From Love Stories to War, Singapore’s Otters are Surprisingly Human

For years, otters were thought to have gone extinct in Singapore. 

That is, until their surprise reappearance in Sungei Buloh in 1990—decades since they were first spotted off the shores of Lazarus Island in 1938. 

Why did the otters come back? 

For a country that has lost over ninety-nine percent of its original vegetation in less than a century, the otters’ reappearance was a gift—and a sign that the city-state is doing something right, at least in terms of the greening initiatives that have been in place since as early as the 1970s. 

One of these policies led to the birth of the Clean River Campaign. Between 1977 to 1987, the Singapore River and Kallang Basin underwent a massive, government-initiated cleanup that saw the transformation of the two most polluted waterways in Singapore to not just the entertainment and recreation hubs they are today, but also water bodies that were clean enough for otters to live in.

For species like the smooth-coated otter, the most commonly-spotted otter species on mainland Singapore today, there are three components essential to their survival: clean water bodies to live in, sufficient food sources, and access to land. 

Unsurprisingly, Singapore’s success in improving the water quality of two key waterways has been linked to the otters’ near-miraculous return to its highly-urbanised shores. 

The Active, Beautiful and Clean Waters (ABC Waters) Programme, launched in the government’s continued bid to enhance the city-state’s waterways, has also been regarded as a contributing factor towards the resurgence of otters in Singapore. The programme saw the installation of concrete canals within man-made rivers found in areas such as Bishan-AMK Park and Sungei Ulu Pandan. Such modifications are said to have enhanced the liveability of these habitats for otters, who require appropriate sites for grooming, defecating and seeking refuge. 

Cleaner and more well-modified waterways aside, greater connectivity between the managed habitats in Singapore have also facilitated otters’ resettlement in Singapore. Park Connector Networks (PCNs) in Singapore are typically constructed by the side of rivers, canals and forests, making them prime habitats for otters to thrive in. With 300 kilometres of the PCN having been completed in 2015 and another thousand hectares of parks and PCNs slated for development over the next fifteen years, the city-state might see a robust increase in the local otter population. 

Internal factors may not be the only reasons for the furry critters’ return to Singapore. Increase in coastal development in Johor, the Malaysian state just north of the city-state, have been touted to be a possible driving force sending otters southwards, particularly towards the carefully-preserved mangrove habitats that can still be found along Singapore’s northern region.   

Who is the Bishan otter family? 

While the reappearance of otters in Singapore date back to the 1990s, it was not until 2014 when one small otter family’s journey from the mangroves up north to Bishan-Ang Mo Kio (AMK) Park, a public park smack-dab in central Singapore, that the animals were truly thrust into the public consciousness. Researchers, photographers and ordinary members of the public alike scrambled to catch a glimpse of the sociable creatures, whose exploits were not only circulated widely on social media but even reported by local news outlets. 

Since then, otters have gained something of a celebrity status on our sunny shores, as public interest in the furry creatures increased with a speed inexperienced by any other passing fad. 

Not all otters are equal, however, in terms of star power. The five-otter-strong family that first wrested the public’s attention with its ‘migration’ to Bishan-AMK Park in 2014 were christened ‘Bishan 5’ by local media outlets, and made headlines again in 2015 after a skirmish with another otter family for control over the prime Marina Bay territory. By the end of the confrontation, the Bishan family had successfully taken control of the area, forcing the ousted Marina otter family into a nomadic existence for a period of time before they settled in Bishan-AMK Park—effectively forcing a swap between the two families. 

Following the successful ousting, the Bishan otter family went on to star in David Attenborough’s 2015 documentaryon urban wildlife in Singapore. In 2016, Bishan 5 also grew to become Bishan 10 upon the arrival of five new otter pups in 2016, to the delight of their most ardent followers.

What are the otter wars about? 

The 2015 confrontation between the Bishan and Marina otter families, named after the territories they had originally lorded over, sparked the start of a fierce, ongoing rivalry between two of the most well-documented otter families in Singapore. Coined “otter wars”, territorial confrontations between different otter families continue to be extensively covered by both media outlets and otter enthusiasts, with a local interest group even going so far as to share post-battle strategy analyses

(Source)

Yet, despite how combative confrontations between the different otter families have been portrayed in the media, veteran otter-watcher Mr Jeffery Teo sees “otter wars” as nothing more than “part and parcel of nature”. Mr Teo is also a member of the Otter Working Group (OWG), a tripartite alliance between government agencies, researchers and otter interest groups. 

According to Mr Teo, confrontations between otters, which can lead to injuries and even fatalities on either side, are “no different” from human conflicts between neighbours. 

These confrontations are primarily sparked by a natural drive for territorial expansion. Moreover, in any given space, resources such as food and living space will always be limited—as with wildlife from the deserts of the Sahara or the depths of the Amazon jungle, it is also a survival of the fittest in the day-to-day lives of otters living here.

Singaporeans have, however, been known to intervene in some of these confrontations. In 2017, members of the public banded together to prevent the Bishan otter family from coming onto land and right in the path of the Marina otter family, which was especially vulnerable at the time following the death of its patriarch. Wielding umbrellas, concerned passers-by had taken it upon themselves to prevent what seemed likely to escalate into a bloody showdown between the two otter families, sparking debate on whether human intervention in “otter wars” was justifiable. 

On the question of whether humans should intervene in otter confrontations, Mr Teo says: “This is often a misunderstood situation. Just because there were two to three interventions that made it to the news, everyone thinks it is possible to break [up] a fight [between otters].” 

According to Mr Teo, given that skirmishes between otters occur more often in water, humans do not usually have the opportunity to intervene, even if they wanted to. 

Beyond otter confrontations, human intervention also remains critical to protecting the safety and wellbeing of the creatures. 

“Purists will say [one should] let nature take its course, [but] most would applaud for lending [a helping hand] to animal friends in trouble,” says Mr Teo, who adds that in most cases, human intervention only occurs when there are young or injured otters involved. 

One example was Operation Helios in 2018. Named after a lost otter pup found near Punggol Serangoon Reservoir, the complex operation brought together multiple stakeholders, ranging from otter interest groups to government agencies, in the quest to reunite Helios with his family. 

It was a task that put the pup’s life at considerable risk, given that an erroneous decision would have likely ended in his “immediate kill” by wrongly-identified family members. Yet it was a task that demanded to be undertaken if Helios was to live, considering how pups have little chance of survival when left to their own devices in the wild. 

Thankfully, in the case of Operation Helios, the judgement call was successful in helping Helios live to see another day, after he was returned to the right family in Sengkang nearly 14 kilometres from where he was found—a fate the otter would have been unlikely to have secured for himself sans human intervention.   

Who are the other otter families in Singapore? 

As with all wildlife, it remains next to impossible for even researchers and the most ardent of enthusiasts to keep an accurate tally of the exact number of otters in Singapore. 

Most recent estimates, however, peg the local otter population at around 90, with at least nineteen distinct otter families scattered all across Singapore. The Bishan and Marina families currently make up the largest packs. 

In the few years since the debut in central Singapore that pushed them to stardom, the Bishan otter family has seen the death of a patriarch, the departure of several grown otters, and the birth of six litters’ worth of newborn pups, putting current estimates of its pack strength at 15. The Marina family follows closely behind, with a current estimated strength of 11. 

An Otter Love Story

(Source)

Curiously, despite the long-standing rivalry between the Bishan and Marina otter families, love finds its way—in this case, between the heads of another increasingly prominent otter family, the Zouk otter family. 

Named after the nightclub that used to stand on Jiak Kim Street where the otters were first spotted, the Zouk otter family is headed by a male otter from the Marina family and a female otter from the rival Bishan family. Unlike other otter families, the Zouk family is distinguished by its nomadic travelling patterns. With no centralised territory to call their own, the Zouk family has been spotted all over Central and Southern Singapore—often in the busiest, most densely-developed areas, no less. Sighting grounds included Orchard, Dhoby Ghaut, and even the Central Business District.  

The travels of the Zouk otter family began to draw even more attention from the public after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the wake of pandemic-induced lockdowns worldwide, it was the humans who were confined to their homes, and the wildlife that were free to roam urban spaces that would normally be teeming with human traffic. Singapore was no exception, and the Zouk otter family served as prime examples of the phenomenon during the country’s lockdown period in April 2020. 

Videos of the family’s travels to bewildering sites, such as Mustafa Centre, KK Hospital, and a petrol station in Bukit Timah, trawled social media sites, bringing Singaporeans no small amount of cheer and amusement during a particularly trying time. 

However, the Zouk otter family’s unpredictable behaviour has also drawn its fair share of flak. In March 2020, news of the family’s intrusion into a private condominium pool in Newton made waves when videos of the otters frolicking in the pool while snacking on koi fish snatched from the condominium pond were circulated online. In May 2020, the same family was publicly condemned by former actress Jazreel Low for devouring all of the koi fish at her spa in Bishan after a successful break-in.

According to otter interest group OtterCity, the Zouk otter family’s travels are not as aimless as they seem. Splitting their time between the Singapore River and Singapore Botanic Gardens, the Zouk family is  accustomed to travelling by the canal systems that run under the entire city-state, relying on what they can see, smell and hear whilst travelling to direct them to their destinations. More often than not, what draws them is the sound of water, which they associate with a significant source of nutrition: fish. 

The Zouk family is also motivated by changing pack dynamics. With the younger otters having grown into adulthood, the family’s ongoing search for a bigger, more permanent territory to call home is made more urgent. 

In other words, the nomadic otter family travels (and occasionally gatecrashes) in a bid to fulfil the same basic needs of other otter families, and in fact all other wildlife—food and shelter. 

Why are otters here so good at getting around? 

The exploits of the Zouk otter family have also brought greater attention to another key aspect of the furry creatures’ existence in Singapore: their keenness for navigating urban spaces. 

Cherubic faces and furry bodies aside, the local otter population’s uncanny familiarity with navigating the concrete jungle of Singapore have long drawn the undivided attention of bemused, captivated onlookers. 

Otter families’ increasingly regular raids of privately-owned ponds for the quick and easy meal of exorbitantly-priced ornamental fish with nowhere else to escape gave rise to reactions of both outrage and amusement from netizens over their “profligate” lifestyle in highly-urbanised Singapore. A video shared by otter photographer Bernard Seah also had netizens marvelling at the novelty of seeing an otter clamber out of a canal using the attached metal ladder, in a show of surprising dexterity in utilising man-made fixtures.  

The often attention-grabbing exploits of the quick-footed mammal all over the island point towards intelligence levels that may well match that of the smartest dog breeds, such as the border collie. On top of an incredibly keen sense of direction, the local otter population is also known to be able to read their surroundings well, telling apart threats and enemies from friends and family with ease. 

According to Mr Teo, local otters have also proven to be able to communicate well, with volunteers having been able to pick up at least five different kinds of vocalisations and figure out what each of them meant.  

That being said, otters’ remarkable levels of adaptability to Singapore’s urban environment can be attributed in part to the urban environment itself. 

Being semi-aquatic animals, otters require access to not just water but also land, for activities such as grooming and defecation. The presence of adequate riparian zones, or land adjacent to water bodies, are thus crucial to otters’ survival in any habitat. In addition, these zones must also be on a gentle incline for land areas to remain accessible to otters.

Incidentally, reservoirs in Singapore, such as Serangoon Reservoir and Gardens by the Bay, are built with gently-sloping walls, making the highly-urbanised metropolis well-suited to the needs of otters. The furry critters’ continued colonisation of Bishan-AMK Park is also partly thanks to the swathes of gently-sloping vegetation spread across the managed habitat. 

Otters also require specialised resting grounds, or holts in order to survive. In the absence of natural sites such as sandbanks and grasslands in Singapore, otters have found alternative homes in the canals and urban waterways of the city-state. 

The local otter population’s relative comfort with living in Singapore’s urban streetscape is not only unexpected, but nearly unheard of elsewhere, even for otters of a species as sociable as the smooth-coated otter. 

According to a Straits Times interview with international otter expert Dr Nicole Duplaix, habitable rivers, abundance of prey and even legal protection for wildlife are not the only reasons for the city-state’s curious otter resurgence—the otters’ trust of the general population also plays a big role in its active, highly visible presence in Singapore.  

Do we love them or hate them? 

(Source)

Singaporeans love their otters—a view that seems hardly disputable, judging by everything from the otter-themed exhibitions to the otter mascots fronting campaigns of government agencies. 

Yet in recent years, some have taken a harsher view of the cheeky, fun-loving creatures’ exploits around the city-state. The repeated killing of fish kept in private ponds by different otter families, and the increased frequency in unexpected appearances of otters, have been giving rise to calls for tighter controls on the otter population.  

However, according to experts, concerns over a possible overpopulation of otters are unfounded, given that there exists a natural limit to the number of animals living in any given space. The territorial nature of otters, coupled with their suboptimal urban living conditions, add onto the low likelihood of the nation’s most beloved critters from becoming pests anytime soon.

On top of extensive media coverage, public interest in otters was further mobilised by the content put out by otter enthusiasts on social media, who later organised themselves into otter-watching interest groups on Facebook. OtterWatch and OtterCity remain the most prominent pages to date, with followers numbering into the thousands.

The pages often put out images and videos of otters accompanied with engaging, lighthearted and strangely relatable narratives that help their audiences establish a deeper sense of connection with the sociable creatures. The effect of these pages on public interest in the animals, their lives and even their whereabouts was palpable—in a 2016 poll, otters were picked by Singaporeans to represent the country for its 51st year, testifying to the people’s affection for the furry, round-faced critters. 

The people who make up the extensive network of otter enthusiasts in Singapore also often double as the animals’ protectors, lending a hand in and even spearheading rescue operations and outreach efforts with other stakeholders. 

Apart from a number of irresponsible fishing hook-related accidents and attempts from lone wolves to trap and capture otters, educational outreach efforts by interest groups and government agencies alike have been mostly successful in shaping the public’s generally positive, even protective, attitudes towards the animals. 

While the beginnings of a shift in public favour for the furry, wide-eyed creatures in the densely-packed urban environment of Singapore cannot be denied, one thing remains certain—the return of the otter population in Singapore remains an ecological feat that cannot be taken for granted; not if we want to continue sharing our spaces with them for generations to come. 


Author

Rachel Tan

Contributor

Leave a Reply

In a world that is bubbling with clickbait, sensationalism and oversimplifications, Kopi aims to bring long-form journalism back to South-East Asia.

Through deeply analysed articles, we uncover and explain the complex and multifaceted issues facing our societies. Through engaging narratives, we tell stories that are bold and unique.

More Stories
Can the Opposition Ever Win a Simple Majority in Singapore’s GE? Here’s How it May.
%d bloggers like this: