also left an imprint in people who did not know him well, like Ms Kathy Xu, founder of The Dorsal Effect, a shark conservation group.

“It's like the presence of him still being around all these years was so comforting each time I get to meet him, that I remember telling myself to never lose the fire and be just like him when I get older too.

“The way he never looked too jaded to fight on and be vocal still, especially over the Mandai issue, moved me deeply,” said Ms Xu.

Well-wishers paying their respects at the home of the late Subaraj Rajathurai. Photo: Raj Nadarajan/TODAY

Posting on Facebook, Nee Soon GRC Member of Parliament Louis Ng, who is also an environmental activist, said: “Rest in peace Subaraj. Thank you for always speaking up, fighting hard and never giving up. You will be missed by all of us and the forest and wildlife in Singapore are truly indebted to you.”

In his tribute to Subaraj, Mr Lee said that before Googling made it easy for people to find information, “Subaraj was the guru who could identify birds by their calls, and knew where they could be found”.

Citing Subaraj’s long list of contributions, Mr Lee said that for over 35 years, Subaraj “worked tirelessly towards the conservation of Singapore’s natural heritage”.

As a member of the Bird Group of the Singapore branch of the Malayan Nature Society, he and other pioneers drafted two important documents – the Master Plan for the Conservation of Nature in Singapore and the proposal for a nature conservation area at Sungei Buloh.

The Master Plan, published in 1990, recommended a number of sites for conservation, including the Mandai mangrove, Mr Lee said.

Subaraj was also a pioneer in the Nature Reserve comprehensive survey in 1993 and a founding member of the Vertebrate Study Group of the Nature Society (Singapore). Together with NParks and others in the nature community, he set up the survey methodology involving both traps and spotlights along transects. Today, this methodology is still being used, Mr Lee added.

Mr Lee said: “Subaraj will be greatly missed by many in the nature community in Singapore. Rest assured we will continue your good work, and cherish and protect Singapore’s natural heritage for years to come. Rest in peace, my friend.”

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Subaraj Rajathurai death conservation

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