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Tembusu Talks: An Interview with Shaun Choo

Updated: Apr 19, 2021

Name: Shaun Choo Current Institution: Republic Polytechnic Age: 21 years

Hello, please introduce yourself and tell us what you do.

I’m Shaun, 21, and in the midst of completing my final semester at Republic Poly’s School of Applied Science.

Prior to this, I had completed a five-month-long internship with the National Parks Board, specifically their Coastal & Marine branch where I was tasked with duties related to the Southern Islands biodiversity surveys and the coral bleaching event that occurred around the middle of 2020.

I’ve also had past experience with Wildlife Reserves Singapore in their zoology and education departments, a year-long tenure with an NGO called the ‘Pangolin Story’ and recently competed in the ‘HDB Cool Ideas’ hackathon alongside some schoolmates.

What sparked your interest in animal conservation?

It began with questions I harboured from an early age about the natural world and prehistory. I was always curious about why animals and plants were shaped as they were, and the different potentials they had to fill in their respective ecosystems. I was also incredibly inquisitive about all manner of info related to evolution and natural selection.

As my knowledge on the current affairs of the natural world increased with maturity, I realised much of what I loved to learn and ponder about was in dire of disappearing within the lifetime of my generation. I sought to explore ways and opportunities that could benefit the natural heritage we are fortunate to have locally, regardless of how small a difference it would make.

Favourite animal or species? Could you tell us more about it? What do you love about it?

Aye… it’s incredibly difficult to choose one specifically. But there is a reptile called the ‘spiny hill turtle’ (Heosemys spinosa), or as it is known locally, ‘kura-kura matahari’, the ‘sun turtle’.

I love the pretty dramatic transition it goes through from a baby to an adult.

It’s exclusively a forest species that’s more tortoise than turtle. As hatchlings, they start off looking like a Japanese shuriken, with spiky appendages that line the marginals of their carapace and along their forelimbs. As it matures, the spikes become increasingly blunt, eventually turning out like any other turtle in its genus.

Photo of young Heosemys spinosa by Nick Baker via Ecology Asia

Photo of matured Heosemys spinosa by Bernard Dupont via Flickr

Could you give us some insight into how animal and plant populations have decreased over the years/decades?

Well, Singapore now only contains 0.28 % of her once lush primary rainforests, and estimatedly, our coastal mangroves have been reduced from an estimated 13% in the 1820s to just 0.5% now.

Species-wise, a good example of a pretty serious decline involves the ‘Singapore freshwater crab’ (Johora singaporensis), an endemic crustacean that was once common within many freshwater streams which once flowed throughout the island. Now, the remaining relict colonies of this crab have been relegated to streams within areas like Bukit Timah and Bukit Gombak. A massive reduction in range…

Fortunately, there is an initiative to breed and expand the genetic variation of the crab, being conducted by the National Parks Board and funded by the Mandai Nature Fund (formerly the WRSCF). However, a friend of mine who conducted surveys over a period of five months commented that wild specimens were still relatively difficult to find, even during hours that they were active.

Could you give us an example of how important animals are, in promoting/maintaining sustainability?

Animals are symbolic of their habitat’s topography, vegetation and climate. To lose several due to the need to establish another oil palm plantation or a soy field is kicking dust at several million years of evolution.

For example, though some may consider them overused, I feel that the marketing of species like Orang-Utans and Sun Bears have persuaded many folks to pursue brands of their favourite snacks that rely upon sustainable palm oil during the product’s manufacture.

Any species in Singapore that you think plays a huge part in regulating the environment, but is grossly overlooked?

The noble volute (Cymbiola nobilis). It’s a large and beautiful sea snail that preys upon other molluscs, and without it, overgrazing of seagrass beds by more prolific inverts could happen, so I feel it’s a keystone species of our shores, that not many have knowledge of.

Photo of noble volute by Ria Tan via Flickr and wildsingapore

Why do you think it’s important to conserve animal and plant species?

Animals and plants are incredibly therapeutic to observe, especially when we take a stroll or a hike through a park connector or a nature reserve during times where work or school can feel a little overloaded. So psychologically, they do bring some benefits.

Dynamic ecosystems like mangroves even store 3-5x more carbon than most tropical & deciduous rainforests across the globe and are able to sequester 220 metric tons per acre.

Prof Shawn Lum of NTU’s Asian School of the Environment couldn’t have said it better- “Natural heritage is national heritage”.

When I was a kid, there was this sense of disappointment when I was uncovering information related to the loss of several species and biomes that Singapore and her offshore islands once harboured. Of course, tigers and leopards would be incredibly unsuitable for our current times now- and I don’t think anyone would disagree.

But there were dynamic biomes like naturally-flowing streams, non-dammed rivers and pristine coral reefs that hosted amazing diversity of aquatic species, possibly even more endemics, and the fact that they’re long gone now, is kind of depressing.

What have you learnt from your work at the bird park and NParks that you feel is invaluable / could not have gained from anywhere else?

That is certainly something to reflect upon. Getting to assist directly with animals like hornbills and hawksbill sea turtles isn’t a norm for most. And I feel privileged and honoured to have been afforded such opportunities.

However, what is even more valuable is working with and being mentored by the people who have established themselves in these industries. While on the job, you gain a lot of insights on unique methods of fieldwork or husbandry of a particular species, some of which aren’t available in traditional textbooks. Ultimately, your worldview and reflection upon what you’re capable of expands as you go through the journey each day.

So definitely, looking up to the folks doing the hard work, but also being an active participant alongside them is something that’s incredibly valuable to me, and I certainly won’t take such lessons for granted.

What do you think the general public can improve on when promoting sustainability and the wildlife population?

Realistically in many of our lifestyles, it really is quite challenging to maintain sustainability 24/7, especially in how we eat, the clothes we wear, the water we drink and use, etc.

I think the simple things performed by members of the public such as purchasing a jar of peanut butter made from sustainable palm oil, consuming seafood accompanied with Marine Stewardship Council certification and even establishing places that have reduced the usage of air conditioning can really make huge impacts in the long run, not only commercially, but economically. It’s a great game-changer, but it’ll take some time.

Do you have any words of wisdom for those who are interested in wildlife and the sustainability scene?

If you’re keen on joining the industry and maybe even make a difference, put yourself out there, volunteer first, maybe even get an internship or part-time vocation as the years go on. There’s only so much you could do from the comfort of your own home.

It was a pleasure to be able to assist you in this project. If any of your readers have any questions or even disagree with me on some of the things I have mentioned, I am open to having a chat.

You can find Shaun on his Instagram, or LinkedIn.


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