Shocking that Singaporeans ask for wildlife to be 'returned' to the zoo, says Jane Goodall

Jane Goodall, the world's most-known expert on primates, says children as young as possible should get out to explore nature. This will help highly urbanised Singaporeans learn to co-exist with wildlife. — TODAY pic
Jane Goodall, the world's most-known expert on primates, says children as young as possible should get out to explore nature. This will help highly urbanised Singaporeans learn to co-exist with wildlife. — TODAY pic

SINGAPORE, Nov 27 — Singapore is a country where, when someone spots a snake in the park, it is not uncommon for the person to think of calling for help to send it to the zoo, thinking that it “belongs” there.

When this anecdote was posed yesterday to Jane Goodall, the renowned researcher who revolutionised the world’s knowledge of chimpanzee behaviour close to 60 years ago, she said that she often learns something new from the countries she visits — “often something shocking.” 

And this is one of it.

Remarking that she had never heard of such a mentality before even though she has been here several times, the 85-year-old considers it incongruous, since “most of our kids are saying, ‘No, they shouldn’t be any zoos. Animals should be in the wild.’”

Goodall was the primatologist who found that chimpanzees make and use tools, after taking the time to immerse herself in their habitat as a neighbour rather than a distant observer. Having been in Singapore in 2011, 2015 and 2017, she is in town this round for the Human-Wildlife Co-Existence in Asia: Conflicts and Mitigation Conference 2019, held at Marina Bay Sands Expo and Convention Centre.

During a press conference yesterday, she spoke in response to an observation made by an editor who volunteers with the Animal Concerns Research & Education Society (Acres).

Robin Hicks, deputy editor of news website Eco-Business, which reports on sustainable development in the region, said that as a volunteer, he often receives such requests from Singaporeans who demonstrate a lack of knowledge about wildlife here in the built-up and highly urbanised island.

One that came some months ago had a man telling him to remove a cobra from a public park, saying that “these animals belong in the zoo.”

Another involved a hornbill that was spotted near Delta Swimming Complex in Redhill. Residents living nearby called to tell Acres that it should be in Jurong Bird Park, he said.

These prompt the question of what Singapore can do to move away from this culture of intolerance towards wildlife, and Goodall said that education is important.

“A very major component... is to get children as young as possible out into nature. Because once kids get out there, once they see how things grow, once they can watch spiders making a web, then they become absolutely fascinated,” she said. 

Shark's fin soup

Asked to give her take on Singapore’s continued obsession with shark’s fin soup among certain groups of consumers, she recognised that as it exists as a cultural tradition among the Chinese and it would be a “hard one to crack.”

It boils down to education again, she added.

For hotels to stop offering the dish here, she said that individuals have the responsibility to not ask for shark’s fin and meat in dishes, or even to write a complaint on such a dish being offered. 

“If everybody did that, it would soon start to change, just as most hotels are beginning to have more vegetarian options,” she said.

Goodall — who became an “instant vegetarian” more than 50 years ago after seeing a pork chop on her plate and thinking that it represents fear, pain and death — then gave her feedback on the hotel hosting her during her stay here. 

She said it had only one vegetarian option for room service, and it was a cold dish, while she had wanted a hot one.

Travelling 300 days a year

Shark’s fin is certainly not one of the dishes at the gala dinner organised by the Jane Goodall Institute Singapore to raise funds last night.

The non-governmental organisation, founded in 2007, is one of 34 such institutes Goodall had set up across the world to empower individuals to make a difference for all living things. Here, it is working with schools and communities to increase awareness on the conservation of Singapore’s indigenous monkey populations, among other issues.

During the dinner, she revealed in a speech that she continues to travel the world 300 days a year to speak about the threats facing chimpanzees, environmental crises and her reasons for hope in protecting the natural world.

She also enchanted her audience with a demonstration of the hooting cry she would make to the chimpanzees in Africa where she was studying them. 

In the English language, her hoots mean, “This is me. This is Jane” in chimpanzee, she said. — TODAY

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