by Teresa Teo Guttensohn with contributions from Journeys Pte Ltd
29 July is Global Tiger Day. This article is dedicated to the Malayan Tiger, now extinct in Singapore. It honours the last 200 wild Malayan Tigers fighting for survival in the jungles of Malaysia. Can we save this living emblem of Singapore and Malaysia before it’s too late?
A Powerful Asian Symbol
Throughout history and across many cultures, no animal has inspired as much awe as the largest wild cat on the planet, the majestic Tiger (Panthera tigris).
In Asian art and mythology, this impressive feline is a powerful symbolic animal that is feared, admired and glorified. Unsurprisingly, the endangered tiger is regarded as exotic, charismatic and the most popular animal in the world.
We hear from Dr George Jacobs, on his takeaways from the ongoing COVID-19 global pandemic challenges and its aftermath.
This is the final segment of a three-part interview series on COVID-19.
Q: What is your take on life in the time of COVID-19? GJ: I way underestimated COVID-19. I thought it would be gone fairly quickly like SARS, or not very impactful like a worse-than-average version of the annual flu. Wow – was I wrong! And, it seems like COVID-19 actually is rather minor as to the death rate compared to the viruses that may be coming next. Scary.
Here’s a 1min 10sec video I made about that fear:
Q: What did you experience during the lock-down? GJ: In some weird ways, the lock-down was a kind of warped wish come true. Things that greenies like me have been urging, such as less air travel and other uses of fossil fuels, were happening, not because people decided to act against the threat posed by global warming, but because we were all locked down.
Q: What about work for you during the circuit breaker and now that the lock-down is somewhat relaxed? GJ: For about seven years, I had a job at James Cook University Singapore, where Dr Denise Dillon (your previous interviewee) teaches. However, last year, I left that job to devote myself to a social enterprise and to volunteer work, while making money from freelance teaching. COVID-19 has been very bad for the social enterprise, which already had its share of troubles, and the freelance teaching almost completely dried up. Fortunately, there were lots of opportunities for satisfying volunteer work.
Q: How do you survive? As a senior citizen, I’m subsidized by my payments from CPF and from its U.S. equivalent (I’m a Singaporean, but I lived most of the first half of my life in the U.S.). Being stuck at home gave me lots of time to write papers, books, social media posts, Forum page letters, etc. I’m looking forward to continuing to work mostly from home.
Q: Could you give us some examples of your volunteer work? GJ: Gladly. I worked with academics in Malaysia and at JCUS on a study that documented that the media gives much more attention to COVID-19 than it does to ongoing causes of death, which kill and otherwise affect more people: lack of access to clean water, sanitation, and sufficient food.
Also, my doctorate is in Education, and among my special interests is encouraging students to do cooperative learning: learning with peers, instead of only learning alone or with teachers. I wrote some papers talking about how to do cooperative learning even when doing online learning.
Q: You’re known for your advocacy of plant-based diets. What’s happening with that during the pandemic? GJ: Vegans have long had our Big 3 reasons: animal-based foods are bad for human health; are key destroyers of the environment and provokers of climate weirding; exact horrendous suffering on non-human animals.
Now, we can make it a Big 4, as many pandemics – Spanish Flu of 1918, AIDS, Bird Flu, Swine Flu, SARS – are zoonotic diseases that go from other animals to humans. The contact that leads to that transmission often takes place because humans destroy the animals’ homes and incarcerate the animals for our food.
Also, there is evidence that we are more likely to survive pandemics if we have a strong immune system, and plant-based diets can help. That idea was the genesis behind this video, that I helped make early in the pandemic:
Q: Something else we missed because of the pandemic are the CAT Walks at Taman Negara in Malaysia to protect tigers. Are you looking forward to those starting again? GJ: For sure. I did a CAT Walk each of the past three years and am hoping against hope that we’ll be able to do another one later this year. In the meantime, I’ve donated money, an article about the Malayan tiger was published https://periodicos.unb.br/index.php/erbel/article/view/29896, and I made a video in TikTok style:
Q: Any future plans? GJ: More of the same, but I’m hoping to get some more steady teaching work, maybe online teaching. Also, I’m helping organise a program called ’10 Weeks to Vegan’, a guided programme for people who want to try vegan diets. It’s already in 10+ countries, and we’re working to Singaporean-ise it:
Also, I’m trying hard to stay physically and mentally healthy as I approach 70 years of age. I never realised it could be so challenging.
In some weird ways, the lock-down was a kind of warped wish come true. Things that greenies like me have been urging, such as less air travel and other uses of fossil fuels, were happening, not because people decided to act against the threat posed by global warming, but because we were all locked down.
As a human animal, I am very much a part of nature, so I advocate the treatment of nature as I would for myself – gently please, and with love.
Dr DENISE DILLON
We hear from Dr Denise Dillon on her takeaways from the ongoing Covid-19 global pandemic, mindfulness and nature.
Q: What is your take on life in the time of COVID-19? DD: I came to appreciate how very fortunate I am. One of my life constants is a desire to be my human self, in the sense of being a part of the ecosystem as one of many animal species. In a fundamental way, I am part of the fauna of my neighbourhood, and I’m very lucky to have Fort Canning Park as part of that neighbourhood.
Q: What did you experience during the lock-down? DD: There is a relatively rich diversity of bird life in my neighbourhood. During the time that we were staying indoors, I was able to look outwards onto the tree outside my balcony and to observe the flurry of activities in just one tree, and from bird species that I hadn’t noticed before.
Q: What is a key observation you made during the Covid-19 period so far? DD: The number of visitors to Fort Canning Park increased during our circuit breaker period – whole families spending some outdoor time together. Our urban green spaces were filling a need for people who were seeking respite from life indoors.
People indoors were looking out to nearby nature from window or balcony views, and sharing new observations – things they hadn’t noticed before – a bird visiting the tree, weeds growing in the paths, how beautiful the grass looks when allowed to grow longer.
Q: How did you connect with nature growing up in North Queensland, in Australia? DD: One of the things I’m most appreciative of is the good fortune of having grown up in a semi-rural area where as children we would regularly climb trees and dig in the dirt.
We spent lots of time sitting up in the trees as well as just climbing them, and we got to appreciate the different textures and growth patterns of tree branches of many trees in the neighbourhood.
Q: Which nature experience do remember the most? A strongly reminiscent experience for me is associated with freshly dug soil – we had rich, red volcanic soil in the area I lived. After more than a decade away I still miss the tactile experience of breaking up clumps of soil with my hands, the olfactory experience of bringing a clump of soil right up under my nose, and the visual experience of the dark red colour of the soil and of the earth worms who made their homes there.
Q: How can we engage with nature through forest bathing? Our capacity to observe doesn’t always equate to an ability to notice – noticing comes with sustained and mindful observation. We can move quickly through nature on brisk walks, and observe lots of things along the way, but noticing comes more from standing still and letting nature move at its own pace towards us.
This is the essence of forest bathing – mindful presence in natural settings opens the way for deeper and more meaningful appreciation of our own place in the web of interbeing around us.
Whether people choose to check out a formal forest bathing session or simply engage in their own nature immersion practices, I’m definitely a champion for engagement with nature. The more we allow nature to approach us the more we’ll notice, and the more we notice the closer we can connect at a fundamental, human animal level.
Q: What do you think is needed to save nature and thereby save ourselves? DD: We need experiences of noticing nature and experiences that make us curious to understand more about the nature around us. The more we immerse ourselves in the pockets of nature around us, the more we’ll come to notice and the more meaningful our engagement will become. The web of interbeing is already around us – we only need to find and understand our own fundamental place there.
Q: What lesson can you share about human dependence on nature? DD: I’m neither a great learner nor a great teacher, so lessons don’t come easily to me. I’m more about direct engagement and observation, about patiently sitting so that noticing happens sometimes without me even noticing. Perhaps that in itself is a lesson about dependence on nature.
I cherish those unexpected moments when something catches my eye perhaps as a burst of movement or a flash of colour, or even more subtly when something about a pattern looks slightly out of place and I realise it’s because an insect is camouflaged in the array before me.
Dr Denise Dillon lives and works in Singapore as a full-time academic. She is an environmental psychologist and certified Nature and Forest Therapy Guide (ANFT certification # 1818009).
Her research interests focus on biophilia and nature connectedness, as well as more broadly surrounding aspects of human-nature interactions. Enjoying the best of two worlds (psychology and literature studies), she has also published research in the field of eco-criticism.