Photos by Gloria Seow & Timothy Pwee
Jalan Kubor Cemetery is a green oasis in the city centre proffering a good variety of wildlife.
Is there wildlife in Singapore's city centre? The answer is a resounding yes, even if this green oasis is surrounded on four sides by busy roads. We confirmed this happy fact in our morning walk at Jalan Kubor Cemetery on 3 December 2016. As the oldest Muslim cemetery in Singapore, Jalan Kubor (‘cemetery road’ in Malay) is located off Victoria Street. The graves of many prominent Malays and Muslims who lived in the 19th and 20th centuries can be found here, nestled amidst stately trees.
Led by Uncle Timothy, our nature and culture walk started at the elevated platform where Malay royalty laid buried. We learnt that royal tombs have rich yellow cloth wrapping the head and foot gravestones, while those of commoners are covered in white fabric or simply left bare. We did not come across any tomb with green cloth, which is reserved for religious leaders. Uncle Tim revealed that Muslims have to be buried (not cremated) within 24 hours of death. The body is swathed in fabric and placed in direct contact with the earth (no coffin). The body rests sideways with the face towards Mecca. Hence, all graves are oriented in the same direction.
A 2014 NHB documentation project uncovered gravestones inscribed in scripts such as Arabic, Malay, Javanese, Bugis, Gujarati, English and Chinese, pointing to the cultural diversity in the Kampong Glam area.
Stepping down from the royal burial platform, Auntie Lena noticed some red ‘berries’ growing as ground cover. This plant was identified post-trip as the Snake Pennywort (Geophila repens), one of just seven existing populations in Singapore, according to a 2010 paper published in ‘Nature in Singapore’ journal. Coincidentally, Auntie Gloria has subsequently found three new patches of Geophila repens in the Toa Payoh area, and suspects that this plant is probably more widespread but under observed. We then turned our attention to the strangling fig trees (Ficus spp) common in the area. Auntie Gloria highlighted the symbiotic relationship between figs and their species-specific wasps that are key to the figs’ propagation.
We came across food plants like Noni (Morinda citrifolia) and Fragrant Pandan (Pandanus amaryllifolius), likely cultivated by caretakers who used to live onsite in a building that has since been demolished. Next, Auntie Gloria pointed out the distinctive call of the Koel (Eudynamys scolopaceus), a black cuckoo named after its incessant ‘koel koel’ vocalisations. This bird is Singapore’s unofficial ‘alarm clock’ with calls starting as early as 4.30 am. The Koel is the brood parasite of the House Crow. Uncle Tim explained that Koels are known to work in pairs. The male tricks the House Crow to leave its nest, whereupon its mate sneaks in to replace the crow’s eggs with her own. Hence, House Crows unwittingly raise baby Koels. Auntie Lena then found a Collared Kingfisher (Todiramphus chloris) perched high, which we took turns admiring through the scope.
This Banded Bullfrog baby was just one of many we found hopping around.
A 2014 documentation project by the National Heritage Board (NHB) uncovered gravestones inscribed in scripts such as Arabic, Malay, Javanese, Bugis, Gujarati, English and Chinese, an indication of the cultural diversity in the Kampong Glam area. We strolled into another section of the cemetery that used to come under the care of the Aljunied family. Here, Auntie Lena spotted a tiny froglet that was identified by Auntie Gloria as the Banded Bullfrog (Kaloula pulchra) as it had a golden stripe across its crown. Soon after, we were delighted to realise that there were many baby frogs around. We had fun delicately picking up the froglets and observing their tiny forms. This frog bounty was likely due to monsoonal rain puddles conducive to amphibian reproduction.
A basking Changeable Lizard.
We visited the enclosed burial area of the Aljunied family that once held about 70 remains. In 2002, these were exhumed. The verdant Aljunied section also produced a variety of reptile, bird, butterfly and plant encounters. Highlights include a Changeable Lizard (Calotes versicolor) basking just metres from us; a friendly Asian Brown Flycatcher (Muscicapa dauurica); Chocolate Pansy (Junonia hedonia ida) and its caterpillar host plant Hemigraphis reptans; as well as the Saga (Adenanthera pavonina) and Breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis) trees. Kids were particularly thrilled with the red Saga seeds that some people are known to collect compulsively. Even as guides, we were surprised and thankful for the diversity of wildlife sightings that morning.