Transformative expeditions - Dr John van Wyhe

May 06, 2019

Dr John van Wyhe, Senior Lecturer at the Department of Biological Sciences at NUS Faculty of Science and Fellow of Tembusu College at NUS, probably knows more about the wilder side of Singapore than most residents of the island.

Since relocating to the Lion City in 2009 to teach at NUS and conduct research on the history of science, Dr John, as he is fondly called, is especially captivated by the rich biodiversity of the urban city state. An avid mountain biker, he spends many hours cycling through and exploring the forests and remote parts of Singapore, discovering the flora and fauna. He has encountered snakes, wild boars, monitor lizards and other wildlife during his jaunts.


Dr John on top of Anak Krakatoa, an active volcano in Indonesia                                                                                                                                                                                            

An authority on Charles Darwin, Dr John has painstakingly built up a comprehensive edition of Darwin’s writings: Darwin Online about the proponent of evolution back in Cambridge, UK. At NUS he proceeded to create Wallace Online, a website which contains the complete works of naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace who spent eight years in Singapore, Malaya and Indonesia collecting animals.

The historian of science has been retracing the footsteps of Wallace, traversing jungles and remote areas in the region. Besides visiting nature reserves and parks, he immerses himself in the culture and life of the locals to understand them better. He also shares his travel interest with NUS students whom he brings along on expeditions to Indonesia, which included Komodo island, Sulawesi, Flores, Krakatoa volcano, Lombok, Bali and Borneo.

trip 1

Dr John and students on an expedition to Borneo


The trips have changed their outlook profoundly, Dr John observed. “You can watch a documentary about the urgent need for nature conservation, but when you really go there, it’s completely different and very sobering.”

He remembered the gut-wrenching dismay felt when he saw an endless expanse of plastic bags and rubbish floating on the water while crossing the sea between islands in a boat. Or vast tracts of forest levelled for oil palm plantations. Such shocking realities can never be appreciated by just looking at posters or campaign messages, he underscored.

trip 2

The team gathering water hyacinth to make into paper and fertiliser


Even though such problems are too monumental to solve by any one individual, Dr John believes that first-hand encounters leave a person better informed about the huge scale of the problem. He noticed the transformation in his students after the trips. “They started out as young people, but as we progressed through our journey, I could see them grow as they witnessed the reality of the natural world.”

Dr John has recorded his adventures in a book titled The Conservation Expeditions 2016-2018 (click on link for pdf version of the book), published in March 2019 by Tembusu College, to share with his students and visitors. The online version makes it accessible to interested readers around the world. He also plans to incorporate some of his personal experiences in his teaching, which will enable students to benefit from the knowledge and insights he has gained during his travels.

The Tembusu (Fagraea fragrans) is a large evergreen tree in the family Gentianaceae. It is native to Southeast Asia. Its trunk is dark brown, with deeply fissured bark, looking somewhat like a bittergourd. It grows in an irregular shape from 10 to 25m high. Its leaves are light green and oval in shape. Its yellowish flowers have a distinct fragrance and the fruits of the tree are bitter tasting red berries, which are eaten by birds and fruit bats.