Walking on the Wild Side

What is it like to work among the flora and fauna of Pulau Ubin? Challenge trails conservation officer Alan Tan to find out.
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Mr Tan ensures everything is in order on the coastal boardwalk.

A black blur shoots past Mr Alan Tan’s face as he peers into a hole in a tree trunk. He pauses in shock, and another tiny animal springs out from the palm-sized opening. It flees into the forest; four more of its winged brethren follow.

Mr Tan scans the trees for a glimpse of the creatures, but they are nowhere to be seen. He was knocking the tree trunk with a mallet to check its health after spotting the hole. He exclaims: “I thought a snake would come out. We’ve seen that before but not bats!”

The humorous officer describes himself as “a dragon at work, but a worm after work” in Mandarin ("上班一条龙,下班一条虫")

The senior conservation manager at the National Parks Board is on one of his regular walks to inspect the flora and fauna of Chek Jawa Wetlands. The 100-hectare wetland is on the eastern coast of Pulau Ubin, where he is the custodian.

After nine years on the job, the 51-year-old still relishes every chance to discover more about the wetlands. “Chek Jawa is very interesting because there are six habitats in one small area. And you cannot say that you’ve seen everything; some days, something new just turns up.”

Left: Chek Jawa contains six different habitat types: mangroves, seagrass lagoon, sandbar, rocky shore, coastal forest and coral rubble (Mr Tan’s favourite as it is rich in marine organisms). Right: Usually, Mr Tan takes a 10-minute van ride from his office in southern Ubin (dubbed the island’s “CBD”) to Chek Jawa. But he sometimes walks 40 minutes to the wetlands to inspect the trees and facilities along the path.

While seeing bats is rare, the friendly o‑cer does not bat an eyelid as two wild boars cross his path. Instead, he is more occupied with demystifying the creatures for curious passers-by.

Passer-by: “Do they chase after humans?”

Mr Tan: “No, they don’t. When they feel threatened, they won’t attack, they will run to escape. But don’t go too close. If they’re surrounded, they might run in your direction– that’s it, then you kena!”

Raising awareness of Ubin’s wildlife in a fun way is Mr Tan’s favourite part of the job. The nature enthusiast delights in bringing people down to the shore to share about Chek Jawa’s natural heritage up close, whenever the tide permits.

Left: This fruit cluster is home to the attap chee common in ice kacang, shares Mr Tan. Right: Together with a colleague, Mr Tan measures a tree’s girth for their digital records.

Beyond conveying facts, he seeks to engage participants. His objective is to make them laugh “at least once”. He says: “If I can see them smile, I’m happy already.”

So he peppers his guided walks with jokes and pop culture references. “If you’ve started hatching your Pokémon egg, you’ll be at least half-done,” he says, referring to the popular Pokémon Go game. And “don’t give your boyfriend or husband a mangosteen,” he quips. “As they eat, they will become younger as ‘man goes teen’.”

Left: A hole in a tree does not mean the entire tree is damaged and has to be cut down, says Mr Tan. Sometimes, the tree “compartmentalises" the decay to one section and is still healthy. He uses two hammers made of different materials to check on the health of trees. Right: Mr Tan spots a buoy on the boardwalk that is not attached to the rope, and immediately rectifies the problem.
It’s clear he has endeared himself to his “small Ubin family” – the villagers who banter with him in Hokkien and greet him heartily as he passes.

“It’s a very small community, you know everybody and everybody knows you,” says Mr Tan.

Every journey to Ubin is a respite from the bustle of city life for him. “I love Ubin for its natural state. When I come here, I feel very calm. That’s why I enjoy working here.”

Left: As Mr Tan knocks on different parts of the rubber tree, he listens for sections that emit a hollow sound, which could mean trunk decay. Right: Mr Tan puts the finishing touches on a coral rubble exhibit in the Chek Jawa visitor centre. The display features coral pieces, shells and sand alongside replicas of marine life.
Left: Life-size models, such as this seahorse replica, give visitors a glimpse of organisms they can spot during low tides. Right: Mr Tan advises visitors not to use flash photography, which could frighten the boar.
    Nov 1, 2016
    Tay Qiao Wei
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