More sightings of wild otters in Singapore

Resurgence may be due to land development in Johor: Researchers
David Ee Straits Times 22 Apr 13;

LESS than 20 years ago, the Singapore Zoo may have been the only place here where you could see these playful animals. But sightings of wild smooth-coated otters, once rare here, have soared by 10 times in the past decade.

In 2000, just four sightings were reported. By 2011, the number had risen to 39, according to figures from otter researcher Meryl Theng. The actual number would "definitely be higher", said the National University of Singapore graduate, if unrecorded sightings were included.

A fortnight ago, a pair of the mammals, listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, were sighted resting on a breakwater at East Coast Park, creating a stir online. At least three others were also seen on the rocky southern coast near Marina Bay.

While the exact numbers are uncertain, as are the reasons for their resurgence, researchers suspect that development and land reclamation in nearby Johor in recent years may be the catalyst. "Johor is developing rapidly, and this could be forcing the otters out," said wildlife consultant Subaraj Rajathurai.

Much of Singapore's northern coast - with the densely vegetated shores in Sungei Buloh, along Sungei Tampines, and in the new Punggol and Serangoon reservoirs - is suitable for otters, he said. But Singapore's southern shores tend to be more developed and make poor habitats for otters.

Why then have they been seen there, and even as far south as Pulau Semakau? Mr Rajathurai explained that these are generally young males trying to establish their own packs.

The sleek creatures are social, often hunting together in groups of four to seven. They are estuarine, making them equally at home in fresh water or sea water, feeding on fish and prawns.

But they may not succeed along the urbanised southern shores, and face threats from onshore traffic. In 2011, a dead otter was found in Harbour Drive near West Coast Park. Another was hit by traffic near Bedok Reservoir.

Mr Rajathurai is hoping that the first islandwide otter study, a collaboration with the National Parks Board, which he is concluding next month, may shed more light on the otter population. It could convince the authorities to designate some reservoirs as wildlife sanctuaries. "Our reservoirs are here, holding water for us. Why not make them more attractive for wildlife?" he said.

Mechanical engineer Ishad Rageeb saw an otter for the very first time last month while cycling at Serangoon Reservoir. "It was completely unexpected. Seeing them that close was remarkable. I think it's important that we nurture their populations."