Bridging the gap: Mandai Nature’s mission to tackle biodiversity loss in South-East Asia

Biodiversity loss presents one of the most pressing challenges of our time. Its consequences ripple through ecosystems, impacting everything from food and water security to human health and livelihoods. However, despite growing recognition of its importance, there exists a stark geographic misalignment between the magnitude of biodiversity loss and the financial and institutional resources allocated to address it. Singapore-based Mandai Nature is here to shift that and be a catalyst for the protection of some of South-East Asia’s most underrepresented species.

Biodiversity and funding on opposite sides of the globe

There is a striking imbalance between the geographical distribution of biological diversity and the allocation of human, institutional, and financial resources. Despite the fact that the majority of Earth’s biological diversity is concentrated in tropical regions, the resources available to conserve and protect this biodiversity are predominantly located in the Global North. This paradox presents a significant challenge for global conservation efforts, as it creates a disparity in the capacity to address biodiversity loss where it is most acute. Consequently, while the tropics harbour some of the richest and most threatened ecosystems on the planet, they often lack the necessary financial and institutional support to effectively manage and protect their natural heritage. This is exacerbated by the climate crisis as many biodiversity hotspots are highly vulnerable to climate change and are already impacted by it. 

Few would disagree that there is a need for increased investment in biodiversity conservation. However, the benefits of biodiversity conservation often only become visible over long time frames, while the costs are immediate and concrete. This disincentivizes investment in biodiversity conservation efforts, as many governments as well as businesses rather focus on short-term political cycles and financial goals, even if they come at the expense of biodiversity and the future of our planet. 

A local conservation arm

Here to start filling that gap is Mandai Nature. A non-profit conservation organisation based in Singapore, Mandai Nature focuses on protecting threatened species across South-East Asia, safeguarding their habitat and working together with local partners to explore conservation approaches that also help communities. The organisation supports about 40 various conservation organisations in the region, as can be seen on Mandai Nature’s website. “We mostly focus on supporting species that are less on people’s minds, those species which are overlooked by society,” Dr Andie Ang, Head of Primate Conservation and Singapore Programmes at Mandai Nature tells us. A unique aspect of Mandai Nature is that it is also the conservation arm of Mandai Wildlife Group which operates Singapore’s wildlife parks including Singapore Zoo, Night Safari and River Wonders. This means they are well placed to integrate species conservation efforts in and outside of the species’ native habitats for greater impact.  

We are walking in the Singapore Zoo together with Andie, as well as Delaney Eng, Senior Manager for local biodiversity. “Our goal is to support local organisations on the ground, and we do this through funding, development of capacity and skills, as well as by seeing the bigger picture and by linking local efforts to global agendas,” Andie explains. “We not only give out grants, but visit each of our local partners at least on a yearly basis, to see what’s happening on the ground and how we could further support their projects.”

“Take this unique turtle,” Delaney leads us to an aquarium with some very fascinating-looking turtles inside. The name fits its look, as the Rote snake-necked turtle can indeed be recognized for its uniquely long and slender necks, which they can extend to catch prey or for defensive purposes. “These turtles are primarily aquatic and live in ponds, streams, and other freshwater habitats solely on the island of Rote in Indonesia, but they haven’t been seen in their natural habitat since 2009. Unfortunately, due to habitat loss and overexploitation for the pet trade, the Rote snake-necked turtle is now critically endangered and can be considered one of the rarest turtles in the world,” Delaney explains. Since 2016, Mandai Nature has therefore been collaborating with the Wildlife Conservation Society -Indonesia Program (WCS-IP) to save this critically endangered species. In 2021, they achieved a huge milestone in their conservation journey. The first 13 turtles were successfully repatriated from Singapore Zoo to Indonesia as part of a global partnership with zoos in the US and Austria. Another 33 individuals were also subsequently sent back to Indonesia in 2023.

On the left: Rote snake-necked turtle in Singapore Zoo. Photo credit: Mandai Wildlife Group. On the right: Staff from Singapore Zoo’s Animal Care team and Mandai Nature prepping the crates to ensure a safe and comfortable journey for the turtles. Photo credit: Mandai Nature

In the next phase, breeding of the turtles is being done at a facility in the turtle’s native Indonesia, with the local government and conservation organisations working hard to reintroduce the first individuals back to the wild and hopefully recover their population. 

The work of Mandai Nature around the Rote snake-necked turtle is a great example for the One Plan Approach to species conservation. By collaborating with and supporting different organisations and partners across South-East Asia and hosting the IUCN SSC Asian Species Action Partnership, they are able to bring different actors together to achieve a united goal.

Mandai Nature supports a range of projects aimed at protecting and restoring vital ecosystems across South-East Asia through a network of partners. From reforestation efforts to the creation of wildlife corridors, and the protection of critically endangered wildlife, the programmes they support are designed to mitigate the impact of human activities and promote ecological resilience.

Mandai Nature in Singapore

Mandai Nature’s conservation endeavours contribute not only to wider conservation efforts in South-East Asia. They also conduct important activities in Singapore, partnering with government agencies, institutes of higher learning and various local NGOs. The organisation funds research and monitoring programmes aimed at understanding and protecting threatened species locally and globally, such as the Critically Endangered Raffles’ banded langur and the Sunda pangolin. “The Raffles’ banded langur project is a good example of how locals can be on board in conservation. We conduct a training session every six months to recruit citizen scientists who help to collect data on the Raffles’ banded langurs and other wildlife in our nature parks.” Andie, who has been studying these primates for over a decade, tells us. “We have been collecting data since 2016, and by now, we have had 500 citizen scientists contributing.” she adds. Roadkill incidences due to the lack of connectivity between tree canopies and forest fragments are a big danger to the species, but thanks to the help of the community that identified hotspots where the langurs crossed the road, the first canopy bridges for Raffles’ banded langurs were installed in 2019. They have been actively used by the langurs and other wildlife since.

Raffles’ banded langur on a rope bridge. Photo credit: Sabrina Jabbar

By the turn of the century, it was believed that the population of Raffles’ banded langurs in Singapore was so low that it was deemed as “living dead”. “In 2012, the population was estimated at 40 individuals, and by now, with various collaborative conservation efforts in place, we have around 73 individuals, which is really promising,” Andie explains. “Our concern now is that due to the small population, the genetic pool of the Raffles’ langurs is rather poor. This is why we are exploring the possibility of exchanging individuals from the Malaysian population to increase genetic diversity, but we need further studies to decide if this is feasible.” 

Raffles’ banded langur mother and child. Photo credit: Dr Andie Ang

As we continue walking in the very green and lush area of the zoo, to our great surprise, we see native wildlife inhabiting the trees and ponds all around. We spot our first colugo – a gliding, nocturnal mammal just resting high up on one of the trees, and several long-tailed macaques hanging out on the ground.

Sunda colugo with young. Photo credit: Craig Tan

“One of our big goals is to make the zoo more accessible for local wildlife, to create a good environment where native wildlife can coexist with the visitors and the animals of the zoo.” Delaney tells us as she introduces us to some of the wildlife rangers of the zoo. “They are trained in using deterrence techniques to minimise negative interactions between humans and macaques. We believe that by adopting a few simple solutions, our wildlife parks can also be a safe place for Singapore’s resident wildlife.” 

While exploring the Singapore Zoo, we learn about Mandai Nature’s various conservation breeding programmes as well as its activities creating a safe habitat in and around the zoo’s premises for Singapore’s resident wildlife. Macaque-safe trash cans (first photo on the right) are one of the many simple solutions that can mitigate human-wildlife conflict.

Seeing things holistically 

“One of the biggest challenges we face is how to get people to coexist with wildlife, how to change their perceptions,” Andie adds. In all of Mandai Nature’s projects, one can see positive examples of how being present on a local level, creating new collaborations, understanding the needs of local communities and strengthening the capacity of environmental institutions are creating a difference.

Within Singapore, Mandai Nature demonstrates the value of biodiversity conservation in an urban context. And on a broader scope of South-East Asia, the organisation ultimately addresses the gap between biodiversity loss and the resources required in this region of the world by providing funding, expertise and developing capacity building programmes. Through strengthening the cooperation between governments, businesses, civil society, and the international community, it adopts a holistic and integrated approach that is needed to secure a sustainable future for all.