The problem with blanket blaming of single groups and/or organisations

Random thought of the day

Very often we hear people complaining about.. well, everything. For example, within the nature circle, be it issues about trash, animal welfare etc, it is clear that nobody likes AVA. Some of the comments get pretty harsh – and to a large extent the distress is understandable.

I guess what I’m trying to say with this post is – not everyone in that organisation is a complete jerkwad. By blanket blaming (e.g. “AVA is totally hopeless and full of shit”), we include, in our insults, individuals within that organisation who genuinely are trying to help. In fact I commend this individuals – it must not be easy working for the “bad guy” and trying to change processes from within. They try hard, but their views aren’t always taken into account ultimately in the final decision, so the resulting course of action may not be the one they desire, yet they get blamed for it as well. There are unrecognised heroes behind the scenes most of the time, and I think it would be great to acknowledge their efforts too, encourage and support them.

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“Nature lover” has a whole spectrum of meanings.

Nature has been getting a lot more exposure in Singapore lately – be it through the rise in popularity of nature photography, or the increased awareness of natural spaces, more Singaporeans are getting out there into the wild.

“I love nature” could mean a whole variety of things to different people – for trekkers it could be a peaceful place for walking and reflection, for mountain bikers it could be a challenging terrain, to artists and photographers could be a beautiful subject, to fishermen could be a form of leisure, a source of income or even a way of life, to biologists it holds a sense of wonder and intrinsic value and worth. Just because people love different aspects of nature doesn’t mean anyone loves nature any less or more than anyone else, but it saddens me when individuals enjoy nature without caring for it’s well-being. It is understandable if it happens due to lack of awareness (which just means we need to look at and step up PR efforts), but in some cases it is the blatant intentional ignoring of certain codes of ethics that bugs me. Be it littering, cutting vegetation and clearing of paths that could result in habitat destruction or fragmentation, unethical or environmentally harmful methods in any kind of leisure activity, over-collecting or illegal collection (outright poaching) etc.

I can’t say much for the other activities, but as an amateur photographer of sorts I just feel I should pen down what I feel about nature photography.
What makes nature photography special is the amount of chance involved. Encountering the organism in the right place at the right time, under the right lighting in the right position and if you’re really luck, in the right action. It is a form of documentation, and as far as possible if the animal doesn’t sense you, a documentation of natural behaviour in a natural environment. Most importantly, it is the documentation of a personal encounter between two lives in a vast and infinite universe. And that is why I feel that by staging photos either by baiting, augmentation of the environment or outright controlling the position of the animal directly, the shot is completely cheapened. Even worse, if the photographer subsequently lies about the circumstances under which the photo was taken, it shows a blatant lack of integrity, and acknowledgement of the fact that he/she is aware that the methods involved are wrong. It irks me when photographers treat organisms with total lack of respect, as a prize that exists solely for the purpose of glorifying themselves by helping produce a “wonderful” image.

In any case, nature photography is special because of the chance involved, and by taking away that factor of chance at the expense of the welfare of the organism/environment completely cheapens the shot and what it stands for. Photography, I feel, should embody one’s appreciation of the subject and it’s existence, as well as the memory of the encounter. And even if you don’t get that perfect shot, it shouldn’t take any value away from the encounter – if anything a great shot is just a bonus result of a wonderful experience.

/incoherent rant over

You’ve come to the Jong place

Visited the Balik Pulau exhibition at the National Museum some weeks back, and learnt that the country of Singapore consists of 40 islands (used to be 77). Not all are inhabited however – some, like Pulau Jong, are simply too small. That doesn’t mean there’s nothing there, though.

If you thought there wasn't marine life in SG, you thought Jong.

Yep, this is Singapore.

“Wait, Pulau Jong? Where the heck is that?” (Actual response when I told someone where I was.)

There it is!

There it is! (When you’re a tiny red dot on the map of a country that is a tiny red dot, you know you’re TINY.)

 

Ubin, Semakau, Kusu and St. Johns are some of the more well known islands barring the mainland (P. Ujong) and Sentosa (P. Belakang Mati). But they are, after all, just some of the 40 islands that make up our island nation. To me, Pulau Jong was always that small “charsiew pau” island that we would cruise past on the way to P. Semakau. I had heard many things about the marine life there, and last Wednesday, I finally got a chance to set foot on the shore of Jong.

Jong2

If you thought there wasn’t marine life in SG, you thought Jong. Jong has a surprising diversity of corals and other reef life – and one doesn’t have to dive to see it – just come at a low tide!

So what is Jong? Wiki attack!
Pulau Jong or Junk Island is a 6,000 m² conical island about 6 kilometres off the southern coast of Singapore.”
“According to a local legend behind the island’s name, a Chinese junk was attacked by Malay pirates one night where the island now is. Just as the pirates were about to board the junk, the captain (the Nakhodah) awoke. When the captain saw the pirates, he uttered such a frightful yell that the sea spirit turned the whole junk into an island.”

Uh yeah. That’s it.
There’s also a special rock type found here, but I don’t know enough about that to really say anything about it.

Anyway, since Jong is uninhabited, that means NO JETTY. So how do we land? Like friggin commandos that’s how.

Our boat tows a rubber dinghy, used for amphibious landing. (Sg skyline in the background)

Naw not parachutes. Our boat tows a rubber dinghy, used for amphibious landing. (Sg skyline in the background)

Currents around the island are significant - we get as close as we can, jump off and try not to stumble and fall.

Currents around the island are significant – we get as close as we can, jump off and try not to stumble and fall.

 

Also, see that awesome sunrise? Most of the lowest tides occur at ungodly hours – for this trip we left the marina at 7am, and that’s considered late. (Some of the trips are at 3am!)

The sunrise assures us that we made the right choice not sleeping in.

The sunrise assures us that we made the right choice not sleeping in.

 

Okay enough about the island – what wildlife is there?
Uh I spent an hour stalking marine spiders (Desis martensi), a species of spider that lives and hunts in the intertidal zone and can walk on surface of the sea.

I spent an hour observing them, but they're so skittish and fast that this is the most decent shot i got :(

I spent an hour observing them, but they’re so skittish and fast that this is the most decent shot I got of an adult 😦

Lots of cute little babehs though!

Lots of cute little babehs though!

Corals come in all shapes and sizes, like this cool blue Xenia sp.

Corals come in all shapes and sizes, like this cool blue Sansibia sp.

Fishies!

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Some kind of goby? I’m terrible with fishies (leave a comment if you know!)

 

Crusties!

Anemone shrimps can be super hard to spot, only their movement gives them away.

Anemone shrimps can be super hard to spot, only their movement gives them away.

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When looking through my photos the thumbnails make it look like I’ve accidentally been shooting random rocks

Oh look more of those spiders

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Whee

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Yay

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Hairy crab (Pilumnus sp.)! AKA the teddy bear crab. When submerged, the hairs get suspended and break the shape of the crab, assisting camouflage.

Apart from the stuff above, we also saw a ton of cool beasts including a small black-tipped reef shark, two giant reef worms, a spotted fantail ray and a free swimming octopus. Unfortunately no photos of any of those, cos I was focusing on reef spiders and saw those by chance heh.

So I didn’t manage to get photos of as much wildlife as I would’ve liked (time spent stalking spiders), but thankfully I wasn’t the only one on the trip! Check out some of these other blogposts and pages about Jong (also, just go google!)

Many thanks to Ria Tan who brought me along on this trip!
Her blogpost can be viewed here http://wildshores.blogspot.sg/2014/07/checking-up-on-pulau-jong.html#.U8x15o2Sw4Q

The awesome guys from Travelledpaths bravely brought along their trusty drone, capturing some stunning images of the place
http://www.travelledpaths.com/exploring-the-wildshores-of-singapore-pulau-jong/

Jerome also has beautiful photos of Jong
http://thelongnwindingroad.wordpress.com/2014/07/18/boarding-the-junk-at-sunrise/

More information about Jong and factsheets about marine life in Singapore can be found at Wildsingapore! Do explore 😀
http://www.wildsingapore.com/wildfacts/places/jong.htm

People love nature, they just don’t know we have it.

So at last year’s Festival of Biodiversity, I was directed to this 7-year old Yi Han who happened to be this crazy love for arachnids. A while into my conversation with him he pulled out his book on arachnids and was dropping cheem words like amblypygi, pedipalps and chelicera – that conversation went on for more than ten minutes till we had to reluctantly part. Before he left with his family, I told his mom how to reach me on FB and she messaged me later thanking me and the rest of the festival for making her boy’s day. 

yihan

This year, I contacted his mom, and invited them down for the Festival of Biodiversity 2014. After some ambiguity, they did eventually attend FoB – except Yi Han was not as a visitor this time but a guide, sitting with me behind the specimens to share his love and knowledge of arachnids with other kids and visitors. He even brought specimens that he amassed through his loyal subscription to the BUGS magazine series, including a centipede and a whip scorpion which were both missing from our collection. While we were engaging members of the public, our mothers somehow managed to end up talking to each other and agreed on how they had both given up on trying to get their sons to pursue a more ‘normal’ passion.

Conclusion is – every festival, we reach out to thousands of people. Most will just glance over and leave unchanged, some may take home a few key messages. But sometimes (with a very low chance), I meet someone special like Tan Yi Han who goes home with a passion ignited and returns for more. And while every interaction is meaningful and worthwhile, this kid makes me feel SUPER DUPER grateful I chose to come share 

Remember his name – he’s bound for Arachnology superstardom.

Don’t be THAT Guide! (Reflections on Guiding)

SO. I’ve been a bad nature guide recently.

At Macritchie’s Prunus trail, I stepped off the boardwalk in excitement to show the participants a pitcher plant. Thankfully, after the photo was posted, I was promptly reminded by more experienced guides November and Ria as they alerted me to my erroneous ways, for which I apologise. Not all is negative though, this has been a good learning experience!

Screen shot from facebook, original photo by Chloe Tan

Screen shot from facebook, original photo by Chloe Tan. This is what NOT to do!

At the start of the walk we did emphasise to the participants not to stray from the path or boardwalk, though the guides may sometimes do so in order to show them certain things. On hindsight, I realise that this should NOT be the case – the guides should not leave the trail either!

This is for a number of reasons, apart from the most important reason of possibly adversely impacting the very things we are trying to show to others. Partly, it is because while we trust our participants to understand, the trail is public and other trail walkers may see these acts and assume they too can do the same. Mostly, however, the guides should never put themselves in a situation where they seem to be “higher” than the participants, or above any rule or guideline that they themselves have set for the participants.

Quoting Ria Tan’s guide to guiding,
“While guides may say “It’s OK for a guide to do this but you shouldn’t do it”, generally visitors will do as guides DO and not as guides SAY. Just imagine every visitor doing exactly what you are doing the next time they are on the shores alone. You can then have a clear idea of the appropriate behaviour to take when guiding.”
While this was written in the context of a shore walk, it applies to terrestrial – no – actually all nature walks too!

Anyway, this incident has prompted me to reflect on my guiding experiences, and though I have made mistakes there are some useful tips I have learnt as well.

I’m talking to myself here, but if you’re a budding guide you can imagine I’m talking to you too I s’pose.
Things to change

  • STAY ON TRAIL! And practise only responsible behaviour – never do anything you don’t want to see others doing, and the walk is about the flora and fauna, not you (the guide) – care for them comes first.
  • Hold back on the jargon! It may not be intentional, but do get to know layman terms and descriptions. For example, this actual conversation:
    “Oh look, a Tenebrionid (darkling beetle)!”
    “Uh, english please?”
    Sometimes, I find myself stuck in situations where I only know the scientific names, which are more often than not NOT relatable at all. Not trying to boast here, this can be a real problem – in guiding, common names are definitely more useful in introducing an organism or feature, as they are commonly (pun possibly intended) physical descriptions of a trait of that organism. And also in english, which is understood by most people, unlike latin. For example, Lathrecista asiatica may sound nice and fancy, but the only thing people can get from that is “Oh it’s probably found in Asia.”

    The Scarlet Grenadier dragonfly (Lathrecista asiatica), also known as the Asiatic Blood Tail

    The Scarlet Grenadier dragonfly (Lathrecista asiatica), also known as the Asiatic Blood Tail

    Instead, why not try:
    “This is a fine example of a Scarlet Grenadier, which belongs to a group of dragonflies known as the Grenadiers, so named for their red, blue and yellow colouration being similar to the uniforms of the grenadier soldier specialization of the past. This species gets the Scarlet in its name from its striking red abdomen, which also gave rise to its other common name – the Asiatic Blood Tail.”

    This can further go on to interesting tidbits of information such as how many insects, especially the butterflies, have common names reflecting something to do with the military, because the first people who named them were the colonial troops who arrived in the past. It could also possibly lead into how many odonates (dragonflies and damselflies) have very fancy common names such as the Shadowdancer, the Fiery Gem and the Emperor!

    Scientific names can also be introduced though, if they translate to something useful such as how most species of ladybirds have their number of spots reflected in their latin name (E.g. Henosepilachna vigintioctopunctata, vigintioctopunctata = 28-spotted).

  • Do not treat animals as trophies – e.g. taking photos with sea stars, holding them up away from the water. Guilty of having done this before too. Sometimes the novelty of seeing an organism not commonly seen gets to us, and we want to take pictures with it to show friends (fuelled by self-gratification, of course. Refer to the first point!).  This sends the wrong message and encourages disrespectful treatement of the shores – anyway a not so good photo of an animal or plant in its natural state is worth so much more than a good photo of one removed from it.
  • Know your content well, and do not be afraid to admit you may not have all the answers.
    Sometimes, I find myself blurting information, and thinking “Wait, where did I hear this from? Is it credible?”
    If you have an interesting fact that you think you know, make sure to check for accuracy and reliability of sources! Not saying anything is better than spreading false information. If you DO mention information like this, do also clarify that you may not be 100% certain of its validity! You can though, recommend search terms or sources to go to should the participant want more information! Or even better – if you have a smartphone, check for validity on the spot! Which leads to my next point.

Tips I’ve learnt

  • Technology! Use it! With the incredible miracle that is 3/4G, having a smartphone (with a data plan) can be very useful when guiding.
    Hear a bird call but cannot see it, and don’t have a guidebook on hand? Consult Google Images!
    Trying to describe certain behaviour that cannot be observed at the moment? All hail YouTube!
    While guiding yesterday I was trying to describe the appearance and behaviour of a little-known group of insects known as Web Spinners (Embioptera), and thankfully there was sufficient network coverage and we were able to listen to our virtual guest guide David Attenborough talk about these wonderful little creatures with the accompaniment of video clips, all thanks to the power of YouTube.
    In any case, never try to force a hiding animal out, or force an organism to exhibit certain behaviour. Use a guidebook or the internet to help illustrate your point.
  • It helps to know your audience, and gauge their reactions. Test the water at the beginning of the walk! Find that the participants respond better at the mention of food and edibility? Capitalise on that (but be sure to clarify that poaching and hunting is illegal and greatly discouraged)!
    I find that with teens and young adults, linking stuff to popular media such as games or movies is very helpful and keeping their attention. Comparing the burrows of tarantulas to Shelob (from the LOTR franchise) or Aragog’s (from the Harry Potter series) lair, or talking about how certain organisms inspired cartoon or game characters, like how the design of the Pokemon Victreebel was based on real life pitcher plants.

    Slender Pitcher Plant (Nepenthes gracilis) and the Pokemon Victreebel

    Slender Pitcher Plant (Nepenthes gracilis) and the Pokemon Victreebel

  • Use analogy to relate the subject to something more human or to do with everyday life. Sex and relationships are bestsellers. The life cycle of the fig wasp can be described as a tragic love story – “After emerging from the pupa, the mature male’s first act is to mate with a female. The males of most fig wasp species lack wings and are unable to survive outside the fig for a sustained period of time. Once mated, the males begin to dig out of the fig, creating a tunnel through which the females can leave. Once out of the fig, the male wasps quickly die – some never even make it out, living their short lives without ever seeing the light of day.”
    In the sex lives of insects there are also stories about traumatic insemination, but you’re free to read that one on your own heh.

As guides we are not all perfect, and we’re all bound to make mistakes (some more than others ><), but I feel what’s most important is that we learn from our mistakes and from each other!

For more information about how to be a better guide, Ria has many useful pages on WildSingapore that are very helpful:

So remember! The good guides always win (people over)!

Short rant about the image problems of some advocates

Rant!

I get the feeling that people hate on environmentalists and feminists without even knowing why. Or maybe they sincerely feel that environmentalists and feminists are self-righteous uppity people trying to force their ideals down the throats of others. In any case the discussion soon becomes a fight against the advocates themselves instead of about the issue at hand – If MINDEF had quietly enforced the banning of those lines and AWARE had not been mentioned at all, would the ban face as much protest? These darn hate-fuelled bandwagons.

Also I can’t stand the argument that “There are bigger issues to be worried about like poverty and world hunger, so why are you wasting your time fighting for this cause?”.

Okay first, are you doing anything about poverty or world hunger (metaphor for any “bigger issue” in this case)? If you aren’t, hey at least I’m trying to make some positive change in some way, and if you are, that isn’t really the best way to try and recruit people to your cause.

And just because I fight for one cause doesn’t mean I don’t believe in or support others. Similarly just because you feel one cause may be more important than the other, doesn’t mean you should do NOTHING about the other issues. Let’s pour all our caring into one/a few problems! When are we going to give attention to the “smaller” problems then, which are after all, problems that should still be addressed? When the bees die and take a whole bunch of crops and food supply with them? When a loved one gets sexually assaulted? People who make these statements just don’t get it until something directly happens to them or a loved one or theirs. These problems may be “small”, but by choosing not to address them they can and will definitely snowball into huge ones.

To be fair, on the advocates’ side, environmentalists have to be careful not to come across as completely disregarding humanity for the sake of the environment, and feminists have to be careful not to or appear to hate men, or generalise them as all being evil or rapists. This just does a disservice for your cause, even though most dissenters would already have pre-conceived generalisations that all advocates like that. We have an image problem that needs to be worked on.

End of rant.

A Short Love Note to Science

Yesterday for our ES1541 communications module, we were tasked to come up with a two-minute presentation on either ‘ES1541 and me’ or ‘Science and me’. I was a nervous wreck, but it was a good opportunity to consolidate and review just what I love so much about science.

Don’t be mistaken though, I love the arts as well! Below is the script I based the presentation on.

“Good afternoon all,

I will be presenting on the topic ‘Science and me’, and I chose this because I love science, and I believe it loves me too.

First, I have to clarify that I am a terrible science student – I actually struggled to get into this course, being rejected during the first round of applications. In fact I’ve always scored better in the humanities. However, passion and aptitude (if you can call it that) don’t always coincide.

Though my science grades are terrible, I love science for a number of reasons. It exists independent of man, unlike the arts, which are largely social constructs. Being a curious person, the questions and mysteries science presents appeal very much to me. It also makes me feel stupid and ignorant, and I love that.

Science describes existence. It is not something we invented, a system we can use, change and manipulate, but not create. It doesn’t matter if humans exist – Numbers, the laws of physics, the elements and life itself – all these exist independent of man, fundamental truths of the universe. And to a curious person, this presents a great mystery and an awesome sense of wonder.

Now when I say science makes me feel small and stupid, it’s because there are so many things we have not yet found answers for, and so many questions that have not even been considered.

And it’s okay for us to not know, in fact it is EXCITING! That is exactly why we investigate, why we continue in our struggles for answers and solutions and knowledge! How boring this world would be if we knew to answers to everything!

Martin A. Schwartz, the famous cell biologist, refers to this as ‘productive stupidity’ (not academic stupidity, where we don’t know because we don’t study). If we aren’t afraid to make mistakes, we are free to stumble along, learn from errors and experiences and ultimately move forward till we find the answers.

We are raised in an education system that values getting the right answers, but if we are always so afraid of being wrong, making mistakes and asking questions, how can we discover new things, or find new solutions?

Science embraces those who aren’t afraid to be stupid, and in so doing, embraces me :).

In short, even though I struggle with content, I am in love with the spirit of discovery in science, and the many mysteries it presents which I find worthwhile in trying to unravel.

AND it makes me feel stupid, but that’s okay.”

Anyway this is just my opinion on science and why I love it. Putting it out there so I won’t forget!