In the middle of Dover Forest East is an aircraft carrier. Or, rather, that’s what some humans call a towering, 20-metre-tall tree that dominates a patch of forest land. There is an enormity and an absurdity to its trunk’s H-shaped formation. Criss-crossing branches of varying thickness create an intricate weave pattern around the trunk. It looks as if two lovers are locked in embrace, each with one foot in the moist, brown-leaf-littered forest floor. Other plants keep their distance, as if in deference to a complex, hybrid, otherworldly mutant.
What exactly is it? The aircraft carrier’s host tree is a durian, probably planted by the kampungers who lived on this land before the government acquired it in the 1970s.
Wrapping itself around the durian is a banyan, Ficus virens, which is endangered in Singapore. To my untrained eye, it appears as if the banyan has crept along the forest floor and worked its way up the durian.
But that’s not how banyans grow. It happens in reverse: top to bottom. Banyans belong to the fig family. Birds often disperse their tiny seeds on branches near the forest’s canopy. When they germinate, their roots grow downwards, in search of nutrients in the forest floor, or in the trunk of the host tree itself. Over time the banyan’s roots might resemble the tree’s trunk. The banyan is effectively strangling—and nourishing itself through—the abandoned durian.
From that union new life blooms. This includes the tiny, glow-in-the-dark mushrooms, Filoboletus manipularis, that drew the attention of The Guardian for a piece on bioluminescence (thereby immortalising Dover Forest).
Meanwhile, in the crevices of the banyan’s strangling roots one finds a far less agreeable species: the Singapore tarantula, Phlogiellus inermis. Each individual’s home is recognisable because of the wispy, white tunnel web covering it.
When he walks Jom around the forest, Chua Chin Tat, Singaporean activist, conservationist and champion of Dover Forest East (and West), asks Weilee Yap, a videographer, and me to move in closer to see if we can spot a tarantula. I jump back. Thankfully—for me—none emerges.
“The four things we mentioned [durian, banyan, mushrooms, tarantula] are just what’s visible at eye level,” Chin Tat says. “On the high branches of this tree, you have a lot of parasitic plants growing on them.”
One is a mistletoe whose flowers provide nectar for butterflies and other insects, and whose leaves feed caterpillars. Squirrels nest in the upper reaches. And when the banyan fruits, he says, its thousands of figs feed many different species of birds.
“You have a whole mini ecosystem coming down and coalescing onto this one individual, so it's like an aircraft carrier.”
The one troubling thing on the aircraft carrier is a small metal plate, bearing the number 829, which has been affixed onto the trunk of the host durian tree. The plate represents a survey, and for most individuals here a way station on their journeys to their graves.
Singapore’s Housing Development Board (HDB) is about to raze Dover Forest East. Though he no longer believes it can be saved, Chin Tat (doverforest.sg) is on a mission to wake Singaporeans from our stupor, to get us to pay more attention to these secondary forests that we are losing.
In November 2020, HDB published an environmental baseline study of Dover Forest, a 33-hectare area—almost eight times the size of the Padang—between Commonwealth Avenue, Clementi Road, and two neighbourhoods: Ghim Moh’s public housing blocks, and Mount Sinai’s landed bungalows.
In Singapore, such studies are published right before development begins. HDB called for a public consultation, inviting Singaporeans to submit feedback on the study.
This jolted Chin Tat and other environmentalists into action. He started exploring the forest in February 2021, “...to see what I can find in the forest, to raise awareness that this is a patch of forest that is worth conserving.”
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By 2030, Singapore is set to lose 4,700 hectares of secondary forests, equivalent to over a thousand Padangs. We follow Chua Chin Tat, environmental activist, around Dover Park East, a 50-odd-year-old secondary forest to learn about his efforts to stop its destruction.