Seeing beauty in creatures slithery, slimy or deadly

These herpetology enthusiasts show Singaporeans the importance of our reptiles and amphibians.

All my life I have been disgusted by lizards. My displeasure traces back to some bad encounters I've had with cicaks, when I was a kid, that traumatised me for life.

You can thus imagine my anxiety when I was sent to Ubin Day 2017 to follow the Herpetological Society of Singapore (HERPSOCSG) on one of their herptile-spotting sessions.


Co-founders Law Ingg Thong (left) and his elder brother Law Ing Sind (right) with their father at Ubin Day 2017.
PHOTO CREDITS: YOUTH.SG/MARK ONG

HERPSOCSG was founded in 2015 by six herpetology enthusiasts who want to change the negative mind-set individuals like me have towards herptiles – a term to describe both reptiles and amphibians.  

"A lot of people think herptiles are all dangerous, slimy and disgusting, but that's not the case. Herptiles have a special charm to them and HERPSOCSG aims to help people see that," said co-founder Law Ingg Thong, 20, as we explored Pulau Ubin. 

His 21-year-old elder brother Ingg Sind, who is also a co-founder of HERPSOCSG , added that the cicak, or common house gecko, can be useful in the home. Since they help control the population of mosquitoes, spiders and other insects, it is good to leave them alone, he said. 

Barely an hour into our wildlife hunt, we had already spotted two Oriental whip snakes camouflaged in the trees! I was amazed at how much wildlife there is in Singapore. 

While the Oriental whip snake is venomous, its venom is too weak to affect humans.
PHOTO CREDITS: YOUTH.SG/MARK ONG  

Did you know the longest snake in the world (Reticulated Python), the largest venomous snake in the world (King Cobra) as well as the largest crocodilian in the world (Saltwater Crocodile) can all be found on Singapore? Some critically endangered species like the Hawksbill turtle and Green sea turtle also call our waters home.

Raising awareness of these creatures is crucial if we are to be neighbours on this tiny island.

A flat-tailed gecko camouflaged on a tree bark.
PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTH.SG/MARK ONG 

However, convincing some people to appreciate and protect herptiles is not so straightforward. Once in a while, Ingg Thong encounters people who are adamant that all snakes are dangerous and should be killed.

The fresh graduate from the University of Reading said: "I avoid getting into personal arguments with them. Instead, I use scientific facts to break down their negativity and slowly change their mind-set. For example, one fact is most snakes will run away if they encounter a human."

Ingg Thong and the five co-founders recalled how they met each other in a haphazard fashion – some whilst trekking, and others at the Singapore Festival of Biodiversity in 2014. They are all involved in HERPSOCSG on a part-time basis, as they work or complete their studies. 

Co-founder Ingg Thong sharing his knowledge of herptiles with the public.
PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTH.SG/MARK ONG 

HERPSOCSG has a team of 25 members that conduct free guided walks at nature reserves once a month for the public. On top of that, they also regularly take part in events such as the Festival of Biodiversity and Ubin Day to educate the public on Singapore's wildlife.

"People are scared of what they don't understand. I also used to be wary of snakes because my parents would tell me they might bite," said Ingg Thong, who is currently awaiting his enlistment into National Service.

"However, our mum always brought us to nature reserves and parks to observe and mingle with the wildlife, and that's how we developed our interests," he added.


The shed skin of a King Cobra on display at the booth. King Cobras are native to Singapore and extremely rare.
PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTH.SG/MARK ONG

HERPSOCSG hopes to become a registered society in Singapore and start research projects of their own in the future. High on their to-do list is conducting outreach talks in schools to educate students about Singapore's diverse wildlife, to reduce the stigma people have about reptiles and amphibians.

"Take your time to understand the animals and observe them as much as you can, you may not fall in love with them like we have, but you'll at least understand that they're not a threat and they are a part of our ecosystem," said Ingg Thong.

BANNER PHOTO CREDIT: HERPETOLOGICAL SOCIETY OF SINGAPORE