Not a few newcomers to this island, and a fair number of locals who ought to know better, shit their pants whenever they come across a water monitor stomping about monsoon drains and swimming in murky canals. Some confuse the varanids with more threatened monsters, while others survive to tell of perilous encounters with a dragon of imagined proportions. To some extent, the latter could be excused, for Varanus salvator can attain lengths that rival juvenile crocodilians and not a few regard park centres as their personal lounges, to the cheer (or chagrin) of visitors who must share the footways with lizards of excessive bulk.
Formidable predators that devour whatever they can catch and swallow or tear apart the carcasses of fellow swamp things, adult water monitors enjoy a charmed life, as long as they elude the jaws of salties or the wrath of mindless mobs. Occasional brawls offer a hint of the brutal strength and inhuman stamina of a beast whose cousins kept the dinosaurs at bay in Mesozoic seas. But for the most part, the largest of local lizards prefers to flee than fight when confronted with the shadow of a naked ape.
The fear, or fascination, accorded to garden-variety monitor lizards is probably one manifestation of a long and regularly revived nook in popular consciousness, in which individuals of morbid bent entertain dreams of being chased down and chomped by giant reptiles on a lost tropical isle. Even the Raffles Museum, an institution not given to flights of dubious fancy, once succumbed to reports of outsized varanids by sending a staff member to Langkawi to investigate the claims of airmen who might have been high in more ways than one. No known reports of success or survivors from this 1960 expedition exist, however.
A few decades earlier, Singapore was the scene of a greater frenzy, one that so gripped an American named W. Douglas Burden that he journeyed to Southeast Asia from New York. The colony was merely a stopover for supplies and expendable minions, though, as Burden was en route to an even wilder island, one that had gained worldwide notoriety as the province of the ultimate big game. In the words of a contemporary hack, Burden’s quarry was a “fierce man-eating lizard, 30 ft long when fully grown” that moved “as fast as a motor-car.” The leviathan was said to be “impervious to native weapons”, wield a “yellow tongue, nearly a yard long” and capable of making “a mouthful of a man as high up a rock or pole as the top of a motor-bus”. With all cylinders firing, the reporter concluded that “the only prudent way of going after the big ones would be in an armoured car or a tank.”
For all its size and undoubted charisma, the Komodo dragon received a belated welcome to science. The probable remnant of a tribe that once roamed the Australasian continent, Varanus komodoensis is now restricted to the islands of Komodo and Rinca and the western tip of Flores. Remote and poor in prized resources, the lizards’ homelands were little explored until the early 20th century, when Dutch administrators probed these Conradian regions and verified rumoured sightings of a ‘Buaya darat’. In 1910, one Lieutenant van Steyn van Hensbroek wrote to Peter A. Ouwens, director of the zoological museum in Bogor, mentioning the existence of a giant lizard that reached seven metres in length. Ouwens later received photographs and the skin of a shot specimen, which he used to produce a report “On a large Varanus species from the island of Komodo”, published in the Bulletin du Jardin Botanique de Buitenzorg, 6, 1-3, 1912.
Whatever early enthusiasm the article, which was embedded in an obscure botanical journal but curiously (and probably fortuitously) written in English, might have generated was probably swept away by the war to end all wars. But in the years of wine and roses that followed Gallipoli and the Somme, a new generation emerged which grew fat on the dividends of peace but soon hungered for the thrill of exotic destinations and heroes who would slay the monstrous proxies of unfriendly nations.
For Burden, the son of a wealthy industrialist, the notion of living ‘dragon lizards’ in the East Indies and catching live specimens of Varanus komodoensis for display before the American public was a challenge that would prove irresistible to a hunter who had exhausted all other options for adventure. As he put it in a prelude to his Far Eastern expedition,
“A man who has once lived in tropical jungles is a prey all his life, not only to recurring fevers, but to something perhaps more insidious; namely, a desire to return, – a desire, I may say, that is difficult to deny…. So I came home one fine evening not long ago across Central Park and asked my wife how she would like to go dragon hunting.”
With the support of the American Museum of Natural History, Burden set out in 1926 to bring the beasts back, dead or alive. After a Chinese detour, his entourage reached Singapore, where he picked up F.J. Defosse, a big-game hunter whose skills in junglecraft were deemed essential to the mission. When the crew returned to New York in September that year, they brought with them 14 dragons, including two that had survived the journey across the Pacific. The duo were exhibited at the Bronx Zoo, drawing crowds of Gatsbyian scale and even the vice-president of the nation. Inadequate heating proved fatal to the intemperate lizards, however, and by 14 November, both dragons were dead, prompting Burden to remark that “Varanus komodoensis, in order to survive, demands the freedom of his rugged mountains” and mull the fate of monsters which could not endure the civilised state of twentieth century cities.
The dragons were dead, but there was no stopping a meme of greater force and eminent spectacle. Even before he had landed on Komodo, Burden had sought to draw links between his dragon lizards and the leviathans of Indo-European myth. “A fiery dragon in itself is a fascinating idea, – so, also, is the thought of a beautiful white-skinned maiden,” he remarked to a Dutch administrator. “Link these two ideas together, in some way or other, and you have a story which by its very nature would survive through untold ages.” Burden even went as far as to assert that the dragons seemed ‘tamer’ when his wife was nearby. This sensational side of Burden presents a curious counterpoint to the man's more scholarly flank, which appear to have been penned by a quite different person(ality) altogether.
With ardour and aplomb, the great white explorer turned a mere lizard into a creature of lore, a juggernaut of savage lands with a taste for blood, yet susceptible to the charms of pale dames and utterly incapable of withstanding the rigours of modern life. Burden, who pursued a minor career in ethnographic dramas, had secured the services of Lee Fai, a Singapore-based cameraman, to obtain moving pictures of his island exploits. But it was only when he met and recounted his journey to Merian C. Cooper, a movie producer of equal flamboyance and daring, that fact saw promise in fiction. After reading Burden’s account, Cooper was sufficiently inspired to pitch a jungle film involving epic battles between gorillas and Komodo dragons. Paramount was unfortunately much less enamoured with the expense of trapping and transporting apes to Indonesia, so Cooper was forced to reduce his cast in number, though not in size, to a single giant simian who would chance upon a pretty woman in its neck of the woods and meet its end in the urban jungle of Manhattan Island. At some point, the dragons gave way to anatomically incorrect (but still dramatically compelling) dinosaurs and the eighth wonder of the world was unveiled on 2 March 1933. Kong, for all his might and majesty, would fall and fall again in the decades to come, and suffer the ignominy of artificial resurrections and the tiresome adulation that plague kings of the silverback screen.
I first came across the barber of Balestier some months ago, but he was not at his studio then. He was still nowhere to be found the next few times I passed his salon, which occupied a five-foot way by a shophouse in a sleepy corner of Balestier Road. A single reclinable chair faced a mirror strung on a nail; flanking the centrepieces were good luck charms and a table of stainless steel tools. His trade is no longer a lure, but there was always a little tank of orange platies and green water against the wall, its top secured by a slab of styrofoam weighed down by a clock and cutesy ornaments.
A sign on the wall indicated that Ah Lim rests on Sundays, but it would seem that he clocks in (or emerges from a nearby kopitiam) only when patrons ring him for their regular snip and shave. His primary equipment is little different from those of the Malay gentlemen who cut my stripling hair from a shop now abandoned and falling apart: sturdy pairs of scissors, handy electric clippers and a switchblade that awaits the wet strokes of a stubby brush.
Serendipity struck just a week ago when a stroll in the neighbourhood and the turn of a corner yielded the sight of a taciturn pair; a hoary old man lay on the seat with a white sheet on his chest and foam on his chops, while a younger uncle with a proud mop sharpened his knife on a leather strop. "Don't take my picture!" muttered the customer, who had neither the leverage nor leeway to protest, being constrained by swift movements that stripped his chin of stubbly bits. His vendor was rather more convivial, revealing his origins in a small town by the western coast of the peninsula.
"Have you ever been there?" he asked.
"I haven't had the chance."
"The seafood is good there. Pangkor is nearby too."
He had set up shop in this nook of town about eight years ago, having earned his stripes in other estates while nursing the desire for independence and all its hazards. To another interrogator, he had revealed a life of modest dreams and minimalist goals, the raising of two sons to near adulthood by himself and a spouse who served hotter cuts.
For a while, it had seemed that semi-itinerant establishments such as these had cornered a small but viable niche in the market for a trim, but of late, even outfits in stuffy cubicles tout crops at untenable rates. These apprentices also perform the act at speeds that risk the cutting of throats and hint at the pressures (or paucity of relief) that prevent some from savouring more than a few minutes of crisp, clean clips.
But for now, Ah Lim seemed content to chat as he swung around the chair, blades in hand and eyes wide shut to almost all else but the skin between the teeth of a comb and the touch of a shear. I noticed the aquarium was now dry and stuffed with implements of plastic. What had killed the fish and drained the table of a slice of life that sparkled when their master was wanting? I decided against asking, lest the query raise unsolicited hackles and cause the man on the seat to suffer the pain of quivers that would add salt to his state of volitional infirmity.
Few other insects can match the aerial prowess of asilids, which perform with two wings (and a pair of stabilising halteres) manœuvres beyond the means of many other four-winged orders. Only the odonates come close in their mastery of invertebrate airspace and a degree of convergence could be posited in the flies' elongated abdomens, widely spaced eyes that recall those of damselflies and hunting patterns not unlike the habits of perching libellulids. Their legs are also adapted for grasping and like dragonflies, asilids prefer to wing it than walk even a couple of steps to reach a fresh position.
There are species that forage from the ground, grassy thickets or the treetops, but in local woods, individuals can usually be spotted on the sunlit end of a dangling twig or the skeletal tips of dry brushwood by forest trails. Surveying their surroundings for moving targets, the asilids launch unannounced sortees of unreasonable speed that typically end with a return to the same spot, prey in hand, or rather, at the end of a sturdy beak. Larger prey are secured with the aid of spiny forelegs, and even robust bees and dragonflies soon succumb to a cocktail of toxins that first paralyses then pulverises the victim from the inside out.
Robberflies are reputed to possess a 'bite' that causes much pain to humans. But their visual acuity also minimises chances to test this claim. For some reason, robberflies half-an-inch or less in length quite readily endure the antics of digital papparazzi, as long as movements are slow and their seat is unshaken; at Lentang Forest in Selangor, Malaysia, a sleek ommatiine with the plumose antennae that distinguish the subfamily barely budged as it fed on a tiny beetle snared midflight and stabbed in the back.
But a game of hide-and-seek awaits those who attempt to stalk the larger species, which display severely low tolerance for invasions of their personal space. Compounding this frustration are the unruly habitats favoured by some of the biggest robberflies I have seen: mangroves or river banks where the insects easily dash out of sight or at least out of reach even when spotted at an unfair distance. It was thus a pleasant surprise to find at Pulau Semakau a 'giant' which put up with repeated hounding around a scattering of driftwood and slippery rocks that served as its hunting ground. Strongly built with flattened antenna tips and a blue-green shine in oblique light, this asilid favoured flattish surfaces and is possibly a member of the wasp-mimicking genus Pogonosoma. Perhaps assured by the relative immunity it enjoys from avian and other insectivorous predators, the fly chose not to flee to the canopy, making instead short hops from log to log. Our bland attire of greens and greys may have also helped lull the laphrine into a state of complacency and regard us as mere gnats not worth the trouble of temporary evacuation or domesticated pests who cannot survive prolonged exposure on a shore of wild proportions.
The fondness of familiar land snails for garden foliage and overbred flowers is perhaps why gastropods are seldom ranked highly on the food web and get little respect from fans of big game. On the seabed, however, a heavy shell and snail's pace offer fewer hurdles to good hunting in an environment where many other creatures live in even slower lanes, lie under the false security of sand and silt or sit tight on rocks and broken rubble. Speed is hardly a concern when survival hinges on outrunning a sluggish pack or an evolutionary arms race that pits chemists against civil engineers who must resist corrosive assaults or the broad feet of hungry juggernauts.
Betraying man's penchant for according begrudging respect to things that can heal, thrill or kill, cone snails are among the few gastropods that have captured popular imagination and sowed fear of god in the hearts of reef visitors. Conids, including one associated with human fatalities, have been recorded in local waters and are known to inhabit intertidal depths, but the mixed blessing of nocturnal activity and uncrossed paths in recent years has reduce these venomous snails to living legends or broken shells on the shingle of resort islands.
A different family of marine snails that superficially resemble the sneaky harpooners can still be found at reasonable frequencies on local shores. Where there is clean sand and lush seagrasses, a meandering line through the substrate is likely to lead one to an olive snail as it ploughs through the sediment for carrion or small prey. Though sharing with conids a long, narrow aperture with a modest spire and shells with similar patterns and gloss, olivids are harmless molluscs whose porcelain beauty compels aesthetic conchologists to savour them dead and dry. The living animals are far more entertaining, though; as snails go, they are speedsters that reveal only a glimpse of their soft parts before the entire snail sinks beneath the surface with the poise of a submarine mole. Like some burrowing slugs, the 'head' is shaped like a shield or veil, serving perhaps to help bulldoze the snail through loose grains. Eyes are absent or minuscule, and a long siphon protrudes into the water column to create a slim trail that give the game away in exposed flats.
The moon snails are another family of fossorial predators. With bodies that outshine the olivids in expansiveness and near-globular shells that have aroused comparisons with breasts and balls, naticids patrol the seabed for other shellfish, which they overpower and consume with sensuous haste. Some have even been observed turning the tables on a subphylum of mollusc feeders, though such scenes are probably scarce locally as soldier crabs are all but gone from mainland strands. Dining as they do on sundry bivalves and slower snails, naticids still occur in reasonable numbers at shores such Changi and Chek Jawa, where females betray the aftermath of penetrative trysts with stiff collars of sand or mud. Elsewhere in the region, the snails have inspired more playful instincts, in odd games of chance whereby their shells are used as counters or piled up to draw bets on whether their number is even or not.
Moon snails rely on a combination of brute force and alchemy to reach their victims' vulnerable portions. Volutes dispense with such finesse altogether, having the bulk to simply envelop prey in a muscular foot and rasp their way through shell and stubborn carapace. Their size is also their downfall, unfortunately, as noble volutes and baler shells more often than not end up in the cooking pots of gourmands who cannot imagine the logic of turning down seafood that costs not a penny. Dead shells usurped by hermit crabs are not infrequently seen at still-healthy shores, though, suggesting that some populations lurk in depths beyond the reach of starving beach apes, where they face instead the existential threat of regular apocalpyses that dig up the snails and their non-planktonic brood amid a relentless effort to tame the sea and domesticate the forces of nature.
Still, life finds a way. Even by coasts where the waters have been pushed away and held back by walls and steely wills, the animals return to their former haunts whenever the dredgings cease and the currents send a fresh stream of veligers to recolonise barren sand. But the sighting of a live Tonna dolium on a beach lost to most and left to its own devices many moons ago was nonetheless welcome, for it hinted at richer communities in the littoral zone of a reclaimed land. What little is known about tun snails is that they favour seagrass meadows and readily dig down into the substrate to hide as well as hunt holothurians, which are paralysed prior to being swallowed whole. Crustaceans and even fish are said to be fair game for some of the family, which in turn risk falling prey to cousins with a taste for fellow shellfish. It's likely that most tonnids raid mudflats too deep for tidepooling, so the sight of one envenomating and engulfing a sea cucumber remains a grail restricted to divers who forsake the reefs for the muck of benthic serendipities.
Like tonnids, cassids specialise in devouring echinoderms, though their choice of food is pricklier and abundant enough in the shallows to permit occasional encounters with these pretty snails. Helmet snails have rather more sculptured shells than tonnids, with prominent lips around the aperture and a short, dorsally recurved anterior notch that houses the siphon, a snorkel-like organ used to suck in fresh water as well as the scent of sand dollars. Three species are known in Singapore and as luck, or the insane drive to land on local patch reefs hours before daybreak, would have it, two have been spotted on banks where clypeasteroids abound and even caught in the act of conspicuous consumption. To feed, the snails squirt neurotoxic saliva that immobilises the spines before inserting their snout through the urchin's anal orifice or any other convenient hole to rasp out the palatable bits. It's a habit that invites less fascination than the bloodier antics of charismatic megapredators and leaves no lasting impression on the minds of beachcombers who come across the hollows of tests with little value to an economy limited in sense and reduced to dollars.
As crabs go, parthenopids enjoy scant attention from people who savour meatier decapods, save the odd carcinologist and those who insist on exploring the margins of an island that is running out of elbow space and ecological sanity. Like portunids, the family honours a mythical figure from the Mediterranean Sea, though the siren who lent her name to the crabs would probably be mortified to be associated with a body of creatures with ungainly moves and shabby mien.
In form, the animals resemble caricatures; a crudely triangular or hexagonal carapace bears limbs that are overwhelmed by a pair of oft spiny chelipeds commanding a disproportionate share of the crab's bulk. Such elongated arms would come in handy for battling commuters who attempt to invade subway cabins without giving passengers a chance to alight. But the impressive span is constrained by joints that limit their punch to a narrow swing between edible morsels and a mouth tucked beneath a stubby rostrum. Instead of nipping foes in the butt, the crabs' primary defence lies in their stout armoury and the ability to remain inconspicious amid muddy bottoms and seagrass meadows.
Most parthenopids are encountered by chance, when a tiny shift in the intertidal continuum betrays the presence of a disguised crab. This individual, spotted at Cyrene Reef and identified as Rhinolambrus pelagicus, was curiously unsullied by sediment, which was likely the result of a recent moult, as conspecifics have been seen with far grubbier coats. Obscure in both hide and habit, the family is consequently overlooked and possibly undercounted by casual observers. But their rarity in the field and the perilous status of some local species is also the product of a preference for questionable habitats: seagrass beds, sandy flats and silty seabeds that endure the regular dredges of a maritime economy and the dismissal of visionaries who dream of artificial reefs and refuse to see what life survives in these straits of dire passages.