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Text and photos by Nick Baker, unless otherwise credited.
Copyright ゥ Ecology Asia 2020



  Bukit Timah Nature Reserve  
    ... a precious remnant of primary rainforest  


The Visitor Centre


Located in the centre-west of Singapore is a hill called Bukit Timah; with an official height of 164 metres or 538 feet this is the highest point in the country. Clinging to its slopes are Singapore's last vestiges of Primary Forest. For decades this forest has been protected as a Nature Reserve, however all may not be well at Bukit Timah.



In Singapore there are $10,000 fines for feeding the monkeys !


Urban Development

The Bukit Timah Nature Reserve now stands totally cut off from the bulk of Singapore's regenerating secondary forest by a six-lane road development. New roads are now being built to the north, completing the hill's encirclement by tarmac. An ugly communications building dominates the summit and recent, thoughtless condominium development at the park's boundary has meant an increase in recreational visitors. There is serious erosion along some of the forest trails.  

Furthermore, what are the long term effects of the granite quarrying which has eaten away at the hillside for decades ? Is there a risk of the water table becoming lower ? Is the forest becoming drier ? A precarious existence indeed for this last sizable remnant of Singapore's once extensive Primary Forest. There is no suggestion that inappropriate development will ever take place within the boundary of the reserve as the land is under the care of the National Parks Board, but the ecological damage may already have been done at the periphery. 

Amazing diversity


The impressive crown of the Seraya Shorea curtisii


Singapore is located in the middle of one of the world's biodiversity hotspots; in neighbouring Malaysia there are over 10,000 plant species (compared with around 1500 species, for example, in the United Kingdom). Despite the negative effects of recent urban development in the area, the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve still stands as a microcosm of this amazing diversity. All the major plant groups one would expect in a tropical rainforest occur here - fig trees, rattans, palms, lianas, vines, epiphytes and, last but not least, the majestic Dipterocarps which so dominate the canopy. 

Perhaps the most dramatic of the dipterocarps is the Seraya  Shorea curtisii. Its massive, fissured bole rises straight and cylindrical with little taper for hundreds of feet, ending in a huge, spreading crown. Fine examples of this species can easily be found towards the summit (many tree species along the road leading to the summit are marked with informative plaques). The Seraya is a member of the Red Meranti timber group, and its wood is highly valued.


The canopy of the surrounding secondary forest is dominated by the open crown of Albizia sp. 


The Merbau Intsia palembanica and the Keranji Dialum sp. are members of the Leguminosae family which are well represented in the forest. In the strip of secondary forest at the edge of the reserve, the canopy is dominated by the lace-like crown of another legume, Albizia falcataria. This softwood species has one of the fastest growth rates in the world, reckoned to be able to grow to 20 metres in 4 years !


Delicate Ferns


Various fern species line the banks of this crystal clear stream emerging from the forest 


Singapore still has over 100 fern species and over 80 of these are to be found on Bukit Timah, though some are extremely rare. Ferns can be of various sizes, from tiny specimens a few millimetres across to Tree Ferns and Elephant Ferns a few metres in height. The richest locality for fern growth is aptly named Fern Valley. Here an intermittent stream provides moist and shady conditions, ideal for the germination of delicate spores and the growth of the fern's prothallus i.e. the intermediate stage of a fern's lifecycle.

Epiphytic ferns, such as the Stag's Horn Fern Platycerium coronarium and the Bird's Nest Fern Asplenium nidus are also to be found here in their natural habitat. Both these species cling to the trunks and branches of older trees, and their dead leaves form a large mass of wet, rotting vegetation which provides a niche for hanging ferns such as the Adder's Tongue Fern Ophioglossum pendulum. These ferns do no harm to the host trees.


Look but don't touch ! This Rattan has lethal spikes.


Spiky Rattans

The bane of many forest explorers, the Rattans bear fearsome spines on their stems and leaves. Numerous species are to be found in the reserve, particularly where a gap has appeared in the canopy and sunlight is streaming through. Not only for protection, the spines help the Rattan cling to the trunks of trees. Many Rattans grow to a height at which they are unable to support their own weight and they collapse in a tangle to the forest floor. Good examples of smaller Rattans are to be seen along the main road leading to the summit.

Rattans are an economically important group of forest plants in some countries, especially the Philippines, where their stems are treated and fashioned into useful implements or into beautiful, tropical furniture.


The unusual flower of the Black Lily Tacca intergrifolia 


Flowering Plants

In the absence of a wide seasonal variation in temperature, trees and shrubs flower intermittently in tropical rainforests. But the keen-eyed will always find some colourful blooms, though not necessarily at ground level. However, the visitor may come across the unusual purplish flowers of the Black Lily Tacca intergrifolia with its long, pendulous bracts.


Fruiting Figs


Fruits of the Forest

Visitors from temperate climates will be surprised to learn that the small, spherical, green "fruits" growing in abundance on the trunk and branches of certain trees are in fact figs, familiar as they are with the packets of large, processed, sugary figs of Middle Eastern origin which appear on supermarket shelves. Fig trees have many surprising characteristics. The fig "fruit" is actually a tiny bouquet of flowers turned inside-out, such that the reproductive structures are enclosed in a fruit-like protective case. The male and female flowers are arranged inside this structure to allow pollination by fig wasps, which enter through a tiny hole.




Each fig species relies on a totally different fig wasp to perform this function. In return for the fig wasp's services, the fig tree produces galls in which the fig wasp can lay its eggs and its young can grow in safety. Once the fig "fruits" have been pollinated and have matured it is feasting time for the birds, bats, squirrels and monkeys of the forest who unwittingly distribute the fertile seeds to other areas. Thus, fig trees are totally reliant on the animal kingdom for pollination and seed dispersal. Fig trees can easily be found at the forest edge, close to the Visitor Centre.  

Also at the edge of the Primary Forest you will find evidence of former occupation of the land. Brick walls and foundations of long forgotten homes lie amidst secondary regrowth and, here and there, fruit trees such as Rambutan, Banana, Durian and Jackfruit. 


Long-tailed Macaque
Macaca fascicularis


Secretive Wildlife

The forest is alive with birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians. So why can't they be seen ? Well, many forest species are extremely shy and are able to hide easily in the dense foliage or remain out of sight in the canopy. Many animals, such as lizards, frogs and toads are well camouflaged and rather than move away from the sound of approaching people will simply freeze. Many frogs and toads hide under leaf litter, but you may hear them croaking after a downpour or as night time approaches. And many species are nocturnal, such as the Flying Lemur or Colugo Galeopterus variegatus and the Pangolin or Scaly Anteater Manis javanica, which prefer to be active in the cool of night. The biggest obstacle to spotting wildlife, however, is our own noisy progress as we crash along the forest paths ! Walk slowly and quietly, and wear dull coloured clothes and you will get closer to the wildlife.   

Some forest species, however, are easy to spot including the Common Tree Shrew Tupaia glis and the Plantain Squirrel Callosciurus notatus. The Long-tailed Macaque Macaca fascicularis is the least shy of the forest dwellers; when you finish your walk in the forest and return to the Car Park you may well find them sitting on the roof of your car or admiring themselves in the wing mirror !