Otters just out to have fun

Jogger spots otters frolicking in sun at Pasir Ris Park
Teh Jen Lee, The New Paper 20 Aug 09;

HE HAD never seen wild otters before but jogger Dawson Lee knew what they were, thanks to nature documentaries on TV.

Mr Lee, 50, a cafe owner, was jogging with his brother at Pasir Ris Beach Park yesterday morning at about 10am when he spotted a group of otters sunbathing on the sandy bank of Sungei Api Api.

The river is one of the two that cut through the park.

He said: 'From the bridge across the river, I often look at the water and see monitor lizards as there are many of them there.

'When I saw the otters, I recognised them immediately because I like to watch (nature documentary) Animal Planet.

'There were six to seven of them. When I took a closer look, they went into the water and swam to the other side.'

He watched them for about 15 minutes, mesmerised by their playful antics.

'I wonder if the Government could gazette the place as protected for them to stay there because it's quite interesting.

'I think people who fish and have barbecues there may frighten them away,' said Mr Lee, who is married with two children.

'I will probably take my family to see the otters.'

Mr Lee, who lives in Tampines and jogs at the park three times a week, called The New Paper about his rare wildlife encounter.

Mr N Sivasothi, a lecturer at the National University of Singapore's department of biological sciences, looked at our photographs and identified the species as the smooth otter (Lutrogale perspicillata).

The International Union for Conservation of Nature considers the species vulnerable because of habitat loss, poaching and contamination of waterways by pesticides.

Seen elsewhere

Mr Sivasothi had received a photo of a smooth otter spotted at Pasir Ris Park early last year from a friend who works there, but it is not known whether the photograph is of one of the otters spotted yesterday.

The National Parks Board (NParks) said smooth otters have also been seen at Chek Jawa and Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve.

There have been regular sightings of these mammals at Sungei Buloh since 2000.

Mr Sivasothi, 43, who used to study otters, said otters have also been seen at Punggol.

He said: 'It's not uncommon but it is the luck of the draw. In protected parks (like Pasir Ris), people can't go into the water and interfere with them so they may ignore the presence of people up to a certain distance.

'There's a better chance of seeing them now than in the past, say in the late 1990s, because they have returned to several areas.'

And with more people visiting nature areas, the chances of spotting otters are higher.

Thanks to better camera equipment and the prevalence of blogs, more people are also communicating about these animal encounters, said Mr Sivasothi.

'It's great that people are seeing this because when they realise we have this rich biodiversity, the motivation to help protect natural habitats will increase,' he added.

Mr Nick Baker, 51, from the Singapore Nature Society vertebrate study group, said otters are indicators of a healthy ecosystem.

He said: 'They feed on fish mainly so if there's a lot of fish there, there will be top-level predators like crocodiles and otters.

'These otters are quite wide-ranging and will move along the coast a lot. One sighting doesn't mean it has taken up residence.

'They could just be passing through.'

Otters are not known to be a nuisance and they play a crucial role as predators in maintaining the health of ecosystems.

As for Mr Lee's suggestion of restricting human activities, Mr Baker thinks it's more important to preserve the mangrove system at the park so that there are healthy fish populations to attract the otters.

A spokesman for NParks said the smooth otter has been sighted in Pasir Ris Park since last year.

Said the spokesman: 'We are pleased that our efforts to conserve the mangroves in Pasir Ris Park are bearing fruit.

'We seek the cooperation of the public not to disturb the animals.'