As a National Parks Board Scholar, Rekha was able to pursue her passion for wildlife conservation abroad and then at home, to safeguard our biodiversity.
What sparked your interest in Zoology?
I’ve been fascinated by animals for as long as I can remember. I grew up watching all sorts of nature shows, from Nigel Marven to Crocodile Hunter to, of course, David Attenborough documentaries. I remember being overwhelmed by the vast diversity of animals that exist on our planet. I didn’t just love animals, I was curious about them – about the interaction between predator and prey, how some are able to adapt to such extreme environments, and why they exhibit the behaviours they do.
Over the years, I have gained interest in many different subjects, from literature to psychology and philosophy, but my curiosity for animals never wavered. Perhaps it is the idea that there is so much more to the world than just our lives, that we are merely part of a larger system, which appeals to me. Often, especially in an urban environment like Singapore, we are so absorbed in our own routinised lives that we forget that we share this Earth with so many other living things. Learning about animals makes me appreciate the wonder and complexity of life, and I knew I’d never get bored studying them. That’s how I ended up doing Zoology in university.
What led you to consider a career in NParks?
I first heard about the National Parks Board (NParks) in an article I came across in the newspaper. It described the situation of some of the wildlife in Singapore, and NParks was mentioned. Singapore’s biodiversity hardly made the news back then, and I was more surprised to learn there was a statutory board managing this. While the article didn’t elaborate on NParks’ role, the association between NParks and our national wildlife was embedded in my mind.
A year later, during the scholarship fair in my school, I learnt more about NParks at their booth. I found out about their role in greening Singapore, how they are responsible for some of the things I loved most about Singapore – nature reserves, parks, and park connectors. I also learned more about their increasing efforts in conservation.
NParks’ goals were aligned with mine. Being a statutory board, NParks is in a position to implement plans that can really shape the future of Singapore, for the fauna and flora and the people who inhabit the country. I felt that I might be able to contribute to the organisation by studying what I loved, so I applied for the scholarship.
What opportunities have you enjoyed as an NParks scholar?
I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to study Zoology at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, under the NParks Scholarship. One of the things I loved the most about my university education was the learning environment. I was taught and guided by lecturers who were experts in their fields and were generous in sharing their knowledge. I was surrounded by people who were not only enthusiastic and genuinely enjoyed what they were studying, but also actively trying to incorporate their beliefs and what they’ve learnt into their daily lives, such as reducing meat consumption and recycling. I’ve been similarly inspired to do the same.
NParks has also given me the opportunity to participate in two research expeditions in Romania and South Africa at the end of my first year. The expedition to Romania focused on the effects of agricultural practices on the surrounding biodiversity. The one in South Africa investigated the effects of elephant overpopulation in a game reserve and the extent of elephant damage on the vegetation. As a research assistant, I learned an array of surveying skills that remain useful in my work today. I also gained a deeper understanding of wildlife management issues such culling, hunting, and anthropogenic involvement in habitats – issues I initially thought were clear-cut, but I now realise are a lot more complicated than the mere ethics of the actions alone.
I was also offered the chance to do an exchange programme with James Cook University in the North of Queensland during my studies. My exchange in Australia was incredible because we were constantly surrounded by wildlife. There were wallabies, possums, pythons, various species of parrots and other birds right outside our dormitory. In contrast to the more academic and theoretical education I received in St Andrews, my term in James Cook was a lot more conservation-centric and focused a lot more on the practical use of scientific knowledge. This has similarly equipped me to apply my university knowledge to working at NParks.
Finally, NParks allowed me to do two internships, before and midway through my studies. In my first internship, I was attached to the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve. I loved my experience there because I was exposed to a side of Singapore I had not experienced before. It was the best introduction I could have to the conservation work done by NParks and I learnt a lot about wildlife in Singapore. In my second year, I did an internship with the Streetscape division. This was an area I understood was an essential part of NParks’ work in greening Singapore but did not know much about. I gained a deeper understanding of the main aims of NParks and it made me realise that there was so much potential for NParks to shape the landscape and biodiversity in Singapore.
What were some of the memorable/interesting encounters during your course of studies and why are they memorable/interesting?
Some of my most memorable times involve just being at St Andrews. While it is a small town in Fife, within there are three beaches, short forested trails, a nearby estuary where you could watch shorebirds and a forest an hour’s cycle away. It is also one of the towns along the Fife Coastal Path, a long-distance footpath stretching the entire length of the Fife coast, connecting some of the most beautiful villages. I would walk and cycle through different towns along the beach and birdwatch over the weekends.
Being located so far north in St Andrews meant that if you were lucky, you might be able to see the Northern Lights. I still remember the occasion I witnessed it – it was a winter night when we heard of the news that the Northern Lights may be visible. My friends and I, along with many other students, rushed down to the beach. There, we laid down on the cold sand and, with the freezing winter winds hitting our faces, we waited. It must’ve been a couple of hours before we saw anything, but eventually, huddled up in our blankets, we watched the Northern Lights in the sky.
My field trips were also some of the most memorable experiences during my studies. One of my classes involved a 2-week field study in Antarctica and Argentina. In Ushuaia, Argentina, we went for a couple of hikes in the Tierra del Fuego National Park. The views were absurdly stunning, and I remember thinking that I could easily spend months trekking through Patagonia. Finally, I don’t think anything else can compare to being on a ship and getting the first glimpse of the icy continent of Antarctica. It was honestly magical.
Please share with us about your working experience in the Conservation Division. Do also share about any notable projects you are currently working or have worked on.
A Conservation Manager, as aptly described by a colleague, is a custodian of the nature reserve. While ensuring that the reserve is safe for public use is of utmost importance, a Conservation Manager must additionally be responsible for the flora and fauna of the area. This involves forest restoration works, native seed propagation, as well as enforcement to stop the poaching of wildlife.
Being in the Conservation Division means being exposed to a good mix of research, outreach, and operations work. Through my months working here, I’ve learnt to appreciate the importance of each of these aspects towards the success of a conservation project.
Some of the projects I’ve enjoyed assisting with include the study of macaque troops in MacRitchie, and biodiversity surveys. Macaques are such dynamic creatures, and hours observing them have allowed us to distinguish between individuals and further understand their troop dynamics and behaviour. We also conduct biodiversity surveys in the nature reserve, in order to develop a better understanding of the fauna that inhabit the different areas. In doing so, we are not only able to measure the effectiveness of our conservation initiatives over time, but also gain a deeper knowledge of what animals live in the reserve and the type of environment they thrive in, to facilitate the development of future conservation initiatives.
I’m also a member of the Otter Working Group (OWG) in Singapore, as part of my work as a Conservation Manager. My work in OWG comprises of managing human-otter interactions, pre-empting possible conflict, and some outreach initiatives. One of the highlights of working in NParks, and being a part of the OWG, was facilitating the South East Asian Otter Workshop. The 4-day workshop invited esteemed otter scientists from all over the region to Singapore with the aim of developing an Action Plan for Asian otters. One of the agenda items involved bringing the scientists out to observe wild otters in Singapore. Many of these scientists spent years studying otters but have never seen them in the wild, except through camera traps. Watching their faces as they observed the otters in Singapore for the first time is something I would never forget. It made me appreciate so much more the privilege we have of seeing otters in our urban environment.
What advice would you have for those who are exploring for their scholarship options?
18- or 19-year-olds should know that taking on a scholarship is a big decision. When choosing a scholarship, it is important to remember that you are also choosing a career, and thus it is crucial that the goals and aims of the organisation are something you believe in as well.
It is also important to choose a course of study that you are passionate about. Scholarship providers often have preferred subject choices for university, but don’t be discouraged if your subject of choice is not listed. If you are confident you will be able to contribute to the aims and goals of the organisation through your choice of study, don’t be afraid to let them know. Your years in the university will shape you, and it is important you enjoy what you are studying.
NURUL REKHA D/O FUAD MOHAN
NParks Undergraduate Scholarship
Attained: Bachelor of Science in Zoology, University of St Andrews
Now: Manager, Conservation (Central Nature Reserve)
From: Anglo-Chinese School (Independent)