At only 163 m., it was a fairly easy climb to the summit of Bukit Timah in the pre-dawn darkness last Monday, along the paved Main Road and then up a steep slippery shortcut abutting what is called, for unspecified reasons, the Police Repeater Hut. (This structure, surrounded by a wire mesh fence, has dire warnings posted against potential trespassers and, it being Singapore, you should take these seriously. To play it safe, I’ve always averted both my gaze and my camera whenever I’m in its vicinity.) Sunrise at Bukit Timah came over the city and, so close to the Equator (only 137 km. south of where we were), dawn was a short fleeting affair. You can’t really see the city from the summit itself but a VHF station on an adjoining lesser peak provides a good view, especially when the sun is coming up. Around dawn, the Main Road and the summit began to fill with scores of health seekers carrying out complicated exercises, many of which involved walking backwards and flailing and clapping their hands. (I will leave it to cultural anthropologists to study the amazing rituals now evolving in Singapore.) Birding, for which I was up so early, was expectedly terrible in the midst of all this commotion. It was far from the peaceful beginning of the day that I had anticipated, going by what it had been like ten years ago. Between 1996 and now Singaporeans seem to have really discovered their one remaining rain forest and turned it into an open air gym.
Unless you are a captain of commerce, by most reasonable standards, Singapore is not an interesting city. But even if you are infatuated with commerce, Singapore is now a city fighting off inevitable decline with China and India emerging as the economic powerhouses of the new Asia. The island state is also one of the most repressive “democracies” in the world, governed by a paternalistic state that tolerates little deviance. If taxis begin to move at speeds higher than the permissible 80 km. per hour, a bell starts to ring inside. Long hair used to be reason enough to deny tourists entry. It is illegal to bring chewing gum into the country. Smoking has not been permitted almost anywhere public for decades. In the 1980s Singapore was the only country in the world promoting positive eugenics, offering well-educated women incentives to bear more offspring and less educated ones equally attractive largesse to be sterilized. As early as 1958, the famously prescient biologist, J. B. S. Haldane, had declared Singapore to be a “police state .” It isn’t much better now even though the police is not glaringly visible every day.
But Singapore’s often impossible to avoid if you travel around Southeast Asia partly because Singapore Airlines is about the only truly international carrier from the region. Singapore is also a remarkably green city with all its remaining forests (less than 0.5 per cent of the area) now under protection. If you’re stranded there, as I was last weekend, the only solace—besides good food and general friendliness—is a rather remarkable piece of native habitat about 14 km. northwest of the city center, and surrounded by highways and developments on all sides. That piece of land is the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, a patch of primary Southeast Asian rain forest in the around the highest hill in the city (at 163 m.).
This was not my first visit to Bukit Timah. I had been there a decade ago when I was meandering around the region, trying to follow Wallace’s footsteps during his remarkable travels from 1854 to 1862. It was during the course of that trip that he formulated his version of the theory of evolution by natural selection and ensured his future place in the history of science. (The reminiscences that emerged from these travels, The Malay Archipelago, is also arguably the best travel book ever written.) My trip in 1996 had ended in virtual disaster. Jakarta was in flames the day I arrived in Indonesia, the beginning of the people’s revolt that finally removed Suharto from power. But the troubles made travel dangerous, if not impossible, and over a long and hard summer I managed to cover but a tiny fraction of the areas that Wallace had visited. I abandoned plans to write a book on Wallace’s travels, at least for the foreseeable future, and returned to take up a Fellowship in October at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin.
Much of the land around La Cumbre is communally managed by the local people, who are all of Zapotec origin. There are extensive forests which were logged from 1956 to 1982 before the community regained control of their land. The forests have recovered remarkably well thanks to active restoration efforts (e. g., seed trees, tree planting) by the community . Scattered farms, often growing corn, are interspersed with the forests. Some areas are still logged selectively, with native pines being the only timber of commercial importance. Oak and other trees are only harvested for local use, mainly as firewood. In many years, the annual quota (12 900 cu. m. of pine and 3 080 cu. m. of oak) imposed by federal agencies is not even met—the locals don’t view that as a loss of potential revenue because the trees remain standing . Few locally managed integrated conservation and resource extraction plans have been as impressive as the one in Ixtepeji.
Part of our purpose in being there was to try to trap a puma (Puma concolor) that had been preying upon livestock, most recently a calf, at a farm close to La Cumbre, on the other side of Highway 175. A three-kilometer hike from the restaurant brought us there. We went over a moderately steep ridge, fairly tough going after an inappropriately heavy breakfast. (Good food doesn’t contribute well to good natural history.) As is typical for this area, mixed oak and pine forest gave way to pure pine at the top, almost entirely Pinus oaxacana. It was wet, with Spanish moss and a bewildering variety of epiphytes adorning the trees. There were mushrooms everywhere of a variety of colors and sizes, and Victor duly noted that Mexico’s mushrooms remained poorly studied. (Wild mushrooms are harvested in Ixtepeji for export to Japan , and many varieties are locally consumed but it takes some experience to distinguish the edible ones from the poisonous. It is more than likely that there are mushroom species here that have yet to be scientifically described.) We continued to enjoy the remarkable—and remarkably little-studied—biodiversity of Oaxaca.
It’s mid-July now, and I might as well admit defeat at finding the Houston Toad at our Stengl Lost Pines Biological Station this year. It is not unheard of for the species to emerge to mate in some areas even in late July but extremely unlikely. The following log, extracted from my field notes tell the story:
Part of the charm of driving on Mexico’s highways comes from the fact that there are no billboards desecrating the landscape. The only exception to this ban on advertising is a single liquor company which, for mysterious historical reasons, has the right to put up giant cutouts of bulls but these, mercifully, are few and far between. But, if you are in Mexico City, getting on the appropriate highway may well be your worst challenge—to say merely that the traffic is awful gives little indication of just how much patience and dedication it requires. It took us several hours last week, just after Germany demolished a surprisingly inept Argentina on penalties, before we were on our way to Oaxaca, perhaps the most diverse and easily the least adequately protected of Mexico’s states. (Though Oaxaca contains only 5 per cent of the area of Mexico, it contains 50 per cent of the total known vascular plant species for the country, 35 per cent of the total amphibian species, 26 per cent of the reptile species, 63 per cent of the bird species, and 55 per cent of the terrestrial mammal species).
The six-hour drive to Oaxaca takes you through a variety of landscapes including the 490 000 hectare Tehuacán—Cuicatlán Biosphere Reserve which straddles the border between Puebla and Oaxaca. This Reserve is huge: if you include it among the protected areas of Oaxaca, about 12 per cent of the state is already under protection. But, if you don’t, only 0.3 per cent of Oaxaca is protected, all in three tiny National Parks. The argument against inclusion is that the Reserve, though situated in a biologically important and unique habitat (the southern limit of the North American deserts), is in far from prime condition. The Reserve is made up of wide arid valleys bordered by much more humid forested ranges. There are more than 170 endemic flowering plant species within it and the diversity of columnar and candelabra cacti is exceptional. The heat was intense. Our view from the road was typically of an otherworldly landscape, spiny shrublands dotted with columns of cacti. The toll road goes through relatively intact habitat but this is misleading. In Oaxaca, 35 000 people live within the Reserve; between both states, the human population is over 250 000.
Sous la pression de l'activité humaine, les espèces vivantes
disparaissent à grande vitesse, au point que certains chercheurs
estiment qu'une extinction majeure est en cours. Plusieurs initiatives
internationales ont été lancées pour tenter de minimiser les dégâts et
maintenir un semblant de biodiversité. Mais protéger efficacement le
vivant, végétal et animal, implique d'en faire l'inventaire le plus
exhaustif possible en utilisant les moyens de la taxonomie, science de
la classification et de la dénomination des espèces.