Singapore, jungle city: Can humans and wild animals co-exist?

As more wild animals come out of the woodwork and encroach on humans' spaces, the authorities, experts and nature groups are hammering out solutions so that all can enjoy a peaceful co-existence.
Audrey Tan Straits Times 22 Oct 17;

It's a jungle out there in the Garden City. As Singapore's greening efforts take shape, more reported cases of run-ins between man and beast - some with serious consequences - are emerging.

Monkeys have been terrorising people in their homes. Wild fowl have caused a flap. And then, just last Thursday, a wild boar charged at a man walking past a condominium in Hillview Avenue to the MRT station. The 44-year-old man suffered cuts to his legs.

Wild boars were also in the spotlight last month when five people were taken to hospital after vehicles collided with the animals.

A long-tailed macaque, meanwhile, wreaked havoc for months in the homes of Segar Road residents in Bukit Panjang, entering units and biting people. It took a team comprising wildlife rescue group Animal Concerns Research and Education Society, the Wildlife Reserves Singapore and the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) to catch it in May.

While some marvel at the weird and wonderful wildlife in urban areas here - WhatsApp groups have been created to alert nature enthusiasts about otter sightings, for example - unpleasant animal encounters are upsetting others.

Auditor Anita Srinivasan, 38,who lives in a condo close to where Thursday's boar attack happened, says: "I'm worried for my kids. The lights at our walkway are always dim, so it's hard to see animals."

All this highlights the importance of Singapore's animal management strategies.

Once, it emphasised culling as the immediate solution to complaints about wildlife, but things are changing, notes mammal researcher Marcus Chua from the National University of Singapore's (NUS) Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum.

Just last month, a working group on the long-tailed macaque was launched to look at reducing human-wildlife conflict. One aim is to develop pre-emptive measures such as public education, says group co-chairman and primate scientist Andie Ang. The group consists of experts from government agencies, scientists and non-government groups,

How big is the problem and what does this new strategy involve? With human-wildlife encounters expected to rise, is it the right way forward?

AWASH WITH WILDLIFE

Figures from AVA show a growing number of reports made about animals over the years, with feedback relating to monkeys and snakes topping the list.

AVA received 770 reports on monkeys in 2014. Between January and September this year, this grew to 1,170. For snakes, the figure was 610 in 2014, and 1,100 for the first nine months of the year. As for wild boars, AVA received 30 wild boar-related reports in 2014, and 190 between January and September.

What is drawing wildlife into Singapore's urban spaces? No studies have been done to conclusively determine this. But experts point to several reasons.

First, it could be a consequence of Singapore's City in a Garden drive.

The Republic outshone 16 cities in a recent study on urban tree density by researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the World Economic Forum. Almost 30 per cent of Singapore's urban areas are covered by greenery. This puts Singapore ahead of Sydney and Vancouver, which tied for second place with 25.9 per cent.

"Planting up the landscape can improve or create a habitat. It may also create suitable linkages or refuge for wildlife between existing habitats. Some mammals that have benefited are the plantain squirrel and long-tailed macaque. It is possible civets use them too," says NUS' Mr Chua.

The oriental pied hornbill - an endangered bird native to Singapore - is practically the poster child for the Republic's greening efforts. The species was extinct here for nearly a century, but recolonised Pulau Ubin in the early 1990s.

Due to an extensive reintroduction programme, the hornbills have gone on to spread more widely on mainland Singapore - even showing up at urban condominiums, such as Country Park Condominium in Bedok.

Second, the lack of predators could cause some animals to proliferate. "Wild boars' quick reproduction rates, the presence of ideal foraging habitats and the lack of natural predators all contribute to their population growth," says the National Parks Board (NParks) on its website.

On the other hand, urbanisation has a "push" factor, too. Dr Lena Chan, senior director of NParks' National Biodiversity Centre, points out: "When we start urbanising, the natural land bank becomes smaller."

The squeeze factor extends beyond Singapore. "Developments in the region could be 'squeezing' wildlife and reducing their habitat, and so they leave in search of other places," says Dr Shawn Lum, president of the Nature Society (Singapore) and a senior lecturer at Nanyang Technological University's Asian School of the Environment. Crocodiles, for example, swim freely in the Johor Strait, the channel of water separating Singapore from Malaysia.

They are a common sight at the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve, but rarely seen elsewhere. However, in August, crocodiles were spotted at parks in Pasir Ris and Changi. It led the authorities to put up warning signs at Changi Beach Park.

ANIMAL INVASION?

Is the resurgence in wildlife getting out of hand?

Singapore has been awake to the issues and moved to address this. But stop-gap measures to keep animal populations in check, such as culling, have been controversial.

"The wild animals we have in Singapore are generally small and can thrive in our woods and Garden City. They enrich our environment, making Singapore a natural city and not a barren one. The presence of small, wild animals is a tribute to our ability to balance urban living with nature."

He added: "Occasionally we may run into larger and potentially aggressive animals such as wild boars, snakes and crocodiles. They are best left alone and reported to the authorities who are trained to handle them safely. Not worth putting oneself at risk or stressing the wild animal for the sake of a selfie or video."

The outcry over the AVA's culling of free-ranging chickens earlier this year highlighted this. Primate researcher Sabrina Jabbar, from conservation group Jane Goodall Institute (Singapore), or JGIS, says culling merely leaves a vacuum for another animal to fill.

So to better manage animal populations in the long run, more data about ecology and behaviour is needed. In other words, strategies to manage the problem need to be backed by sound science.

The Government has already adopted such an approach. For example, research into stray dog and urban bird populations is now taking place. The dog study, commissioned by the AVA, aims to establish an estimate of the stray dog population size, and to understand ecological and biological aspects such as their mortality and reproductive rates. The study could determine the effectiveness of the trap-neuter-release method of controlling the stray dog population, which animal welfare groups perceive to be a more humane strategy than culling.

But such studies take time. The dog study, for instance, is a three-year one which started in 2015. And it may be difficult to convince those affected by the antics of wild animals to have patience.

What is needed is a preventive solution that tackles the root of the problem, instead of a reactive one. This is something the authorities, scientists and non-government groups are moving towards.

NIPPING THE PROBLEM IN THE BUD

Key to this preventive strategy is educating people on how to interact with wildlife. The setting up of the long-tailed macaque working group is one measure.

The AVA is also working with JGIS on plans to conduct wildlife briefings for residents living near the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve to educate them on how they should behave when encountering animals such as the long-tailed macaque.

AVA's deputy director of its wild animal section, Mr Jonathan Ngiam, says: "Tips include not feeding wildlife, harvesting fruit from trees within the compound wherever possible, or closing windows during the timings when the macaques are expected to appear."

This is sound advice, as conflicts between humans and animals occur mostly over food.

It was the case for the Segar Road monkey, which had been fed by residents there. People feeding wild boars have also resulted in large herds of them gathering in areas such as Pasir Ris.

When residents or visitors to a nature area start to feed wildlife, either deliberately or unintentionally, it can result in the animals associating humans with food. This can cause them to seek out humans in hopes of getting a treat, says Ms Jabbar.

High availability of food makes female macaques give birth at a rapid rate, thus leading to a possibility of population rise. "Their rate of reproductive success depends on food availability, so the availability of food could make them hit that threshold faster," notes Ms Jabbar.

As Mr Tay Kae Fong, president of JGIS, says: "For an effective measure to be successful, we need to have all sides get on board. Apart from environment and animal groups, residents near hot spots, parkgoers and the Government will all need to jump in."

Segar Road resident Hetty Karim, 39, an instructional assistant at the Singapore American School, agrees: "For me, it's simple - the monkey is here for food. If you're scared of it, close the window."

National University of Singapore sociologist Tan Ern Ser says there has been a value shift towards greater concern for environmental issues and wildlife. But, when it comes to wildlife that poses a nuisance, there may be a contest of approaches on how to deal with it - to tolerate or exterminate.

Tolerance of animals may take some time to build. But learning the dos and don'ts of interacting with wildlife - by not feeding or provoking them, for instance - is not difficult. Says retired businessman Russell Ng, 68, who is visited by long-tailed macaques almost every day: "It's not rocket science to figure out how to make them go away - they won't come if there's no food for them."

•Additional reporting by Raffaella Nathan Charles


ESM Goh's advice on dealing with wildlife
When the authorities culled free-ranging chickens in Sin Ming and Pasir Ris earlier this year over concerns about public health and complaints about noise, many feathers were ruffled.

People who questioned the need to kill the birds say the risk of bird flu - which the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore had noted was endemic in the region - was not immediately obvious.

However, residents affected by the crowing say the birds are a nuisance and should be got rid of.

The incident highlighted the divide between those tolerant of wildlife in Singapore and those who are less so.

Soon after the debate erupted in February, Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, an MP for Marine Parade GRC, posted a photo of birds on Facebook, saying: "This junglefowl came a-calling. Some months ago a family of junglefowls visited and left. Hope this one will take up permanent residency in my garden. It will be safe from culling."

Insight approached Mr Goh for his advice on dealing with wildlife. He said: "Learn to live with them and enjoy seeing them. Most animals are not dangerous and will keep a safe distance from human beings. I saw a civet cat once on the roof of my house. It was fascinating as I had not seen one before. There are also squirrels in my area. Fortunately, no monkeys!


It's a zoo out there: 4 strategies for dealing with animals in public spaces
Last November, the speed limit for most parts of Mandai Lake Road was reduced to 40kmh, and for the stretches of road near the nature reserve, to 20kmh. There are also signs to remind drivers to slow down and be alert in case animals cross.
Audrey Tan Straits Times 22 Oct 17;

ANIMALS GET PROTECTION FROM TRAFFIC HAZARDS IN MANDAI

The makeover of leafy Mandai is under way and by 2023, visitors will be able to visit five wildlife parks, up from the current three. The new Rainforest Park, and relocated Bird Park from Jurong, will join the existing Singapore Zoo, River Safari and Night Safari.

But even before the nature precinct is fully up and running, developer Mandai Park Holdings (MPH) is taking steps to safeguard native wildlife in the surrounding areas. The measures will also help reduce clashes between humans and animals, such as preventing collisions between vehicles travelling along Mandai Lake Road and wild animals crossing it.

The measures - such as installing speed humps, speed regulating strips and signboards to raise awareness about wildlife crossings - were put in place last November before developmental works began.

The Mandai area sits right outside the Central Catchment Nature Reserve - Singapore's largest nature reserve, and a treasure trove of biodiversity. Animals such as pangolins and plantain squirrels sometimes attempt to cross Mandai Lake Road, which separates fragments of the reserve.

Last November, MPH reduced the speed limit for most parts of Mandai Lake Road to 40kmh, and for the stretches of road near the nature reserve, to 20kmh. The speed limit for the entire stretch of Mandai Lake Road used to be 50kmh.

There are also educational signs along the road to remind drivers to slow down and be alert in case animals cross.

These are interim measures ahead of the completion in 2019 of a wildlife bridge, similar to the one spanning the Bukit Timah Expressway.

Mr Philip Yim, senior vice-president for Mandai Park Development, MPH's developmental arm, says: "This bridge will provide wildlife with a safe passage that protects them from the hazards posed by passing traffic."

He adds: "Fencing strategies will be adopted in the future precinct to guide wildlife to use the bridge."

HOW ENGLAND DEALS WITH FOXES

An urban fox near Borough Market in London. The number of urban foxes in England has quadrupled in the past 20 years, said a study. PHOTO: REUTERS
It seems that the fox is to England what the macaque or wild boar is to Singapore.

Urban foxes in England are carriers of disease, and are known to enter homes and damage gardens. There have also been reports of foxes attacking children, although animal behaviourists there have said such incidents are rare.

The number of urban foxes in England has quadrupled in the past 20 years, according to a study that estimates there are nearly 150,000 in England, or about one for every 300 urban residents, reported The Guardian in April.

But controlling the fox population has proven to be tricky, with people divided on whether foxes should be tolerated or exterminated. Culling, although legal, is controversial. Other than backlash from animal activists, experts have argued that killing one fox merely leaves a vacuum that another would soon fill.

But even as the authorities there grapple with how best to deal with the growing population of these adaptable animals, a charity, the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, has published online a guide on how households can deal with foxes, with the help of wildlife experts from partner organisations. A key suggestion is for households to reduce the amount of food available to foxes.

This includes storing food waste in fox-proof containers or secure dustbins, not feeding foxes, and ensuring they do not get access to food put out for pets.

The BBC also reported that one of the most popular, and effective, ways of dealing with foxes is the motion-activated sprinkler, which repels the animals with a short but startling burst of water.

DRONES USED TO REDUCE ENCOUNTERS WITH SHARKS

Researchers studying grey reef sharks at Scott Reef. In Western Australia, 15 people have been killed by sharks since 2000. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
For swimmers or surfers on the beaches of Australia, sharks are not just a nuisance.

Encounters with these creatures can be dangerous, even fatal. In Western Australia, 15 people have been killed by sharks since 2000, according to news reports.

The authorities have tried various measures to prevent further cases, such as by installing shark nets to prevent the predators from encroaching into areas where people swim.

But shark nets under trial in New South Wales ensnared other animals as well, resulting in an outcry from animal conservation groups, which called for the nets to be removed.

ABC News reported in January this year that between 2015 and last year, 133 target sharks were caught along with 615 non-target marine animals off beaches between the cities of Wollongong and Newcastle. Almost half of the animals that were caught perished in the netting.

Now the authorities are turning to technology to reduce encounters between sharks and humans.

Last week, it was announced that new technology in the form of drones will be deployed across beaches in Western Australia to better protect swimmers and surfers.

The drones, equipped with military-grade cameras, will be used to detect sharks. Data will then be transmitted to lifeguards or swimmers instantly.

News site Perth Now reported that unlike human spotters in helicopters, such cameras can "see" sharks on the surface and at depths down to 10m, observe a wider stretch of ocean, and are not hindered by waves or glare.

RESIDENT TAKES STEPS TO CO-EXIST WITH MACAQUES

Monkeys visit Mr Russell Ng, 68, nearly every day at his home in Old Upper Thomson Road where he has lived for nine years.

The long-tailed macaques come from the Central Catchment Nature Reserve, which is right across the road from Mr Ng's house.

They scale the walls around his home in search of food left out by people in the residential estate and eateries nearby.

However, the animals do not bother him as he has learnt to co-exist with them.

Initially, they did enter his home and stole food.

But he has learnt not to leave food lying around. It is kept in a microwave oven instead of being left on the table.

Mr Ng also makes it a point to keep trash indoors instead of in the bin outside, until the garbage collector is due.

"Some of our neighbours also use bungee cords to secure their bins, to make it less easy for the macaques to rummage around in," says Mr Ng, who sits on the area's residents' committee.

He has also trained his three dogs, all poodle-crosses, to ignore the macaques.

This helps prevent the macaques from exhibiting confrontational or aggressive behaviour whenever they feel challenged, he says.

"In the past, every time a monkey comes around, the dogs will keep barking. Now, it's like they don't even see the monkeys," says Mr Ng, a retired businessman.

The encounters he has had with the macaques have been fascinating, he adds, and led him to start volunteering as a docent in the zoo, helping out with the primates.


Expert panel set up to develop SOP for monkey problems
Audrey Tan Straits Times 22 Oct 17;

Long-tailed macaques, a common sight in Singapore's parks, have been making headlines for their antics in neighbourhoods such as Bukit Batok and Segar Road - entering homes, stealing food and even biting people.

To better deal with conflicts between humans and macaques, an interdisciplinary panel comprising experts from various organisations was officially set up last month, The Sunday Times has learnt.

The panel includes staff from the National Parks Board (NParks) and the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA); academics from the National University of Singapore (NUS); the Holland-Bukit Panjang Town Council, and interest groups such as the Jane Goodall Institute (Singapore), or JGIS.

JGIS primate scientist Andie Ang, who chairs the panel, said it provides a platform for agencies to discuss human-macaque conflicts, and to develop solutions and a standard operating procedure (SOP) for dealing with the issues. "We need to develop a common SOP across agencies so that when an incident happens, we are all on the same page," she said.

"Currently, one agency may come up with one solution and another agency, a different one, which could confuse the public."

The solutions may also sometimes come into conflict with each other - for instance, culling versus translocation.

The group will also develop pre-emptive measures, such as public education, before problems arise, she said.

Education efforts could include talks in schools or in estates prone to visits from the monkeys. These sessions would likely focus on the problems that arise when people feed macaques, or how to interpret macaques' facial expressions so that people are more aware of how to react when one is scared or aggressive.

Dr Lena Chan, senior director at NParks' National Biodiversity Centre, said NParks will work with the relevant stakeholders to assess the need for more working groups.

The management of wild boars has been thrown into the spotlight following a series of incidents, the latest occurring last Thursday, when a man was attacked outside a condominium in Hillview Avenue.

AVA said it is working with partners, including NParks and NUS, to mitigate human-wild boar conflict and ensure public safety.

"For example, to prevent traffic incidents, we are exploring the feasibility of measures such as putting signage about wildlife crossings at specific locations to warn motorists and erecting barriers at specific locations to prevent wildlife from encroaching onto roads," it said.

NParks has also started to remove oil palms - which boars have a preference for - from hot spots. "This helps to control populations at the hot spots and encourage migration to other areas in the nature reserves with lower wild boar density," it said.

It is also taking steps to discourage feeding of wild boars, and has installed signage to advise visitors to keep their distance when they encounter the animals. "Signage has also been installed along roads abutting hot spots at the nature reserves to alert motorists to look out for wildlife crossing," it added.


This city girl is wild about Singapore's wildlife
Audrey Tan Straits Times 22 Oct 17;

When it comes to coexisting with wildlife in the city, tolerance is the key.

Singapore's greening efforts have drawn all sorts of wildlife - from cute otters and hornbills to mischievous monkeys and wild boars.

It is human nature to prefer some animals over others, but it would be difficult to cherry-pick the types of wildlife here. It would be far better to learn to tolerate - or, even better, appreciate - the fact that this concretised city thrives with so much life.

While it is the negative encounters with animals such as wild boars and long-tailed macaques that constantly make the headlines, the fact is that Singapore's land and sea areas are home to a far greater diversity of weird and wonderful creatures.

Take the Neptune's cup sponge, a sea creature shaped like a large goblet. It was rediscovered in Singapore waters in 2011 after being thought to be globally extinct. Now, there are a total of five of them in Singapore.

And while many people here may have seen or heard of the long-tailed macaque, few know of its rare, reclusive cousin, the Raffles' banded langur. These black-and-white leaf eaters are native to Singapore, but are on the brink of extinction.

Still, the sight of creatures such as pythons or crocodiles can be alarming. If not properly managed, some animals could have a severe impact on public safety. They may have the potential to destroy property, injure residents or carry diseases. In such events, human safety is paramount. People should not be up in arms if the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) has to cull or relocate some of them.

The authorities have been working to manage animal populations and risky encounters in other ways too. Warning signs, for instance, were put up in August by the authorities at Changi Beach Park after a reported sighting of a crocodile.

The National Parks Board (NParks) said then that it was working with AVA and wildlife rescue group Animal Concerns Research and Education Society to monitor sightings of the crocodile, as well as to catch and move it to another location for the safety of park users. But further sightings have not been reported.

THE TASK OF THE HUMAN SPECIES

However, members of the public must do their bit, too. One way is simply learning how to behave around wild animals, by leaving them well alone and not antagonising or feeding them.That is the first step. But it is time for Singapore to go beyond that, and learn to better value and appreciate wildlife.

As Dr Lena Chan, senior director at NParks' National Biodiversity Centre, says: "There are many benefits and advantages to living in harmony with wildlife - nurturing a sense of wonder and curiosity, sharpening reactions and improving motor skills.

"Instead of living in a closed environment, you go out in the open, and you have so much stimulation."

But I often hear the refrain that there is "nothing to see" in Singapore's forests and natural areas. Friends tell me they would rather have their fill of nature by visiting national parks overseas.

But take it from this reformed city girl, who knew nothing of wildlife in Singapore until starting work as an environment reporter at The Straits Times - there is actually plenty to discover here. Over the course of my work, I have had a chance to get up close to all that wild Singapore has to offer. I discovered that there is much to see, and all for free, if one only bothers to look.

Climbing to the top of the Jelutong Tower in the Central Catchment Nature Reserve one day, I saw a chestnut-bellied malkoha in flight, its iridescent feathers spread out as it swooped from tree to tree.

On another occasion, while on a boat ride out to the Singapore Strait with some scientists, dolphins made an appearance.

But, by far, the most memorable wild-animal encounter I had was with the carcass of a dead sperm whale. A whale - in Singapore's waters!

The species had never previously been found in the waters around Singapore until July 2015, when a 10m-long carcass of one was found floating off Jurong Island. It likely died after being hit by a ship, as its dorsal hindquarters had a large wound.

Wildlife in Singapore is as diverse as its people.

True, there may be some with annoying habits - birds calling outside my window may wake me up at times - but I would gladly accept the early wake-up calls if it means my city remains a haven for all the other creatures.

So is there a place for wild animals in Singapore?

As Dr Shawn Lum, president of the Nature Society (Singapore) and a senior lecturer at Nanyang Technological University's Asian School of the Environment, says: "Yes, definitely. It may take time for people to accept it. But cultural values can shift.

"Singapore has already moved to make the city liveable for many groups of people. Gradually, I hope we will come to see wildlife as part of our shared space, too."

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