Meet the stewards of Singapore’s green scene. In the face of a climate crisis whose repercussions are felt even in tiny Singapore, these five environmental heroes are stepping up to lead change in the field of conservation and sustainability. First up is our cover girl and recipient of the Prestige Vanguard Award 2021, Dr Jessica Lee, for her work in preserving our natural heritage. The conservation biologist is jungle-deep in her quest to bring together nature and people for Singapore’s new green future.
Dr Jessica Lee charmed the Prestige team when she turned up for our 40 Under 40 photo shoot earlier in July. Clad in boots, with her long, curly hair piled in a top knot and “parrots” dangling off her ears, she recounted exciting tales of her work. We were in awe as she detailed a 15-hour sampan ride to a remote Javanese island and effortlessly identified a bird’s species through a voice recording. Needless to say, she left an impression.
Two months later, we meet again. This time, she is our cover girl and the recipient of our Prestige Vanguard Award 2021, which is given to the most impressive young change-maker. Jessica stands out for her impact on the demanding field of environmental conservation.
The 36-year-old is the assistant vice-president of conservation and research of Mandai Nature, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) dedicated to protecting threatened species and nurturing healthy ecosystems and vibrant communities where wildlife and people can thrive and co-exist. Established by Temasek and Mandai Park Holdings (MPH) in December 2020, Mandai Nature advances past conservation work through nature-based solutions and close partnerships with local communities and organisations.
Its launch is timely as the Mandai area is set to become an integrated nature and wildlife destination. The Mandai Precinct is a 126ha eco-tourism hub that spans five nature and wildlife reserves. This includes a multi-layered Rainforest Park and a newly relocated Bird Park. The latter will house one of the world’s largest collections of birds, and a breeding and research facility for the captive propagation of critically endangered species.
The wildlife destination will also feature an eco-resort operated by luxury hospitality brand Banyan Tree. The 338-room property comprises hotel rooms, elevated cabins and 24 tree houses shaped like seed pods. Guests will be able to participate in curated programmes such as conservation talks and tours.
“This is what the city of the future should look like, where conservation and coexistence between humans and wildlife are core to everything we do,” says Jessica. “I see Mandai Precinct as a role model for conservation in an urban setting.”
The redevelopment offers an opportunity to start conservation from scratch. She elaborates: “We can incorporate principles such as retention of forests and habitat connectivity early on. It’s a chance to have core concepts of conservation trialled and validated in an urban setting, and translated overseas. The work we do in Mandai has implications not only in Singapore, but in Southeast Asia, which is rapidly developing. Mandai Precinct can ultimately be a conservation hub.”
Mandai Nature plays a strategic advisory role to the development as the NGO functions as the supporting conservation arm. “We offer counsel to the project as we know the wider conservation landscape locally and regionally.”
At Mandai Nature, Dr Jessica has multi-level roles. She facilitates local and regional conservation research projects supported by Mandai Nature, works with colleagues to further establish Singapore’s four zoological parks as havens for biodiversity and manages local wildlife conservation. A conservation ornithologist by training, she also oversees the NGO’s avian conservation programmes across Southeast Asia.
A soaring passion
Jessica’s interest in birds began almost three decades ago, when her grandfather, a songbird keeper, bought her a parakeet. As she recounts this over our Zoom call, one enters the frame. Jessica keeps five South American parakeets – all of them rescued – at home and also fosters others. “This one here is a dead giveaway,” she says, when I ask about her favourite bird.
In her teenage years, she was a frequent volunteer at the Bird Park. She credits her parents for encouraging her passion. “I’m in a field that not many parents would say ‘yes’ to. Conservation is not particularly known for being income-generating,” she says with a chuckle. Asked about her role models aside from her loved ones and team, she names Sir David Attenborough. “It’s a cliche but I watched all of his documentaries. Also, my birds, as I wake up and go to bed listening to them. Maybe my birds first, then Attenborough.”
Her family’s move to Australia was her gateway to working with wildlife. While she had initially pursued avian medicine, her volunteer work at rescue centres and clinics led to her calling. She took two months off before her honours year in her degree programme to volunteer in Costa Rica.
“It was eye-opening to see people preserving wildlife with the bare minimum of resources,” says Jessica, who completed her postgraduate certificate and diploma in tropical ecology upon her return and, subsequently, her doctorate on avian biology and management.
In 2015, she came back to Singapore after a stint running the threatened cockatoo programme at BirdLife Australia. “From a conservation standpoint, I realised that there are many gaps in Southeast Asia that need to be filled.”
On what she learnt when she first started as a field biologist and worked on-site, she says: “I didn’t know what the other half of conservation was, which is ex-situ (off-site). I was working in a silo. It made me understand the value of bringing those two halves together for a holistic approach. In fact, people don’t know that the bulk of conservation work happens behind the screen. We can’t be everywhere so a lot of it is done remotely.”
Many are also unaware of a zoo’s importance, adds Jessica, who highlights the role of modern zoos as conservation powerhouses: “They not only fund and support conservation work in the region, but also play a crucial role in the ex-situ area of enhancing research and breeding programmes. These support people who are working with the species in the wild. It’s two sides of the same coin.”
The people problem
The biggest challenge to conservation is people, which is now Mandai Nature’s new pillar, alongside habitats. “While we recognise that people are a problem when it comes to conservation, they are also the only solution. We cannot save the world without working with people.”
One of Mandai Nature’s goals is coexistence between humans and wildlife. Jessica, who is the coordinator of the IUCN SSC Asian Songbird Trade Specialist Group, brings up an issue close to heart. Keeping songbirds, which is common to Singapore and the wider region, is driving the decline of the species.
Tackling this requires identifying common ground and navigating cultural sensitivities. She explains: “We want to understand what’s motivating people like my grandfather to keep these birds. Only then can we develop the right message and build the relationship so it results in the species preservation. In Javanese culture, they say that to be a man, you need a house, a horse, a knife, a wife and a bird. In Indonesia, there is a high domestic demand for songbirds and their accompanying products. Keeping songbirds is also a major income generator for the community.”
In such scenarios, a change of mindset, where the bird becomes more valuable in the world than captivity, is the goal. “We work with them and suggest keeping commonly bred birds instead of the highly threatened, or eco-tourism as a replacement for an income generator. Behavioural change is not something that happens overnight. Different countries have different priorities and we don’t all share the same priority for conservation. We need to sit down, talk it out and engage the stakeholders constructively.”
Another setback is the lack of capacity. Jessica highlights the problem when partners are dedicated but don’t have the right resources. In Mandai Nature’s role as a connector and facilitator, it assists in finding funding for workshops and training. To that end, her team links its partners with companies that have corporate social responsibility programmes. “There are companies who have the funds but don’t know where to turn to. We can ensure that these investments are made in the most effective manner for conservation outcomes.”
Mandai Nature also trains NGOs and local communities so they can work effectively independently. “During the pandemic, conservation groups couldn’t go out into the field. A lot of them shut down; even those that have been around for 10 to 20 years.” Mandai Nature aims to build the capacity of these local communities so they can be self-reliant in the long term. “If the NGO is unable to be in the field, the community can still do the conservation work.”
Currently, Jessica is working with Mandai Nature’s partners to expand their programmes based on its human, habitat and climate pillars. “We plan to incorporate these ecological and economic benefits of nature while still preserving species conservation.” The organisation is looking at a three-year plan that will offer an integrated approach to conservation across Southeast Asia.
If you’re wondering how the average person can help with conservation, Jessica suggests a pragmatic perspective: “I don’t want to give you the same spiel of donating money and living sustainably. People are quick to jump on the bandwagon now. Inform yourself appropriately and know where to get the right information. Engage in difficult conversations constructively and provide solutions.”
FASHION DIRECTION JOHNNY KHOO
ART DIRECTION AUDREY CHAN
PHOTOGRAPHY JOEL LOW
FASHION STYLING JACQUIE ANG
HAIR JIMMY YAP/KIMISTRY, USING DYSON
MAKE-UP WEE MING, USING CHANEL
PHOTOGRAPHY ASSISTANCE EDDIE TEO
(Main and featured image: Dr Jessica Lee wears a jumpsuit from Prada)
This story first appeared in the October 2021 issue of Prestige Singapore.