By Ashley Tan

Recently, cats have been in the news for good (discussions on legalising cats in HDB flats) – and bad (more reported cases of animal abuse) reasons.

But what about cats in the wild in Singapore?

Did you know that the only wildcat left in Singapore is the leopard cat? Even then, they are critically endangered and less than 20 remain on the mainland, according to SWAG.

Singapore Wildcat Action Group, better known as SWAG, was founded by a group of people who had been to Citizen Action for Tigers surveillance walks in Pahang. Dr Vilma D’Rozario and Ms Carmen Pang are the co-directors of SWAG.

SWAG has two main projects, protecting the critically endangered Malayan tiger (in support of the Malaysian Conservation Alliance for Tigers, or MYCAT) and the leopard cat in Singapore.

The last recorded sighting of Malayan tigers was recorded in Singapore in 1930.

There are currently 20 active volunteers contributing to SWAG’s efforts in education and conservation.

It recruits people for anti-poaching, anti-deforestation walks, called CAT walks, to the Sungai Yu Ecological Corridor in Pahang, Malaysia, to raise awareness about the plight of the Malayan tiger and to disrupt any poaching activity.

In Singapore, they champion the Leopard Cat campaign where they go on leopard cat quests to Pulau Ubin to search for the elusive feline.

The Pride speaks to some SWAG volunteers:

Rachel Lee: “Where are you, leopard cat?”

Rachel Lee, one of SWAG’s original batch of volunteers

In the video, we meet Rachel Lee, one of SWAG’s original batch of volunteers.

The 30-year-old, who is now in Taiwan pursuing her PhD, tells The Pride that she met Dr Vilma on a CAT Walk in 2019 and was roped in to discuss officially forming the group.

She says: “I’ve been volunteering with SWAG ever since though I’m taking a back seat now due to my studies! Mostly, I help with designing publicity materials but really because we are a small group of volunteers, everyone chips in to help – like running events, posting on social media, and such.

One of her favourite events is the launch of the 20m community mural at Boat Quay in 2021 to educate the public about the challenges faced by leopard cats and other wildlife, and the need to preserve nature spaces in Singapore.

“We got people from all walks of life together to paint that mural featuring Singapore’a last wildcat, and is one of my most memorable contributions!”

Kineisha Teo: “People get amazed at my age”

Rachel Lee: “Where are you, leopard cat?”
Kineisha Teo setting up at a SWAG and CLOOP collaboration event. Image source: Kineisha Teo

14-year-old Kineisha Teo is SWAG’s youngest volunteer but she found out about SWAG even younger.

Two years ago, she came across its booth at NParks’ Festival of Biodiversity (FOB) and discovered that her primary school teacher, Lin Zi Hui, was one of its members!

Says Kineisha: “The topic of wildcats was something people didn’t really know much about, myself included. I had a lot of free time so I decided to join.”

In 2022, Kineisha participated in NPark’s FOB as well as SWAG’s storytelling events. She was even invited to Parliament in July as part of SWAG’s Illegal Wildlife Task Force to listen to MP Louis Ng speaking on the Illegal Wildlife Trade(Import and Export) bill.

The Queensway Secondary School student laughs as she tells us: “It feels kind of cool to be the youngest in SWAG. When they find out, most people are like ‘Wow, you’re only 14?’”

Nowadays, Kineisha finds herself increasingly busy with schoolwork, prefect meetings and CCA commitments.

She says: “It’s super busy but I try my best because it’s meaningful to join in such work.”

Currently, she is working on an infographic for SWAG’s sustainability report. She also hopes to get her school to have a biodiversity week and to start projects to raise awareness on the topic of sustainability and conservation.

She says: “If someone doesn’t start it, who will?”

Tim Foote: “It’s hard to talk to people about conservation”

During the week, 54-year-old Tim Foote runs a sustainability consultancy firm that advises companies on how to decarbonise their logistics processes, but in his spare time, he actively volunteers at SWAG.

Tim, and his wife, Carmen are founding members (Carmen is the director) of SWAG. The couple moved to Singapore in 2008.

He explains: “We are eager to help conservation movements and we want to make a difference in the place we live in.”

In SWAG, Tim is involved in advocacy for enforcement and stronger protection to fight illegal wildlife trade. He is also part of the retail team, assisting with getting fundraising merchandise for SWAG.

Having a full-time job means that his weekend is mostly taken up by volunteering activities. But Tim laughs as he exclaims: “It’s okay because I enjoy it!”

That said, it’s not an easy journey. He does find it a challenge to harness the passion of SWAG volunteers without people burning out. Fund-raising is also tough.

He says: “It’s hard to reach people who are not so conservation-minded, and even harder to sell our cause to them.”

“By and large, Singaporeans do not live in nature. We live in a human-created, contained urban environment almost all the time. It’s not surprising that people are sometimes repelled from having to deal with it (nature).”

Dr Vilma D’Rozario: “I found my place in nature”

She’s not your typical retiree. 65-year-old Dr Vilma D’Rozario isn’t just a co-founder of SWAG, she also co-founded environmental non-profit Cicada Tree Eco-place (CTEP).

Dr Vilma, who was a lecturer at the National Institute of Education, got a taste for the great outdoors while pursuing a PhD in counselling psychology in the US during the 1990s.

She says:  “I was so depressed when I came back to Singapore… my friends told me ‘Why don’t you join the nature society?’ I did and that changed my life.”

She was so active at Nature Society Singapore’s (NSS) that she was invited to organise a trip to Belalong National Forest in 1999
Dr Vilma (second from left) with the CATwalk Plus group at the Sungai Yu Ecological Corridor in 2017 Image source: Dr Vilma D’Rozario

She was so active at Nature Society Singapore’s (NSS) that she was invited to organise a trip to Belalong National Forest in 1999. When she got back, she headed NSS’ education group for eight years.

“I began to realise that there was a lot of nature around us. I began to realise that this was my place.”

She co-founded nature education group CTEP in 2006.

In 2013, she and her CTEP co-founders started a movement called Love Our Macritchie Forest and got permission to have an organised protest against the Government’s decision to cut through the forest for the Cross-Island Line.

She reminisces with a smile: “It all started with us four tying ourselves to trees at Hong Lim Square and Hong Lim Green. We had these long braids that went down into the whole field. The whole performance was called Chained To Our Roots. The roots are the forest, and we’re not going to let go of this forest, and you cannot destroy it, you know.”

Nature Community Engagement group with LTA for the past 10 years.
Kineisha and Dr Vilma (third and forth from right) at a tree planting event at NTU with Minister for National Development Desmond Lee (far right). Image source: Dr Vilma D’Rozario

But Dr Vilma isn’t just a disruptive force for nature. She has been part of the Nature Community Engagement group with LTA for the past 10 years.

With all this experience, Dr Vilma co-founded SWAG in 2019 to raise awareness of the leopard cat in Singapore and the Malayan tiger in Malaysia.

Dr Vilma (second from right) with other swaggers after planting saplings at the Sungei Yu Ecological Corridor while on a CATwalk in July 2017.
Dr Vilma (second from right) with other swaggers after planting saplings at the Sungai Yu Ecological Corridor while on a CATwalk in July 2017. Image Source: Dr Vilma D’Rozario

She hopes to inspire the younger generations to pay more attention to the nature around them.

“Go for a CAT-walk, join us as a volunteer or help us raise funds,” she says.

What’s Next?

Interested in learning more about SWAG or to join them as a volunteer?

Tomorrow (Mar 18), you can find out more at a lunch with Dr Kae Kawanishi, a tiger scientist who has dedicated 30 years of her life to protecting tigers and listen to her inspiring story of perseverance.

Who knows, finding out more about our local wildcat may add a little bit of a swagger to your step!

Dr Vilma says with a smile: “We call our volunteers Swaggers. As long as you have participated in one of our CAT walks or contributed to a fundraiser, attended any of our events, you are considered a Swagger!”

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