'Spider-Man' Joseph Koh Says Big Thank You

Waleed PD Mahdini Borneo Bulletin Brunei Direct 7 Nov 10;

Bandar Seri Begawan - Brunei is located in one of the top biodiversity hotspots in the world, but only about 20 named species have been documented within its lush tropical jungles. For this very reason, the High Commissioner of the Republic of Singapore, Mr Joseph Koh, who is also a keen arachnologist, will be donating some of the spider specimens that he has collected during his posting to the Sultanate over the last five years.

"My spider collection, now with me in Brunei Darussalam, consists of two parts, with more than 12,000 specimens from Singapore and elsewhere in Southeast Asia, except Brunei, collected sporadically over the last 40 years, as well as more than 1,000 specimens from Brunei Darussalam, collected during my posting in Brunei over the last five years," said Mr Koh of his arachnid collection.

Asked how many species there were in each collection, the Singaporean envoy said, "I do not really know as my official work has not allowed me enough time to catalogue them systematically. I would guess there must be well over 150 species in the Brunei collection and more than 500 species in the larger Singapore and Southeast Asia collection."

Mr Koh will be donating some of his collection to the Singapore's Raffles Museum for Biodiversity Research and also intends to donate some to the Brunei Museum.

"I have pledged the former to the RMBR, but will be depositing a full set of 'voucher specimens' (specimens accompanying a record) from my Brunei collection at the Brunei Museum. With the permission of Brunei Museum, RMBR will also receive some specimens from Brunei, but only if they are spares after the first set of voucher specimens has been deposited in Brunei," affirmed Mr Koh, adding, "I am not donating my 'entire collection' to the RMBR, but a substantial part of it.

"The 12,000 specimens of spiders destined for the RMBR will greatly boost the existing holding of 5,000 specimens, which will include all my arachnological books, reprints of scientific papers, colour slides and digital images accumulated over the last 40 years."

The Singaporean envoy went on to point out that his photographic collection is particularly valuable, "for it includes thousands of nature shots taken in the field and microscopic shots of spider genitalia (sex organs) taken in my home laboratory," which he highlighted "is the fruit of 40 years of labour and probably the largest collection of photographic images of Southeast Asian spiders in the world".

As for donating to the Brunei Museum, Mr Koh explains his motive as "more than just a case of depositing specimens collected from Brunei in Brunei".

"Brunei is located in one of the top biodiversity hotspots in the world, but only about 20 named species have been documented in Brunei. The actual number must be much higher but no one knows exactly how rich the spider fauna in Brunei is. The existing spider collections at the Brunei Museum and the Universiti Brunei Darussalam are negligible. I have therefore volunteered to help the Brunei Museum to build up a national reference collection, so that Bruneians will have an inventory, complete with voucher specimens, of an important part of their natural heritage."

Asked what he hopes this would mean for his host country, the High Commissioner said, "I hope it will encourage young Bruneian scientists to take up arachnology and continue the research after I have completed my posting in Brunei. I also hope to attract the international arachnologist community to visit Brunei and study the spiders there. I hope research by Bruneian and international scientists kick-started by the Brunei National Spider Reference Collection will help Brunei to evolve eventually into one of the centres of excellence in biodiversity research in the region."

Mr Koh went on to explain, "This is important. Strong biodiversity research in Brunei and others in the region will underpin the conservation vision as embodied in the `Heart of Borneo' (HoB) Initiative, a joint commitment undertaken by Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia to conserve the rainforests across their common borders between Brunei, Sabah, Sarawak and Kalimantan. I am a passionate supporter of the HoB Initiative."

The main motive, which the 62-year-old career diplomat explained is because "Brunei is a close friend of Singapore. My wife and I have enjoyed the warm hospitality and friendship in the five most enjoyable years that we have spent in Brunei so far. It is our way of saying 'thank you' particularly to all our friends in the Brunei Museum and Universiti Brunei Darussalam for their advice, support and companionship at our field trips in Brunei."

More importantly, "As, the Singapore High Commissioner in Brunei, I would also like to leave behind an enduring reminder of Singapore-Brunei friendship in the form of the Brunei National Spider Reference Collection."

As to his belief behind the donation, Mr Koh explained that it is two-fold: "First, the science of taxonomy (identification and classification) cannot be developed in isolation. Other scientists must have easy access to the speciniens I have studied; otherwise it will undermine not only the advancement of science, but also the credibility of my scientific work."

"Second, the collection, representing four decades of painstaking field work, is so large that there will be thousands of specimens that I will not have time to study within my life time. It will be morally wrong, if not downright criminal, if such a large collection is left at home to collect dust when it should be studied by other scientists."

Mr Koh's interest in spiders started long before he had even begun zoology at the University of Singapore.

"My late father got me interested in zoology when I was a kid, by showering me with numerous wildlife and natural history magazines and nature guides to different insects and other animals. The old Raffles Museum at Stamford Road became my favourite haunt. Fuelled also by my interest in outdoor life, it was natural that I started collecting seashells, butterflies and other insect specimens and built my own 'mini museum' collection at home."

He also credits his father for stimulating his interest in nature and macro photography. "As I took a closer look for the smaller creatures in my garden and our nature reserves, I was quickly struck by the multitude of colours, shapes, body forms, and behaviours among spiders. I also quickly discovered the pleasure of matching what I have read in the books with what I saw in the field."

During his years at university, "encouraged by Prof D H Murphy, then the lecturer in entomology at the Univeisity of Singapore, I got deeper into studying and identifying spiders during the long vacations when I was granted access to the microscope and other equipment in his laboratory. I have not stopped since then".

But why spiders people often ask him. "I am actually not attracted to spiders per se; I do not find spiders particularly cool or cute. But I am attracted to arachnology, the study of spiders. And there are two basic reasons. Firstly, I find it very exciting to establish new patterns of diversity. I am `turned on' by the discovery of new patterns of similarities amidst the variations. I see these fascinating patterns in wider and wider varieties of spiders. Just consider the divergence and radiation from the same basic theme: from the small house jumping spider to the giant jungle tarantula; from spiders that mimic different species of ants to spiders that mimic wasps, scorpions and even snails; some trap their prey with a web, others hunt by chasing their prey and others just wait in ambush."

Mr Koh's second reason is the enjoyment he receives from the intellectual detective work in getting a spider identified or described.

"Identifying Southeast Asian spiders, even the common species, are not as straight forward as identifying well-studied groups such as butterflies or dragonflies. In the case of the more popular groups, names can quickly be traced in easily available reference books."

Breaking down the intellectual challenge in studying spiders, the envoy has had to track down the scientific literature, often in university or museum libraries overseas; decipher the descriptions, many of the classical ones are bare and vague with no illustrations,- some were written in Latin; make comparison of closely related specimens, often with loans from overseas museums; narrow down possibilities, and make judgement of "what it is" and "what it is not".

"The process itself is intellectually stimulating. But at the end of the day, the ultimate pleasure is solving a mystery when the spider is identified, or is judged to be new to science."

For most people, the thought of these creepy-crawly arachnids would be enough to send shivers down one's spine.

Asked if he personally felt of his creature, hobby, Mr Koh pointed out: "Almost all spiders are venomous. They immobilise their prey by injecting venom into them.

"But the fangs of most spiders are too small to puncture our skin, and therefore the overwhelming majority of spiders are harmless to humans."

He was quick to also highlight, "I have not come across any fatal cases of spider bite anywhere in Southeast Asia. But I do treat larger spiders with respect. I do not handle them with my bare hands, since some of them do bite when threatened or provoked."

Asked if he had ever experienced a spider bite, Mr Koh acknowledged: "Only once, at one of my fingers. The wound turned 'necrotic', which is when lesion developed and the tissue died.

"But it healed within a few days. It is important to disinfect the wound and watch for allergic reactions."

As an envoy, his hobby may seem somewhat misplaced, to which to a certain extent, Mr Koh agreed. "As an ambassador, I am expected to behave with dignity and decorum.

"But friends who have accompanied me on my field trips find me most 'un-ambassadorial' as I go around in the jungle shaking beaches vigorously over a reversed umbrella.

"This is my main collection technique - spiders living among the foliage will fall into the umbrella and can then be easily chased into my collection tubes."

The Singaporean High Commissioner also acknowledged his partner's contribution to his hobby.

"My wife Peifen does not find spiders menacing, but she is not particularly excited about spiders either."

He went on to share the story of his love interest with his hobby and his wife.

"When I proposed to her 36 years ago, she said she would agree provided I removed all the specimens from my room which was supposed to become our 'bridal chamber'.

We had to live with my parents then and this was my only room. I had to agree. But as the collection grew, the specimens made their way gradually back to our 'love nest'.

But really, she has been most supportive. For safety reasons, I never venture into the jungle alone, and she has always made a special effort to accompany me, particularly in the forests in Brunei and other more remote places in Southeast Asia.

We would take turns to drive and she would physically help in the collection.

Without her, the size of my collection would have been a lot more modest."

Smiling as he recounted the story, he also quipped on her enthusiasm with the spider-catching.

"She is an energetic collector but with a more serious long-sightedness problem than mine, so she would sometimes mistakenly collect ants, bugs, and even fallen twigs. On one occasion, she caught a tiny jungle stream crab thinking that it was a giant crab spider!"

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