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Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Lost Habitat

Wednesday October 27, 2010

Lost habitat and disappearing wildlife

Story and illustration By WAN CHWEE SENG

Rapid development has forced the denizens of the wild into pockets of fragmented wood lots; others have to seek sanctuary in human homes.

AS twilight edges into night, a dark figure treads its way cautiously along the high wire stretched between two poles. The figure pauses. Wide, wary eyes scan the ground for onlookers. However, there is no appreciative audience to cheer it on and no thunderous applause to greet its daring act. 
From the front porch I am the sole, silent spectator of the drama unfolding before my eyes.
High above me a civet is edging its way along a telephone wire, its brilliant eyes gleaming in the dim light. Suddenly, it disappears among the thick canopy of a rambutan tree. Rapid development and the absence of a safe corridor may have forced the civet to take to the high wire.
Alone in the stillness and silence of the gathering darkness, I am left to ponder its fate and those of its kind. Today, as I drive along the busy highway leading to our housing estate, the grisly remains of run over creatures such as civets, monitor lizards, snakes and night-jars, often greet my eyes. Will the civet, too, suffer the same fate?
My mind drifts back to the early 1970s when we first moved into the housing estate. The housing estate was then fringed by trees and shrubs and the nearby hill was clad in dense verdant vegetation. The thickly wooded area on the hill was a haven for the many denizens of the wild.
I remember that evening, long ago, when I was driving home alone along the narrow and deserted stretch of road leading to our housing estate. In the deepening dusk, I caught sight of a long, murky shape creeping slowly across the road.
Python! The word flashed across my mind. I slowed down the car, eased it to the road shoulder and peered through the windscreen into the gloom. The scene that lay before me came as a pleasant surprise. A mother civet with five babies following closely in single file were heading towards a clump of wild cherry trees on the other side of the road.
I watched enthralled at the slow-moving procession. Long after they had melted into the darkness, I sat in the solitude of the car and tried to capture the magic moment to be stored as precious snapshots in my memory.
Today, 40 years on, the place where our children grew up is sadly different. The once narrow and quiet road is now a bustling highway. Gone, too, are the trees and shrubs that once fringed the neighbourhood and clad the nearby hill in verdant splendour.
In their places stand stark, massive concrete buildings. All that remain are fragmented patches of wood lots behind the few rows of houses. Here the few displaced wild animals have made them their home; others have to seek sanctuary in human homes.
There were nights when the fragrance of pandanus leaves drifted into our bedroom and we knew that a common palm civet was in the immediate vicinity of the house.
One night I heard a faint thud on the roof and the familiar musky fragrance assailed my nostrils. I tip-toed to the bedroom window and peered through the half-drawn curtains.
In a corner of the balcony, a pair of eyes gleamed bright in the darkness and I could make out the indistinct outline of a civet. It glided down a pillar and was soon on its way to forage for food from the neighbouring gardens. In the morning we would find evidence of its night’s meal. Mango peels, half-eaten custard apples and ciku often litter our driveway or lawn.
Early one morning after a night filled with thunder claps, forked lightning and slashing rain, I strolled over to open the bedroom window. I grabbed the edge of the heavy curtain and was about to draw back the curtain when I was taken aback by the sight of a furry grey ball that was lodged between the window panes and the mosquito screen.
I peered intently at the object and in the pre-dawn light saw a baby civet snugly curled up in its cosy corner. I gave a half-hearted clap to scare it away. Startled from its slumber, it gave me a doleful, innocent look and reluctantly crawled out from the warmth of its sanctuary to seek refuge under the eaves of the house.
The patch of wooded area behind our house has become home to a number of wild animals. One morning as I gazed out of the kitchen window, the branch of a nearby cempedak tree started to shake violently, as if it had been hit by a sudden gust of wind.
A pair of monkeys appeared from within its thick foliage. They swung from an overhanging branch to a papaya tree and were soon feasting on the young shoots. At that moment our next-door maid emerged from the kitchen door and sauntered to the other side of the house.
At the sight of the wide-opened door, one of the monkeys darted into the house and in a flash dashed out with a plastic container in its hand. With deft fingers, it opened the container and was soon relishing its unseen content.
Occasionally, it would stand erect on its hind legs, eyes straining into the distance for signs of any approaching intruder. The sound of muffled voices and intermittent chuckles wafted across the morning air from the other side of the house.
Assured of its relative safety by the sound of distant voices and laughter, it resumed its feast. Having satiated its appetite, the monkey finally climbed over the fence and scurried into the dense undergrowth.
A few days after the incident, two uniformed men brandishing shotguns could be seen scanning the nearby tree tops for the monkeys. A slight movement among the branches of a tree caught their attention and they headed for the direction. A gunshot shattered the morning air. I hoped and prayed it was just a shot to scare away the monkeys. A second shot rang out and then another. A long eerie silence ensued. All hopes were dashed.
“They are back!” an excited voice called out. I rushed to join my wife at the kitchen window. The sight that met our eyes filled us with joy. Under the dappled shadow of a durian tree, a female jungle fowl was busy scratching and uncovering food for her clutch of fuzzy chicks. Head bobbing in the morning air, she kept a wary eye for lurking predators.
“There should be three chicks, but I can only see two of them.”
“What happened to the other chick?” my wife inquired, an edge of anxiety creeping into her voice.
A large monitor lizard, tongue flicking, waddled languidly near the unsuspecting group. We feared for the worst. Suddenly, a chick darted out from the undergrowth to join its mother and we heaved a sigh of relief.
Sometimes we would hear the crow of a male jungle fowl and catch glimpses of it among the half-obscure mass of vegetation. Occasionally, it would perch on a nearby boulder and this provided us with the opportunity to study and admire this magnificent rooster with its resplendent plumage.
The rooster had a rich, red comb and wattles, and sported a cape of iridescent hues, while its streaming tail feathers of red, green, yellow and blue shimmered in the morning sunlight. The jungle fowl would vanish for days, weeks and even months and then reappear unexpectedly. Until then, two retirees will wait patiently for the home-coming.

‘’They are back!”

My eyes flash open at the magic words. With sleepy eyes from my interrupted afternoon nap, I peer though the half-open window.


A little girl comes running up the driveway and jumps into the waiting arms of her grandmother. My heart warms at the sight and sound. I know my children and grandchildren are here on a short visit, but at least I know they can always come back to a place which they can call home. Then I think about the wild animals in the woodlots behind our houses. I wonder how long it will be before they are driven out of their homes.
Somewhere behind the house I hear a rooster crows. It is a long and poignant crow that lingers in the still, slumberous afternoon air. Wildlife experts may say it is a mating call, but to me it sounds more like a lone rooster lamenting the loss of its natural habitat – their lost habitat.

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