Follow Us:

Living on the edge

Venessa Lee | New Delhi |

Wildlife expert Subaraj Rajathurai holds up the skin of a snake. He knows that it belongs to a black spitting cobra and that it was sloughed off about an hour ago as it is still soft and moist.

Retrieving the 1.5 metre-long skin from the undergrowth seems par for the course for 53-year-old Subaraj, who later washes his hands in a stream along the trail through the forested areas of Venus Loop near Upper Thomson Road in Singapore. The tour guide licensed by the Singapore Tourism Board has been conducting nature walks like this one since 1990. He is a self-taught naturalist who has been studying wildlife for about 35 years and his experience shows.

During our walk, which takes more than two hours, Subaraj points out a female Malayan colugo or flying lemur gripping the top half of a tree trunk. He knows that the deep croaking that fills the air is the call of a four-ridged toad. He gestures towards a towering species of wild pandan, a giant compared with the fragrant pandan used in cooking.

Wearing a purple bandana from his 100-piece collection to protect his head from sunburn and sporting hair past his shoulders, Subaraj rocks an avuncular, easy-going vibe. Whitebearded and burly, he looks a little like Santa Claus, one bearing gifts of knowledge of the wild.

Our trail is so close to houses in the Upper Thomson area that the smell of cooking wafts into the green space at one point — a microcosm of the relationship between Singapore’s wilderness and built-up areas. People live cheek by jowl with nature in landscarce Singapore and he is aware that conservation has to fight for its place in the sun. “There is a need for other aspects in Singapore like housing and recreation. It’s all about balance,” he says. Animal encounters in urban spaces, for instance, have sparked calls for culls in recent years. Subaraj is rooting for nature — and has been doing so for a long time. The director and founder of Strix Wildlife Consultancy was one of the first few tour guides in Singapore who chose to focus on nature. Now, there are at least 18 other such licensed tour guides, as well as a plethora of groups involved in conservation issues.

A decade ago, he founded his consultancy, which does research, wildlife surveys, educational outreach, eco-tours and other work in conservation. A member of the Nature Society (Singapore) since the 1980s, he helped to work on a proposal to save bird haven Sungei Buloh, which had been slated for redevelopment. The proposal was submitted to the government in 1987.

Although Subaraj says he was born with an interest in nature, it bloomed only in his teens. As a child, he liked to make scrapbooks with animal pictures and was familiar with conservation icons. He read books by Gerald Durrell and watched documentaries by Jacques Cousteau and David Attenborough. He, his older brother and a younger sister were raised in a conservative household with little interest in nature apart from occasional excursions to the zoo. The broad expectation was that he would eventually be “a doctor, lawyer or engineer”, he says.

Subaraj recalls “a kind of restlessness” in his childhood. He did well in primary school, but “never quite found” his way in secondary school. He managed to get his O-level certificate, but dropped out after a year at college, a private institution for qualification to university. This put paid to his fledgling ambition of becoming a zoologist. But he was soon to discover his life’s purpose.

At the age of 18, Subaraj trekked with schoolmates up Bukit Timah Hill, where he had an epiphany. “Once I got there, it was like coming home. I was in a place where I belonged and I never looked back,” he says. “I realised then that I wanted to work in nature, but I didn’t know how.” He had to do his national service, but he started educating himself in earnest after that.

For about four years in his early 20s, Subaraj spent his days wandering in the wild areas of Singapore such as the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve and Pulau Ubin, learning about flora and fauna. In the afternoons, he was at the library doing research. He went on regional field trips to places like Endau-Rompin National Park in Johor, learning from mentors such as reputed Malaysian naturalist Dennis Yong, and joined the Nature Society (Singapore) in 1985. But family members who wanted him to get a job during those years gave him “a hard time”, even though his parents supported him emotionally and financially, he says. “I followed the family tradition and became a teacher outdoors without having to do any marking,” Subaraj says. His wife, 51-yearold Shamla Jeyarajah, who works with him at his consultancy, explains his single-mindedness, “He is independent and solitary in some ways and he knew what he wanted and didn’t let go.” Before they got married in 1994, he told her his priorities were God first, followed by nature, her, then their family. “I’m No 3! I accepted it immediately because I’m a very easygoing person,” she says.

Their two sons, who have been out on nature walks with their father since they were infants, are named after birds. Saker, who is named after a falcon, is a 16-year-old junior college student. Serin, named after a finch, is 21 and doing his national service.

Influenced and guided by his father, Serin already regards himself as having a “career” in nature, having joined his father on surveys and research programmes in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Borneo. He plans to pursue a university degree in life sciences and is the co-founder of the Herpetological Society of Singapore, which focuses on the conservation of reptiles and amphibians.

Subaraj is concerned that, while there has been an increasing awareness of conservation in recent times, some Singaporeans are “loving nature to death (by) flocking to nature reserves” in large numbers. “Animals are being disturbed. A lot of Singaporeans don’t realise the fragility and sensitivity of these habitats,” he says. As a nature warden with the National Parks Board for about 20 years, he has seen people jogging in vulnerable areas of nature reserves, potentially impacting the eco-systems there, even though they can use the more than 300 parks here to exercise instead. Subaraj is reflective about the times when the authorities chose development over conservation. “You pick your battles. In Singapore, you don’t lobby — that’s for other countries. If you start getting rowdy and protesting, in the end, nature is the loser,” he says.

“Emotions don’t work. You have to use facts. Dialogue is better for finding solutions. You have to keep working at it.”

The Straits Times/ANN