The great 'musang' stakeout

The aim: To observe the Toddy Cat's population size and habits
Ang Yiying, Straits Times 30 Nov 09;

MRS Janet Chaw thought her son had heard one too many bedtime stories when he started telling her about a creature he was seeing around their neighbourhood about four years ago.

It had the face of a possum, the ears of a cat, and the tail of a monkey.
Students from the NUS department of biological sciences search for the elusive Toddy Cat (right) at the entrance to a campsite in Opera Estate. -- PHOTOS: ALPHONSUS CHERN, COURTESY OF MR ASAD SHIRAZ

'We thought he was joking,' said Mrs Chaw, a housewife in her 40s, 'until my husband saw it. Later, I saw it for myself.'

She spotted it one morning about two years ago when it was walking on the top of the wall separating her house and the vacant house next door. 'I was a bit scared. I thought it might harm us, but my son said it was the animal he had been seeing.'

Patting Wei Yang, now nine, on his back, she said: 'Mummy believes you now!'

Down the street from them, Dr Ooi Teik Huat, 62, has also seen it. He had put out traps for stray animals whose droppings he had noticed in his garden.

The traps caught something unexpected, two or three of them within a few months. He said, 'They were greyish and definitely not domestic but wild animals.'

What he and the Chaws saw was the musang, a species of civet believed to be the last, wild small carnivore left in Singapore.

Also known as the Singapore Toddy Cat or Asian Palm Civet, it averages 3.2kg, with a body length of 53cm and a tail almost as long as its body (48cm).

According to the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA), members of the public have turned over more than 20 musangs each year in the last couple of years.

Some 90 per cent have come from the Siglap and Opera Estate area, said an AVA spokesman.

And that is where a musang stakeout is currently being carried out, by a team from the Wildlife Reserves Singapore and the National University of Singapore's (NUS) department of biological sciences.

The main people working on the project, the animal management officer at the Night Safari, Mr Abdul Razak Jaffar, 29, and NUS department of biological sciences student Xu Weiting, 22, have been spending their free time and weekends at the estate. They also tap on a pool of volunteers made up of more than 10 Night Safari and Zoo staff and Ms Xu's course mates and friends.

For this month, the small group has been attempting to sight the creatures in the Siglap and Opera Estate area - sometimes all night - to determine their population size and habits.

So far, it has been unable to determine their number but the survey will go on at least until January.

Starting from last month, the group has been to the area at least nine times to note down where the fruit trees - a source of food for the musangs - were in the area and try to track the animals through this.

Said Miss Xu: 'At first, we were like, 'It shouldn't be so many fruit trees'. But as we plot, it's like 'So many!'.'

She thinks the musangs could be attracted to the area because of the high number of fruit trees that has been planted by residents in the largely private residential areas.

Though the animal is classified as a carnivore based on its skeletal and teeth structure, it is known to feed on both animals such as rats and birds as well as plant matter.

Miss Xu said the trees include mango, rambutan, papaya, banana, coconut and palm. 'It's unusual to find such a high density of fruit trees in a residential area but it's good for the Toddy Cats,' she said. 'They don't need to go very far to get food.'

The cats have been sighted at dawn, dusk and in the wee hours of the morning; they walk across the power cables in the estate, using them as 'highways'; and they are known to trample across rooftops and make their way into residents' attics.

After talking to residents out on walks, the team shortlisted a number of 'hot spots' in the area and mounted stakeouts.

One spot where there has been a number of sightings is a camp site in the Opera Estate where the group has organised night-long watches.

It is, more often than not, a waiting game.

Through the long night, they shine torchlights into trees, hoping to pick out the civets' yellow eyeshine - the colour that is reflected from their eyes when a light shines on them, listen for shuffling among trees and bushes, and sniff the air for what they describe as a 'pandan' smell that they say is the musang's distinctive musk.

The musang is common to the region. It has a body covered with coarse, shaggy grey hair, and sports three rows of black markings on its feet, ears and muzzle. The markings on its face also resemble that of a raccoon's.

The numbers of this shy creature in Singapore are not known.

The Night Safari's assistant director of zoology, Mr Kumar Pillai, said one of the aims of the project is to promote greater awareness and acceptance of the musangs in the residential area.

It also hopes to stop people trapping and removing the creatures, especially if the population is self-sustaining.

'Through heightened awareness, we hope to make people realise that living among these creatures should be a cause for celebration instead of concern. That despite rapid urbanisation, we are still fortunate to have them as part of our natural heritage,' he said.

He said the musang may be the only wild animal that is living in a residential area, while other wild animal sightings - such as those of the long-tailed macaque and smooth otters - would be in protected nature areas.

An AVA spokesman said most of the musangs that are turned over to it are released into nature areas while those that are weaker may be sent to the zoo.

Some residents find the cats a nuisance. Based on some initial responses received from a survey the team made among households in the area, Miss Xu said there were some negative responses.

'They're scared of them. Basically, they tend to be noisy when they walk on the rooftops. They are scared that they will transmit Sars. They think it's more dangerous than a normal cat.'

But others welcome them saying they liked having a bit of nature around.

A Frankel Avenue resident, Mr Asad Shiraz, 52, said he had not seen one in about six months, which was 'kind of sad'.

'They added a lot of interest to the neighbourhood,' said the marketing director, and former head of the Wildlife Reserves Singapore.

Opera Estate resident Rosean Neilsen, who has seen them on occasional late nights, said: 'I personally think they have the right to live here. They don't cause any harm.'

The private school lecturer from Australia added, 'I think they're cute.'

Members of the public have turned over more than 20 musangs each year in the last couple of years, according to the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority. Some 90 per cent have come from the Siglap and Opera Estate area.

Population surveys of animals
Straits Times 30 Nov 09;

THE next population survey to be conducted by Wildlife Reserves Singapore (WRS) will be on fireflies at the Pasir Ris mangroves. The study will begin next month.

Mr Kumar Pillai, the assistant director of zoology at the Night Safari, said fireflies in Singapore are shrinking in number and are hardly seen nowadays. There is a small population in Kranji and near the mangroves, he noted.

Most of the time, WRS carries out population surveys of animal species found around the forested areas of the Singapore Zoo and the Night Safari.

For instance, it did a count of the flying lemurs - a tree-dwelling mammal known to be able to glide from a height - in the area a few years back. This was done through counting and photo taking and identification.

Such surveys can last for anything from three to six months, and help to determine the sustainability of certain animal species, Mr Kumar said.

The survey being carried out on the population of musang in Siglap is the first by WRS in a residential area.

The hunt for this species of civet has kept student Xu Weiting fully occupied since she took up the survey for her final-year project at the department of biological sciences at the National University of Singapore. Project supervisor N. Sivasothi, who lectures at the department, said lecturers often suggest local projects for final-year students to do. Such projects usually last from August to March.

During one such project, another student conducted a survey of medium-sized mammals in Pulau Ubin and found a population of Greater Mouse Deer - thought to be extinct in Singapore. There were 100 sightings over six months.

The project, completed in March, was carried out in collaboration with the National Parks Board and its volunteers.

As part of efforts to collect records of wild animals in Singapore, a website has been set up at http://mammal.sivasothi.com/ for the public to submit photographs and information about sightings.

ANG YIYING

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