Bukit Timah Nature Reserve

Singapore Infopedia


Bukit Timah Nature Reserve encompasses the slopes and summit of Singapore’s highest hill, Bukit Timah, which is 162.5 m above sea level.1 The 163-hectare nature reserve, which is protected under the Parks and Trees Act 2005, contains the largest primary forest in Singapore. Forty percent of the local flora and fauna can be found in the reserve.2 It was officially declared an ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Heritage Park on 18 October 2011.3

Origin of name
The Malay name Bukit Timah translates to “Tin Hill”. However, the hill is composed mainly of granite and tin deposits have never been found in the area, so it has been suggested that the name was a corruption of “Bukit Temak”. Temak is the Malay name for Shorea, a genus of tall rainforest tree in the dipterocarp family. Some botanists also attribute the term Temak to the species Shorea roxburghii, but this particular tree is usually only found in northern Malaysia, Thailand, India and Vietnam.4 Hence, it is most likely that the term Temak was used loosely by locals to refer to any tree of the Shorea genus, possibly the Shorea curtisii species (also known as the seraya tree), which is commonly found in the Bukit Timah forest.5

Establishment of the nature reserve
The earliest reference to conserving the forests of Bukit Timah Hill is thought to be in an 1848 paper by James Richardson Logan published in the Journal of the Indian Archipelago and Eastern Asia. Logan stated that the “destruction of forest on the summits of hills [in Singapore]” at the time was “absolutely prohibited” by the governor. It is presumed that Bukit Timah Hill was among the places Logan had referred to.6 By the 1850s, however, pepper and gambier plantations had occupied swathes of land around Bukit Timah Hill.7

As Bukit Timah was rapidly deforested, the colonial government began to pay more attention to the issue; by 1879, the hill had come under protection for “climactic purposes”, as mentioned in a report on Malayan forests by then colonial engineer J. F. A. McNair. At the time, the protection of forests in Singapore was thought to be beneficial to health and crucial for maintaining a good climate. In his report, McNair also recommended the formation of a forestry department to oversee the conservation of the remaining forests and to carry out reforestation. However, none of these measures was implemented.8

In 1883, commissioned by Governor Frederick Weld, then superintendent of the Botanic Gardens (now known as the Singapore Botanic Gardens) Nathaniel Cantley published a report on the state of Singapore’s forests. In his “scathing” report, Cantley pushed for the creation of forest reserves under protective legislation, reforestation of cleared land and the establishment of a forestry department.9 By 1884, the Forestry Department, led by Cantley, had been set up and Bukit Timah declared a reserve. A protected area of 343 ha was demarcated by a boundary six miles (9.7 km) in circumference and 16 ft (4.9 m) wide. The boundary acted as a fire break, preventing fires from spreading into the reserve area.10 Patrolling of the reserve was also started to discourage illegal harvesting.11

Unfortunately, by this time only one-third of the reserve was still forested, with the rest of the area comprising largely grass, ferns and brushwood. New trees – both foreign and native, such as teak and casuarina – were planted with saplings grown in the nursery that had been set up within the reserve in 1884. Reforestation efforts took place from 1884 to 1893; in 1886, it was reported that 48 ha of land had been replanted with trees.12 The reforestation, however, was met with mixed success.13

During the years that followed, the municipal budget for the forest reserve steadily declined because the land generated low revenue. In 1909, 52 ha of the reserve area east and northeast of Bukit Timah were taken over by the municipality for the expansion of a water catchment area.14

The nature reserve was reconstituted in 1930 to include only forest land, reducing its area to about 70 ha.15 The following year, the government proposed to abolish all forest reserves, citing that the income generated was dismal. However, with the intervention of the then director of the Botanic Gardens, Eric Holttum, it was decided in 1936 that a portion of the Bukit Timah reserve would be preserved.16 One year later, the forest reserve came under the charge of the Gardens, after being managed by the Land Office since 1895.17 In 1939, Bukit Timah was regazetted as a forest reserve.18

Economic versus ecological value
The main threat to the nature reserve had been the pursuit of revenue instead of protecting it for its ecological value. Although reforestation had been carried out during the colonial era, this was done primarily for economic ends: trees with valuable timber such as teak and mahogany were replanted with the intention of felling them for their wood upon maturity.19

Following the failed replanting of teak in the 1880s,20 a gutta percha (Palaquium gutta) plantation was established on the lower slopes of the hill in 1898, which eventually occupied 40 ha of the area. These trees produced latex, which was in high demand at the time.21 Other forest trees overshadowing the gutta percha were deemed “useless” and consequently thinned out.22 A rubber plantation, which by 1910 had encompassed 16 ha of land, was later added.23

One of the major threats to the Bukit Timah reserve was granite quarrying – the discussion for which had started as early as 1902 in the face of increasing demand for granite, used for constructing roads and other infrastructure.24

In the late 1940s to 1950, public disagreements arose regarding the presence of quarries in the Bukit Timah forest, and their threat to the nature reserve as they encroached on the area.25 Again, Holttum was central in the discussion and advocated for protection of the reserve against the exploitation of natural resources.26

The government responded by appointing a committee to study the situation.27 The final report released in 1951 recommended the gradual closure of the quarries in the immediate vicinity of the nature reserve; until then, restrictions would be imposed on quarry operators to safeguard the area.28 Significantly, the report led to the enactment of the Nature Reserves Act of 1951, which accorded legislative protection to nature reserves – a milestone in the history of nature conservation in Singapore.29

Quarrying at Bukit Timah, however, continued until the 1990s.30 The now-disused Hindhede Quarry, located just outside the southwestern end of the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, had existed as early as the 1930s and only closed in 1990.31 It is presently part of the Hindhede Nature Park, which opened on 17 August 2001.32

Construction of infrastructure
From as early as the 1840s, man-made structures have been constructed within and around the Bukit Timah reserve. By 1840 Bukit Timah Road had been completed, and the path leading up to its summit was built in 1843.33 Over time, parcels of land from the reserve were also carved out for a rifle range and railway line.34

Around 1856, a government bungalow was built on the summit of Bukit Timah Hill and made available to the public to rent. This building was demolished in the 1950s to make way for two telecommunication towers. The land where the telecommunications towers stand is managed by SingTel, and not protected as part of the nature reserve. Parts of the summit and surrounding areas were polluted by toxic copper slag in the late 1980s when an accident occurred during shot-blast cleaning of the towers.35

Bukit Timah Expressway
The largest infrastructure development that affected the nature reserve was the construction of the six-lane Bukit Timah Expressway, or BKE, which bisected Bukit Timah Nature Reserve and the Central Catchment Nature Reserve. The expressway was completed in 1985.36 Conservationists and naturalists argued that the isolation of the flora and fauna at the Bukit Timah forest from the much larger Central Catchment forest would adversely affect biodiversity and threaten their survival.37 In 2013, 28 years after the completion of the expressway, a 50-metre-wide green corridor known as the Eco-Link@BKE was built to allow wildlife to safely cross from one forest tract to the other.38

Flora and fauna
Researchers have found that a one-hectare plot of land within Bukit Timah Nature Reserve contains more tree species than the whole of North America.39 The nature reserve supports 1,000 species of flowering plants and over 500 species of wildlife.40 One specimen of Shorea curtisii (seraya) located in the forest is estimated to be over 370 years old.41 The nature reserve is also the habitat of two species of freshwater crab that are native only to Singapore: Johora singaporensis and Irmengardia johnsoni.42 In 2012, a new plant species, named Hanguana neglecta, was discovered in the nature reserve.43

Up until the 1930s, tigers were reported to have been spotted in the Bukit Timah forest reserve.44 Between the 1830s and 1850s, the Bukit Timah forest, among others on the island, was notorious for tiger attacks and sightings. However, by the end of the century, the tiger population had fallen sharply and the threat greatly reduced.45

Recent decades
After Singapore’s independence, as the government implemented various policies aimed at preserving and creating greenery, such as its “garden city” vision, more official attention was paid to Bukit Timah Nature Reserve with increasing awareness of its importance as a green lung in urbanised Singapore. This led to the expansion of the reserve area in 1995 to include a further 125 ha.46

Developments such as the construction of trails and amenities were constructed in the nature reserve to help promote its attraction as a nature destination. These efforts have paid off: Visitorship to the reserve increased from 80,000 in 1992 to 400,000 in 2014.47 Greater human traffic and the passage of time have led to degradation in the reserve such as worn trails and soil erosion. As a result, the National Parks Board closed parts of the nature reserve in September 2014 for repairs and restoration that would take place over two years.48 After phase one of the project was completed in April 2015, the public can access the nature reserve, albeit only from the main road, Hindhede Drive, and on weekends.49


Lee Meiyu & Fiona Lim

1. R. T. Corlett, “Introduction,” Gardens’ Bulletin Singapore supplementary 3 (1995), 1. (Call no. RSING 581.05 SIN)
2. R. T. Corlett, R. T. (1995). “Flowering Plants at Bukit Timah,” Gardens’ Bulletin Singapore supplementary 3 (1995), 25 (Call no. RSING 581.05 SIN); “Bukit Timah Nature Reserve,” National Parks Board, accessed 8 November 2015.
3. National Parks Board, “President Visits Treetop Walk to Reiterate Importance of Urban Forests – Visit Marks Celebration of Bukit Timah Nature Reserve’s Announcement as an ASEAN Heritage Park,” press release, 19 October 2011.
4. Shawn Lum and Ilsa Sharp, A View from the Summit: The Story of Bukit Timah Nature Reserve (Singapore: Nanyang Technological University and the National University of Singapore, 1996), 13 (Call no. RSING 333.78095957 VIE); “Shorea Roxburghii G.Don,” National Parks Board, n.d.
5. Lum and Sharp, View from the Summit, 13;Shorea Curtisii,” National Parks Board, n.d.
6. R. T. Corlett, “The History of Bukit Timah Nature Reserve,” Gardens’ Bulletin Singapore supplementary 3 (1995), 7 (Call no. RSING 581.05 SIN); J R Logan, “The Probable Effects on the Climate of Pinang of the Continued Destruction of Its Hill Jungles,” Journal of the Indian Archipelago and Eastern Asia 2 (1848): 534. (From BookSG)
7. J. Van Whye, “Wallace in Singapore,” in Nature Contained: Environmental Histories of Singapore, ed. Timothy P. Barnard (Singapore: NUS Press, 2014), 90. (Call no. RSING 304.2095957 NAT)
8. “The Forests in the Straits Settlements,” Straits Times, 14 September 1883, 2 (From NewspaperSG); T. O’Dempsey, “Singapore’s Changing Landscape since c.1800,” in Nature Contained: Environmental Histories of Singapore, ed. Timothy P. Barnard (Singapore: NUS Press, 2014), 29–31. (Call no. RSING 304.2095957 NAT)
9. O’Dempsey, “Singapore’s Changing Landscape,” 29, 32–33.
10. “Untitled,” Straits Times, 27 May 1885, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
11. “Untitled,” Straits Times, 24 May 1884, 2 (From NewspaperSG); O’Dempsey, “Singapore’s Changing Landscape,” 33.
12. Lum and Sharp, View from the Summit, 21; Corlett, “History of Bukit Timah Nature Reserve,” 7; “Untitled.”
13. “Annual Report on the Forests of Singapore for the Year 1888,” Straits Times Weekly Issue, 2 August 1889, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
14. Corlett, “History of Bukit Timah Nature Reserve,” 8.
15. “Untitled,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 27 October 1930, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
16. “Singapore Forests,” Straits Times, 15 June 1936, 13. (From NewspaperSG)
17. Lum and Sharp, View from the Summit, 22, 25.
18. Lum and Sharp, View from the Summit, 26; Fewer Thefts at Bukit Timah Reserve,” Straits Times, 7 July 1939, 14. (From NewspaperSG)
19. “Forestry in the Straits Settlements,” Straits Times, 2 July 1886, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
20. “Annual Report on the Forests of Singapore.”
21. Corlett, “History of Bukit Timah Nature Reserve,” 8.
22. “Forest Administration,” Straits Times, 16 April 1910, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
23. Lum and Sharp, View from the Summit, 22.
24. “Legislative Council,” Straits Times, 29 January 1902, 5; “Singapore Roads,” Straits Times, 17 April 1902, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
25. “‘Must Protect Forest Reserve’,” Singapore Free Press, 24 September 1948, 5; “Quarry Protest Ban,” Straits Times, 20 April 1950, 4; “New Scheme for Bukit Timah Quarries,” Straits Times, 3 May 1950, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
26. Lum and Sharp, View from the Summit, 27; ‘Must Protect Forest Reserve’.”
27. “Govt. to Probe Bukit Timah Hill Quarrying,” Straits Times, 22 March 1950, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
28. “Indigenous Singapore,” Straits Times, 3 February 1951, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
29. Lum and Sharp, View from the Summit, 28.
30. Irene Hoe, “Is the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve Dying Slowly?” Straits Times, 24 March 1985, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
31. “Granite Quarry Owners Seek to Resume Blasting,” Business Times, 18 June 1990, 2; Tan Shzr Ee, “In Pursuit of Their Quarry,” Straits Times, 2 November 2003, 7; “Page 4 Advertisements Column 5,” Straits Times, 9 May 1932, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
32. Mah Bow Tan, “The Official Opening of Hindhede Nature Park,” speech, Hindhede Nature Park, 17 August 2001, Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts. (From National Archives of Singapore document no. 2001081702)
33. Lum and Sharp, View from the Summit, 15; Walter Makepeace, Gilbert E. Brooke and Roland St. J. Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore, vol. 2 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1991), 589. (Call no. RSING 959.57 ONE-[HIS])
34. Lum and Sharp, View from the Summit, 23.
35. Lum and Sharp, View from the Summit, 16–17, 30.
36. Judy Tan, “A Picture Postcard Drive,” Straits Times, 6 December 1985, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
37. Hoe, “Bukit Timah Nature Reserve”; Ilsa Sharp, “More Take a Closer Walk with Nature,” Straits Times, 6 October 1983, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
38. “Eco-Link@BKE,” National Parks Board, 4 November 2015.
39. Audrey Tan, “Incredible Number’ of Tree Species in Small Area,” Straits Times, 3 May 2015, 41. (From NewspaperSG)
40. “Bukit Timah Nature Reserve,” National Parks Board, n.d.
41. Chang Ai-Liin, “Green Peace,” Straits Times, 9 August 2005, 69. (From NewspaperSG)
42. K. L. Ng, “Freshwater Decapod Crustaceans,” Gardens’ Bulletin Singapore supplementary 3 (1995), 151. (Call no. RSING 581.05 SIN);
43. “‘A Small Species ‘Hidden’ in Plain Sight’,” Straits Times, 29 December 2014. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website) 
44. “Singapore Tiger Tracked By Malay,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 25 March 1935, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
45. Timothy P. Barnard and M. Emmanuel, “Tigers of Colonial Singapore,” in Nature Contained: Environmental Histories of Singapore, ed. Timothy P. Barnard (Singapore: NUS Press, 2014), 79 (Call no. RSING
304.2095957 NAT); Lum and Sharp,
View from the Summit, 16.
46. Urban Redevelopment Authority (Singapore), Living the Next Lap: Towards a Tropical City of Excellence (Singapore: Urban Redevelopment Authority, 1991), 28–31 (Call no. RSING 307.36095957 LIV); “Bukit Timah Reserve Gets Room to Spread,” Straits Times, 6 June 1995, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
47. Jalelah Abu Baker, “Nature Reserve Closing? Try Other Trails,” Straits Times, 14 September 2014, 15. (From NewspaperSG)
48. National Parks Board, “Bukit Timah Nature Reserve Restoration Works – Limited Access to Ensure Public Safety,” press release, 2 June 2014.
49. National Parks Board, “Bukit Timah Nature Reserve to Open to Public on Weekends from 4 April 2015,” press release, 1 April 2015.

Further resources
F. E. S. Alexander, Report on the Availability of Granite on Singapore and the Surrounding Islands (Singapore: [s.n.], 1950). (Call no. RCLOS 553.52 ALE)

Forests of Singapore,” Straits Times, 10 August 1908, 7. (From NewspaperSG)

Nicholas Leong, “Hark, the Rainforest Whispers,” Straits Times, 28 June 1992, 16. (From NewspaperSG)

Things That Go Ssssss in the S’pore Night,” Straits Times, 28 February 1988, 12. (From NewspaperSG)

The information in this article is valid as of 19 November 2015 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

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