Book reviewed by Shawn Lum, President
Nature Society (Singapore)

 

'For our rainforests to thrive in our city, we must pay the utmost respect to the natural world and recognise its right to exist'.

- Dr Chua Ee Kiam, Rainforest in a City

 

Dr Chua Ee Kiam is back. Some twenty years since the publication of his landmark Ours to Protect, Dr Chua has published his seventh book, Rainforest in a City. People not well acquainted with Singapore – or rather, not well acquainted with Singapore’s natural heritage – might think six large-format books on nature in Singapore (2004’s Borneo’s Tropical Eden – Sabah, was Dr Chua’s only book devoted to a place other than Singapore) might be a tad excessive. This view is, however, thoroughly refuted by Dr Chua’s latest book, which features many plants and animals that few have had the privilege of observing.

 

I have worked in Singapore’s rainforests for over 25 years, yet I have not seen many of the organisms highlighted in this enchanting book. Examples include the banded flower mantis (Theopropus elegans), the critically endangered orchid Bulbophyllum flabellum-veneris, flowers of the woody climber Kadsura scandens, or the red-cheeked flying squirrel (Hylopetes spadiceus). Even species that are not particularly rare, such as the blue-throated bee-eater (Merops viridis) or fruits of the small tree Gomphandra quadrifida, are captured in astonishing detail.

 

When Dr Chua published Ours to Protect, keen photographers shot photos using Kodachrome or Fujichrome. With the advent of digital cameras, photography has become accessible to most of us. Nature photography has become a popular pastime, at least relative to the specialised niche it was in the days of film. There are now thousands of nature photographers out every weekend, many armed with cutting edge cameras and mouth-watering gear. Numerous photographers upload their photos online, and there are some wonderful photos of Singapore wildlife for anyone with an internet connection to see. So what makes investing in Rainforest in a City an experience far removed from scanning the web for photos of Singapore flora and fauna?

 

Though not a good photographer, or because of it, I know the work and patience required to come across a rare or otherwise photo-worthy scene or organism, the skill needed to execute a successful shot, and the aesthetic sense that distinguishes exquisite photography from mere documentation. In Rainforest in a City, Dr Chua has raised both his naturalist’s intuition and knowledge and his photographic art to new levels.

 

Something else elevates Dr Chua’s work: his care for Singapore’s forests, his concern for its future, and his belief that we have the ability to preserve its indescribable beauty and priceless heritage if we commit ourselves to it. This passion comes through in the book’s many images and in the absorbing text. Whether describing the excitement of seeing novel things, celebrating new discoveries, or introducing readers to the amazing people committed to studying and saving Singapore’s forests, Dr Chua both informs and inspires.

 

There is a cautionary note to Rainforest in a City, however. The final chapters remind us that much of our natural heritage is gone, and that the future of many species is far from secure. Pressures on our rainforests will grow with a larger population, the demands of development, introduced species, increasing human-wildlife conflict, and many other factors. Dr Chua presents a convincing case that a worthy challenge lies in the preservation of “our most prized natural asset and a legacy for future generations of Singaporeans.”

 

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