Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve

Singapore Infopedia


Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve (SBWR) is Singapore’s first wetland nature reserve.1 It was officially opened on 6 December 1993 as the Sungei Buloh Nature Park,2 and gazetted as a nature reserve on 1 January 2002.3 Located at 301 Neo Tiew Crescent, the SBWR presently spans 202 ha of mangrove swamp, mudflats, ponds and rainforest along the northwestern shore of Singapore, providing a range of habitats for a wide diversity of flora and fauna.4 Every year, thousands of migratory birds visit the wetland reserve, which is situated along their migratory path from the northern hemisphere, to roost and feed.5

The Sungei Buloh area, comprising some 457 ha of mangrove swamp, was designated a forest reserve as early as 1890. It held this status until 1938, after which it was gradually developed for farming use. Ponds were dug for farming freshwater fish and the land was used to grow vegetables and cash crops such as rubber and coconut, as well as the rearing of ducks, chickens and pigs.6

The area was also ideal for prawn farming due to the rich organic nutrients present in the waterlogged and muddy mangrove swamps.7 By the mid-1980s, these mangroves had mostly been cleared for prawn ponds, and the whole area was slated for eventual development into intensive agro-farms.

Road to conservation
In 1986, birdwatcher Richard Hale saw flocks of waders flying from the Strait of Johor towards Sungei Buloh. He later met with ornithologist Christopher Hails, who was working with the Parks and Recreation Board (now the National Parks Board), as well as some members of the Malayan Nature Society (Singapore Branch), to tell them of his discovery. None at the time had heard of the birdlife at Sungei Buloh.9

When it was subsequently revealed that the government had earmarked Sungei Buloh for agrotechnology development, a group of six – Clive Briffet, Hails, Hale, Rexon Ngim, Ho Hua Chew and R. Subaraj – comprising members of the society’s bird group conservation committee put forth a proposal in December 1987 for the creation of a 318-hectare nature reserve in Sungei Buloh.10

A conservation area in Sungei Buloh was proposed based on four objectives: (1) it would be a centre for education in the natural sciences, geography and other related disciplines; (2) the site would be improved so as to attract more birds and wildlife; (3) greater public awareness of environmental conservation could be achieved; and (4) it would be a tourist attraction.11

An illustrated pamphlet detailing the richness of the birdlife at Sungei Buloh was prepared along with the proposal and distributed to government officials – ministers, permanent secretaries and members of parliament – other organisations and members of the public.12

Subsequently, President Wee Kim Wee, among other government officials, agreed to visit the site.13 At the time, 126 species of birds had been sighted in the area, constituting 42 percent of all bird species recorded in Singapore.14

On 8 April 1988, then Minister for Foreign Affairs and National Development S. Dhanabalan announced that 85 ha in Sungei Buloh would be set aside for a bird sanctuary. While this fell considerably short of what was originally proposed, the reduced scale was deemed adequate to support birdlife based on a study conducted by Christopher Hails.15 This concession from the government was seen as a milestone in the development of nature conservation in Singapore, as it was the first time Singapore had set aside land for nature conservation since its independence.16

An area of 87 hectares was eventually designated for the Sungei Buloh Nature Park in 1989.17

Planning and construction
Tasked with developing the new nature park, the Parks and Recreation Department aimed to increase the number and diversity of wildlife at the site and to provide public education and recreation.18 Costing S$8.5 million, development of the nature park included the construction of footpaths, shelters, and boardwalks over the mangrove swamps, a visitor centre, wooden screens, bird observation hides and a viewing tower.19 The planning and construction of the sanctuary involved collaboration between government agencies and experts from the Malayan Nature Society and other overseas nature groups.20

Development work was undertaken with great care so as to preserve the ecological integrity of the site – for example, the boardwalk was built by hand without the aid of heavy machinery so that the mangrove plants would not be damaged.21 The main bridge connecting the visitor centre to the rest of the park is intentionally angled at one point for the same reason.22 Compatible natural materials such as timber were used in the construction of the park’s facilities.23 Some landscaping work was also carried out – for example, the main lagoon and two other ponds were enlarged to different depths and reshaped to provide a more suitable and spacious habitat for the birds.24

The Sungei Buloh Nature Park was officially opened by then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong on 6 December 1993.25 The park attracted 17,000 visitors in its first month and welcomed its 100,000th visitor on 4 December 1994.26 Jurong Bird Park was appointed to manage the nature park in its early years but it is now run by the National Parks Board.27

Birdlife and ecology

The SBWR is a haven for migratory birds such as sandpipers, plovers and egrets that journey from their breeding grounds in Russia, Mongolia, northern China, Japan and Korea every winter in search of warmer climates and better feeding opportunities in the southern hemisphere.28 This migratory route is known as the East Asian Australasian Flyway.29 Over 200 species of birds have been recorded at SBWR, about half of which are migratory birds.30

Apart from its seasonal visitors, the SBWR is also home to resident birds such as herons and kingfishers, not to mention a diverse range of wildlife that can be found all-year round such as mudskippers, tree-climbing crabs, spiders, monitor lizards, otters, wild boars and crocodiles.31 Fifty-three species of native mangrove flora, which makes up 85 percent of extant species in Singapore, can be found in the SBWR.32

Conservation and outreach efforts
The SBWR runs a number of conservation and outreach programmes involving the general public, volunteers, schools and corporate sponsors. Bird counts and bird banding are frequently conducted to identify the species and numbers that make use of the site and chart the movements of birds along the flyway.33 The quality of water in the ponds, rivers and sea within the reserve is also closely monitored with regular sampling and analysis.34

The SBWR works regularly with volunteers, students and other partners to remove litter washed up on the coast.35 There is also an ongoing drive to replant and enhance the natural flora of Sungei Buloh with native species, particularly the mangroves that used to be found in Singapore and the epiphytes – plants that grow on a host plant – that once thrived in the area.36

In 1997, the Sungei Buloh Nature Education Fund was set up by the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC) with an initial donation of S$120,000 to promote greater awareness of nature among local schoolchildren.37 This was followed by the launch of the Young Naturalists Programme in 2001, also in collaboration with HSBC, which encourages children to learn more about the wetland.38

Further developments and international recognition
On 1 January 2002, the park, was officially gazetted as a nature reserve and renamed Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve (SBWR) to reflect its new status. The area was also enlarged to 130 ha.39

That same year, the SBWR was recognised as a site of international importance for migratory birds when it was inducted by Wetlands International into the East Asian Australasian Shorebird Site Network, which includes Kakadu National Park in Australia and the Yatsu Tidal Flats in Japan.40 In 2003, the SBWR was also declared an ASEAN Heritage Park.41

In 2003, the two-kilometre Kranji nature trail was added as a green corridor to connect the reserve to Kranji Reservoir Park.42 This nature trail has since been transformed into an extension of the SBWR as part of the Sungei Buloh Master Plan that was first unveiled in 2008.43 The masterplan envisions Sungei Buloh as a centre of excellence in wetland management, conservation, nature education and research,44 and proposes the segmentation of the reserve into different zones of activity.45

Opened on 6 December 2014, the new 31-hectare extension features a coastal boardwalk, a brand new visitor centre, walking trails, wooden lookout points and more child-friendly amenities such as an obstacle course and play area.46

Janice Loo

1. Parks and Recreation Department, Singapore, Annual Report 1993/1994 (Singapore: Parks and Recreation Department, 1994), 10. (From BooKSG)
2. Goh Chok Tong, “The Opening of the Sungei Buloh Nature Park,” speech, Visitor Centre, Sungei Buloh Nature Park, 6 December 1993, transcript, Ministry of Information and the Arts. (From National Archives of Singapore document no. gct19931206)
3. National Park Board, “Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve (SBWR): Past, Present and Future,” media factsheet, n.d.
4. “Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve,” National Parks Board, 21 October 2015.
5. National Parks Board, Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve – A Decade of Wetland Conservation (Singapore: National Parks Board, 2003), 28. (Call no. RSING 333.918095957 SUN)
6. Chua Ee Kiam, Wetlands in a City: The Sungei Buloh Wetlands Reserve (Singapore: Simply Green, 2010), 41. (Call no. RSING 333.918095957 CHU)
7. Lim Haw Chuan and Colleen Goh, “Prawn Farming at Sungei Buloh Nature Park,” Wetlands 5 no. 1 (April 1998), 3.
8. National Parks Board, Decade of Wetland Conservation, 8.
9. R. Hale, “From Backwater to Nature Reserve,” Nature Watch 12, no. 5 (January–March 2004), 2–4. (Call no. RSING q508.5957 NW)
10. Hale, “Backwater to Nature Reserve,” 3–4; Lee Swee Hoon, “Bird Lovers Submit Proposals for 300-Ha Nature Reserve,” Straits Times, 14 December 1987, 14. (From NewspaperSG)
11. Hale, “Backwater to Nature Reserve,” 3.
12. Hale, “Backwater to Nature Reserve,” 3.
13. National Parks Board, Decade of Wetland Conservation, 8.
14. Ilsa Sharp, “Sungei Buloh Nature Park: The Great Experiment,” Nature Watch 1, no. 1 (October–December 1993), 24. (Call no. RSING q508.5957 NW)
15. S. Dhanabalan, “The Official Opening of SIA/SIABC,” speech, SMA House, Orchard Road, 8 April 1998, transcript, Ministry of Communications and Information (1985–1990) (National Archives of Singapore document no. SD19880408_2); “Govt Gives Green Light for Bird Sanctuary,” Straits Times, 9 April 1988, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
16. Y. C. Wee and R. Hale, “The Nature Society (Singapore) and the Struggle to Conserve Singapore’s Nature Parks,” Nature in Singapore 1 (2008), 44.
17. Sharp, “Great Experiment,” 24.
18. Dominic Nathan, “Bird Sanctuary Ready for Nature Lovers in ’93,” Straits Times, 27 June 1992, 25. (From NewspaperSG)
19. Elena Chong, “Strictly for the Birds,” Straits Times, 19 February 1989, 14. (From NewspaperSG)
20. Chua, Wetlands in a City, 44.
21. Cephah Tan, “Enjoy the Wildlife at Sungei Buloh Nature Park,” Straits Times, 11 December 1993, 32. (From NewspaperSG)
22. Chua, Wetlands in a City, 53.
23. Sharp, “Great Experiment,” 26.
24. Chua, Wetlands in a City, 53; Sharp, “Great Experiment,” 25.
25. Goh, “Opening of the Sungei Buloh Nature Park.”
26. Parks and Recreation Department, Singapore, Annual Report 1993/1994, 17; National Parks Board, Decade of Wetland Conservation, 16.
27. National Park Board, “Past, Present and Future.”
28. National Parks Board, Decade of Wetland Conservation, 28; James Gan, Mendis Tan and David Li, Migratory Birds of Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve (Singapore: National Parks Board, 2009), 7. (Call no. RSING 598.095957 GAN)
29. Gan, Tan and Li, Migratory Birds of Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve, 8.
30. Gan, Tan and Li, Migratory Birds of Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve, 7.
31. National Parks Board, ““Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve”; J. Ang, “Wild Boar Sightings!” Wetlands 10, no. 3 (December 2004), 9. (Call no. RSING 508.5957 SBNP)
32. National Parks Board, Decade of Wetland Conservation, 22.
33. National Parks Board, Decade of Wetland Conservation, 48, 50; Chua, Wetlands in a City, 145.
34. National Parks Board, Decade of Wetland Conservation, 53.
35. National Parks Board, Decade of Wetland Conservation, 51; “Community Involvement Programme at the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve,” Wetlands 10, no. 3 (December 2004), 4, 8. (Call no. RSING 508.5957 SBNP)
36. National Parks Board, Decade of Wetland Conservation, 52.
37. “$120,000 for Sungei Buloh Nature Park,” Straits Times, 1 December 1997, 34. (From NewspaperSG)
38. National Parks Board, Decade of Wetland Conservation, 60.
39. National Parks Board, Decade of Wetland Conservation, 9.
40. Neo Hui Min, “Sungei Buloh on World Map as Important Site,” Straits Times, 8 December 2002, 23 (From NewspaperSG); National Parks Board, “Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve.”
41. “ASEAN Declaration on Heritage Parks,” ASEAN Secretariat, 20 December 2003; “ASEAN Heritage Parks,” ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity, 2015.
42. “On the Kranji Nature Trail,” Today, 31 December 2003, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
43. Gracie Chiang, “Sungei Buloh to Create More Buzz,” Straits Times, 7 December 2008, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
44. Chua, Wetlands in a City, 161.
45. Chiang, “Sungei Buloh to Create More Buzz.” 
46. Lea Wee, “Get Closer to Nature,” Straits Times, 7 December 2014, 6. (From NewspaperSG)

Further resources
Cephah Tan, “New Kranji Sanctuary Offers Much to Behold,” Straits Times, 7 December 1993, 18. (From NewspaperSG)

Dominic Nathan, “Wetland Nature Park Faces Damage – from Humans,” Straits Times, 13 February 1994, 12. (From NewspaperSG)

Gurmeet Singh, “Wetland Splendour,” Today, 14 April 2005, 26. (From NewspaperSG)

Lim Wee Chean, “Plans to Up Countryside Charm in Two Areas,” Straits Times, 22 May 2008, 35. (From NewspaperSG)

R. E. Hale et al., A Proposal for a Nature Conservation Area at Sungei Buloh (Singapore: Bird Group Conservation Committee, Malayan Nature Society (Singapore Branch), 1992). (Call no. RCLOS 333.958095957 PRO)

Subaraj Rajathurai, “The Man Behind Sungei Buloh,” Straits Times, 16 August 2015, 6. (From NewspaperSG)

Sungei Buloh Nature Park (Singapore), A Guide to Sungei Buloh Nature Park (Singapore: Sungei Buloh Nature Park, 1998). (Call no. RSING 508.5957 SUN)

The information in this article is valid as of 31 December 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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