Wednesday, June 12, 2013

A lot of crabs

Johora singaporensis.
After more than 40 years, I just learned the name of those tiny little crabs that were living in the stream by the old Princess Elizabeth Estate School (PEES). These were the crabs that every boy (and girl?) from Princess Elizabeth would have known (or at least they would during my school days in the 60s).

They were also found in every other stream that flowed from Bukit Gombak down into our estate.
These streams ran through our primary school, through the drain beside the estate big football field, the large stream that ran along Lorong Taluki and in the large drain just outside the Castrol factory .

These were the places where PEE schoolboys and all the estate and kampong boys would spend hours catching crabs, fishes and eels that lived in them. It was a testament to the purity of the fresh water that flowed from the hills.

Of course, at that time, we wouldn’t have known that this species of crab was unique to our estate area.
It was just crabs to us.
In an article in the newspaper today, it was reported that this uniquely Singaporean crab is now an endangered species. Duh? Hello?  

It’s such a no brainer as to why this is so.
What was once their natural habitat are now all concrete drains!
Their only hope now lies in the isolated streams of Bukit Timah Nature Reserve and Bukit Batok Nature Park.

This poor crab, Johora singaporensis, is on the list of the 100 most critically endangered species in the world, and can only be found in the Bukit Timah, Bukit Batok and Bukit Gombak forest reserves in Singapore.

I can recall an abundance of these tiny critters all around our estate in my young days, and because it was small, we were not afraid of catching it with our hands. They would be found under the rocks, which we would gently lift and find them hiding beneath.  A 3cm crab would be considered huge. Most were black but some were whitish in colour.

As I lived beside PEES, it was the stream running through the school that was my favourite fishing spot. I remember hunting for the crabs in the large eddy hole that formed under the bridge to the small school field. Most of the larger crabs could be found further up the stream that flowed down from the hilltop beside this field, where the larger rocks would be found. The stream also had large schools of guppy fish and the occasional prized Tigerbarb fish.

The last time I went to the primary school, a few years ago, I noticed that this stream was no longer there. Instead a concrete drain now runs in its place. I supposed the last few batches of PEES students would not have the chance to play in the stream.

The other location where these tiny crabs could be found in abundance was just outside the school gate, in the drain under the road that led to Jalan Zamrud. I really doubt if any can be found there now.

I recall my ex-estate friend, SK Yum, saying he recently took his children around the empty grounds where once our estate stood and could still find some crabs living in the drains. Alas, these drains would soon too be covered over by the new condominiums being built there. And they lament that the crabs are dying out? Where's the coordination amongst the gov agencies?

There is still an abundance of fresh water flowing down from the springs within the Bukit Gombak hill, which unfortunately is now fenced up as the Ministry of Defence security area.
I am sure the crabs can still be found near the sources of these spring water.

In hindsight, thinking of those young days when I was catching these critters, I recall that what we did would be considered cruel. I remember pulling off their pincers while they were alive to prevent getting bitten...and what else?  We roasted the crabs over fire too. Did we eat them? No, we never dared.
Why we did those things were never a question then.  We were kids growing up in a world where the outdoors and nature were simply part of our leisure.

Here's a photo of a stream at Bukit Batok Nature Park which I took recently. This is like the stream at PEES in my time.
Very likely, there would be Johora singaporensis crabs in it.
So, if you take your kids there, please tell them not to pull the crabs’ pincers off or roast them like Uncle James did when he was young and foolish. 

Love them and be one with the natural world. We are losing so much of our heritage at such an alarming rate.


  1. James,

    I enjoy reading your blog, and this post is particularly appealing as I used to catch these tiny crabs while i was in PEES 1979 - 1984, not to mention the guppies and the occasional snake. The stream is one of the reasons why we never had white clean school shoes. My shoes would be orange and muddy by the end of every Monday.


  2. Hi Jim,
    Glad the post brought good memories back for you.
    I have uploaded a new post with lots of pictures by SKYum showing the drains where the crabs can still be found.
    Look for the June 13 post "Photos from ex-residents (16) "

  3. That is a great post too, It is good that SKYum's children get to experience what we used to enjoy. While I was living at Jalan Asas, I used to drive my car to the drains behind the community centre (lorry park) to wash it with the stream water, the water was that clean then!

    The last time I saw PEES was in 2005 when the school was used by the red cross. The school field strangely looked very much smaller than what I remember it to be, and the stream was no longer there.

    Although I am living and working in San Diego now, the memories of my childhood days, where PEE drive and Hillview Ave were my hangouts are still vivid, your posts certainly help trigger these memories.

    Keep up the great work !

  4. AnonymousJune 15, 2013

    It's a shame! Like everything Singaporean, progress comes before everything else including saving the natural and historical heritage of our unique island state.
    An endangered crab specie unique to our estate and still nothing done to save it....what is the world coming to!
    I hope some reader with some authority read this blog and do something about saving the crabs.

  5. AnonymousJune 20, 2013

    When I went to catch these crabs, I have to lift up the rocks to for them in the longkang. The bigger the rocks, the bigger the crabs can be found under it.