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Outdoor educator, nature enthusiasts reach happy compromise over Rifle Range Nature Park

SINGAPORE – Conservationists who were alarmed by the potential impact of an outdoor education programme on Rifle Range Nature Park have reached a happy compromise with its founder Darren Quek.

Outdoor educator, nature enthusiasts reach happy compromise over Rifle Range Nature Park

Forest School Singapore founder Darren Quek leads a group of children through a designated trail within the Rifle Range Nature Park.

SINGAPORE – Conservationists who were alarmed by the potential impact of an outdoor education programme on Rifle Range Nature Park have reached a happy compromise with its founder Darren Quek.

In the wake of TODAY's report on Mr Quek's alternative programme, Forest School Singapore, nature enthusiasts had raised concerns over the impact that humans could have by going off-trail and entering an ecologically sensitive stream in the area.

While they welcomed Mr Quek's efforts to connect children with nature, they wondered if the positive online response to his programme would lead more parents to sign their children up, and were worried that he might be loving nature to death.

Wildlife consultant Subaraj Rajathurai said he was disturbed by Forest School Singapore's videos of children running through the streams in nature reserves and parks.

"Basically, that is not allowed as the streams are delicate ecosystems in their own right, with native wildlife that would be very badly disturbed by such activities," said Mr Subaraj.

Mr Louis Ng, founder of the Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (ACRES), said he supports Mr Quek's intentions.

"There are important lessons (children) can and need to learn in the forest and through free play," said Mr Ng, who is also a Member of Parliament.

But "it is a question of sustainability, especially if more and more people start to follow and also wander off the trails and ultimately destroy the ecosystem which we are teaching the children to protect," he said.

 

REACHING OUT

The National Parks Board's (NParks) group conservation director Adrian Loo got in touch with Mr Quek and met him recently with nature enthusiast and biology teacher Tan Beng Chiak.

Ms Tan, who is a member of the Nature Society (Singapore) and board member of the Jane Goodall Institute (Singapore), said she knew conservationists were "quite upset" with Mr Quek's activities within Rifle Range Nature Park as it is a pristine area.

She did not disagree with Mr Quek's teaching philosophy and went along to meet Mr Quek as she wanted to share her perspective as an educator.

"All we need is to communicate with each other and come to a better solution than to clamp them down and shut them off," said Ms Tan.

Dr Loo said the meeting was to share about conservation matters and to better understand the school's objectives so that NParks could support it.

He has offered to guide Mr Quek on walks through the various reserves and parks on the island to share more about Singapore's ecology and biodiversity.

Mr Quek, on his part, is heartened by discussions so far.

He acknowledged the ecological sensitivity of Rifle Range Nature Park and has agreed to adjust his programme accordingly. The former preschool teacher wants to have more conversations with the nature community and is excited to learn from the experts.

Both sides are open to collaboration, although no concrete plans have been laid out yet.

Dr Loo said an option is "co-creating programmes with the school that will connect children to nature in ways that are both experiential and sensitive to the environment".

Forest School Singapore's participants could serve as eyes and ears on the ground for NParks, said Mr Quek.

With Rifle Range Nature Park slated to close from October until 2020 for enhancement works, Mr Quek is scouting around for other green areas in Singapore that are not ecologically sensitive to conduct his programme.

This is something that NParks can help with, said Dr Loo.

"We welcome other educators who are interested in organising nature-based activities in our green spaces to get in touch with us, to discuss how to carry out the programmes in a sensitive manner," he said.

 

KEEPING IT NATURAL

Taking TODAY on a guided walk through Rifle Range Nature Park last week, Dr Loo said the upcoming enhancement works will benefit the ecosystem and not turn it into a manicured space, as Mr Quek had feared.

Natural features such as dead logs by the side of walking trails will become a home for insects, which in turn serve as food for the critically endangered Sunda Pangolin.

Invasive plant species such as the Zanzibar Yam will be removed. The tuber with heart-shaped leaves was originally brought over by the British from Africa who thought it might be a good food source.

Left unmanaged, this climber will grow rapidly and even "smother trees", said Dr Loo.

"If we don't eradicate it, the native plants will not be able to come in and take root."

More native species of plants will be introduced. For example, the fishtail palm's fruit will attract animals such as the Common Palm Civet, which in turn helps to disperse seeds through its scat.

(Top to bottom): A Lowland Freshwater Crab, a Malayan Forest Betta and a Sunda Swamp Eel. Photos: NParks

Creatures that can be found in the stream include the Common Walking Catfish and a native Lowland Freshwater Crab, as well as the Malayan Forest Betta (a fish) and Sunda Swamp Eel.

"Several species of dragonflies and their larvae could take six months to a year to mature into adults," said Dr Loo.

While a lone person wading through the stream will not make a difference, a big group could cause fine silt to get stirred up and clog the gills of aquatic life and "even prevent fish from finding their prey".

Going off-trail could damage seedlings and plants such as the bintagor gasing – an evergreen plant with medicinal properties – which may not be able to recover, said Dr Loo.

Spreading awareness of nature is the point of his efforts, said Dr Loo. "We want to impart this. That's why we are in conservation. With more knowledge, you can become more aware of your surroundings and be better stewards to your environment."

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