Can Singapore’s growing otter population continue to thrive in an urban landscape?

The smooth-coated otters here have learnt to climb out of drains and adapt in other ways to living in an urban environment, prompting experts to marvel at the way the animals have flourished in relatively unnatural surroundings.
Monica Kotwani Channel NewsAsia 2 Jul 17;

SINGAPORE: They’ve been spotted splashing about in the waters of Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park, foraging for fish in the Singapore River and even drying off on the artificial turf at the Marina Bay Floating Platform.

But more recently, Singapore's smooth-coated otter population has faced some difficulties: One otter died from suspected poisoning and another died as a result of being trapped in a cage.

With the local otter population continuing to grow, Channel NewsAsia spoke with experts on how the population is thriving in Singapore and the challenges the otters face as they spread further into people's living space.


The locations that Singapore's beloved otter population have come to inhabit are a far cry from their typical habitats of mangrove swamps and forested rivers and wetlands. “They have broken every kind of misconception we had on how fussy they are in terms of where they stay because they are making do with just artificial structures,” said N Sivasothi, a senior lecturer of biological sciences at the National University of Singapore.

Mr Sivasothi, who is also known as ‘Otterman’ for his research and expert knowledge of these animals, estimates there are about 70 otters on the island, broken up into about 10 families. The smooth-coated otter population moves around to look for food and avoid danger.

And along the way, these creatures have amassed a big following of ordinary Singaporeans and tourists, fascinated at the ease with which they are able to interact with wild animals.

“I think people are very excited because there’s a very thin area between people and the waterway. That’s the interface zone and they get to see the otters very closely. And they’ve never seen anything like an otter before,” said Mr Sivasothi.


After decades of absence in Singapore, the smooth-coated otters were seen at the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve in the late 90s. Since then, their offspring have been spotted on Pulau Ubin, at Pasir Ris, East Coast and now Gardens by the Bay.

Mr Sivasothi credits this to cleaner waterways and an abundance of food. “The otters turn to waterways where fish have reproduced without a predator. It is like a buffet table (for the otters),” he said.

“Prey availability is not a limiting factor and they are well-nourished and able to raise pups without a problem. You can see that by the amount of time they spend foraging.”

Otters also need large patches of land to spraint, or defecate, and dry their their fur to maintain their waterproofing. And otter enthusiasts and researchers like Mr Sivasothi are amazed at the way otters have been able to overcome physical constraints.

A video of an otter climbing stairs to get to dry land went viral recently. Mr Sivasothi said otters also seem content to dry themselves on comparatively small patches of land in Singapore.

But for the otters, just as with any species, there is a limit to how big the population can grow, say experts. And it won’t be too long before the otters reach that threshold.

Louis Ng, who is the founder of Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (ACRES), explained what will happen when the population reaches this 'carrying capacity'.

“The population will balance when there’s no more food or some of them will starve to death and they realise that they have reached the carrying capacity of the ecosystem. But in Singapore I don’t think we’ve done the studies yet,” he said.

Mr Sivasothi agreed, saying the otter population has continued to expand, but at a slower pace. In the end, the otter population will be limited by not just the fish population, but their territorial space.

“There are rivers which are not occupied and they don’t seem to want to spend too much time in reservoirs,” he said.

“We are watching this unfold…If an area is already occupied, you can’t make your way in, you’ll be driven off and these territorial battles can be deadly so there is a limit to how many can be here.”

The fight for territory played out in public, after the father of the Marina otter family died. Days after his death, the Bishan otter family was filmed frantically sniffing out its rivals, possibly in a bid to drive them out of the area.

While their first attempt was thwarted by members of the public, subsequent attempts were more successful, according to otter enthusiast group, OtterWatch.


The reemergence of otters in an urban landscape, coupled with the public’s affection to protect these creatures, has prompted some to question if the otter population could go the way of the long-tailed macaque population in Singapore. They are subjected to culling from time to time to maintain their population in a bid to prevent them from becoming a public nuisance.

“I was very surprised when people ask me that because it’s still early days,” Mr Sivasothi said. He said he does not foresee a problem as the natural size of the otter population through limited food sources and territorial expansion will ensure it does not go the way of the macaques.

Nonetheless, there have been reports of otters eating prized fish at hotels and other private properties in Sentosa.

Mr Sivasothi said that unlike macaques, otters do not eat what humans eat. “The macaques can eat almost anything that we can eat…observe us eating and realise that that’s a potential food supply,” he said.

“Then they’ll come to you and realise that there’s an action-reaction. The next thing you know, they are approaching people and taking food. With otters, they don’t eat what we eat. We can’t provide them what they need. They need live fish.”


What is important is for animal welfare organisations and authorities to educate members of the public about interacting with wild animals, said Mr Sivasothi.

In the case of otters, he said it's about driving home the message that otters, though attractive to most people, are still wild animals at heart. "For the novice, if the otter is having to look at you then you are too close," he said.

"When you go close, they will retreat and you are actually restricting the space they have in order to carry out daily functions. If you are interfering with them then you are interfering their ability to live a healthy life."

Responding to Channel NewsAsia, the National Parks Board said it is working with the Otter Working Group, which consists of academics, non-government organisations and Otterwatch, to monitor the population of otters. It is also carrying out educational and awareness programmes.

NParks said it has also put up signs informing members of the public on how to observe the otter families from a distance.

Mr Louis Ng said in educating members of the public, interest groups have to be pre-emptive rather than reactive, as has been the case when animals such as monkeys and wild chickens have been culled.

He gave the example of a housing development project in Bidadari, which has for years been “a prime wildlife habitat”.

"We really have to tell these people who buy flats in Bidadari that there is going to be wildlife in your backyard, we are having a whole nature corridor there so it’s not going to be one where there is no wildlife," he said.

"Right from the start, one has to understand that this is what you’re buying and then within the development measures, ensure that the conflicts are minimised."

With the greening of Singapore, sightings of wild animal such as eagles, hornbills and kingfishers are also becoming more common, said Mr Sivasothi. He said it provides an "excellent classroom" to learn about animals and their behaviour.

"In a very artificial environment without (previously having had) engagement, we as a population are very unskilled. As we begin to reconnect, we need time as well."

Perhaps it's the nation's fascination with its otters that will pave the way for greater acceptance and protection of all things wild. Mr Sivasothi said OtterWatch gets a lot of feedback on the otters' daily movements and their health.

Residents and long-time otter enthusiasts also advise tourists and passers-by on observing the creatures from a distance. The reward, said Mr Sivasothi, is when they get to see otters comfortable enough to perform daily activities right under one's nose.

"It is unimaginable to all my scientist friends from all over the world where these sort of images are typically what they get by laying out camera traps, while they watch through binoculars from a distance."

Read more!

Cool project underway: Singapore to develop road map to reduce urban warming

NEO CHAI CHIN Today Online 2 Jul 17;

SINGAPORE — An “ambitious” project that began quietly at the start of this year could bring some relief to Singaporeans who have found themselves wilting in the heat of a concrete jungle.

Temperatures are rising because of climate change, but Singapore is hotter than it should be because of the urban heat island (UHI) effect.

Cities tend to trap heat because of energy consumed, the presence of less vegetation and building materials that absorb and store heat from the sun.

In fact, the most urbanised areas here can be more than 7 degrees Celsius hotter than more rural parts at certain times of the day.

The project, called Cooling Singapore, aims to develop a road map for the Republic to reduce the UHI effect, said its lead principal investigator Peter Edwards.

The road map, consisting of long- and short-term measures, could be ready by the World Cities Summit next July, he said at an urban sustainability research congress last week.

“This is a matter important not just for Singapore but for all large cities, and Singapore could be the first city in the world to come up with a coherent strategy for tackling what is a very general problem,” said Professor Edwards.

Funded by the National Research Foundation, Cooling Singapore brings together researchers from the Singapore-ETH Centre, the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (Smart), TUM Create and the National University of Singapore.

The team has so far mapped Singapore’s energy flows. Hot off the press last week was the draft of strategies to mitigate UHI and improve the comfort felt outdoors by people. This will be refined into a combination of measures that would have an adequate impact.

“This isn’t just about putting the odd green roof in place. This is going to be ultimately a radical redesign of the city in terms of the shapes, the forms of the buildings, the building materials, transport systems and so on,” said Prof Edwards.

“And it’s not going to be done in five years. It’s the ... direction in which we must travel, otherwise the consequences of climate change, coupled with the growing UHI effect, will simply become intolerable.”

A UHI task force with representatives from multiple government agencies, such as the Housing and Development Board, the Land Transport Authority, the Building and Construction Authority and the National Parks Board, and universities has been set up.

The researchers will meet the task force on Monday (July 3), for a first workshop to discuss mitigation strategies.

The task force was one of Cooling Singapore’s goals because “we need to build a community within government which really understands the complexity of the UHI effect and can ... carry forward this ambitious project”, said Prof Edwards, an ecologist and director of the Singapore-ETH Centre.

The research project will conclude in about 18 months, “but we want a legacy of it to be a community that can really understand these issues and give them the priority they deserve”.

His team will also identify areas of research on UHI and develop tools to assess effects of the mitigation measures.

The 86 mitigation measures include: Green parking lots that trap less heat than the asphalt used traditionally, urban farms, variation in building heights, shaded bicycle lanes and well-ventilated pedestrian walkways.

Electric vehicles, with lower running temperatures than conventional ones and a lack of exhaust, would also help, as could smart shading devices using materials that can change colour, shape or density according to temperature, humidity or light.

Buildings should also be designed for heat from air-conditioning units to be released in well-ventilated areas.

Prof Edwards said that while no city has succeeded in cancelling the UHI effect, some measures such as green roofs, reflective materials and permeable pavements have been found to make quite a difference.

Active-mobility user Tham Chen Munn, who is not involved in the project, said roads and tarmac are a major contributor to heat, causing many people to feel that “it’s too hot to cross the road”. Mitigating this would require informed design and planning, he added.

Some road lanes can be narrowed to reduce the area of tarmac, suggested Mr Tham, a transport consultant: “This not only reduces heat, but streets will then be designed to be low-speed areas, which are meant to be safe for motorists, cyclists and pedestrians.”

Reduced lane widths could also create more space for cycling and pedestrian paths, which, with landscaping, would make them more comfortable for cyclists, pedestrians and e-scooter users, he added.

A study published this year in the journal Nature Climate Change found that the UHI effect could more than double the costs for cities to address global warming this century.

Read more!

Jurong Lake district launches 15km cycling path network

Today Online 1 Jul 17;

SINGAPORE — A new 15km dedicated cycling path network opened in Jurong on Saturday (July 1), the eighth intra-town cycling path network in Singapore. It is the latest in the Land Transport Authority’s (LTA) long term plan to progressively construct dedicated cycling path networks in all HDB towns.

Launched by Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, the cycling network winds its way around the Jurong Lake District (JLD), passing by Jurong East MRT station and its neighbouring shopping malls, Jurong Town Hall, Science Centre Singapore, and the Chinese and Japanese Gardens, as well as several schools in the area.

The JLD network is expected be integrated with the neighbouring Taman Jurong estate, which will have its own cycling path network by the end of 2020.

LTA has also increased bicycle parking facilities in the JLD, with more than 600 lots at both Chinese Garden and Lakeside MRT stations. The transport authority said it would continue to monitor the demand of bicycle parking in Jurong, and look at enhancing the provision of parking facilities at various locations, such as the major transport nodes.

To encourage rider safety and a “harmonious sharing culture” in the area, the LTA also introduced the Active Mobility Patrol Scheme, an initiative that has seen almost 100 volunteers from various grassroots organisations in Jurong forming teams to engage and educate the residents on safe riding habits.

Read more!

Miniature world of make-believe: Captivating tales come to life through wooden puppets

Lin Yangchen Straits Times 3 Jul 17;

Twenty years ago, two different things happened to two people that they never imagined would result in them becoming good friends today.

Madam Doreen Tan quit her job as a shipping executive to be a traditional Chinese puppeteer.

At the same time, Madam Ong Siew Fong's house on Pulau Ubin was hit by a huge granite rock that fell from the sky after an explosion at a nearby quarry and she was inspired to build a temple around the fallen boulder.

Madam Tan, 61, and Madam Ong, 74, now meet twice a year at Madam Ong's Wei To Temple in a remote part of the island to celebrate the birth or reincarnation of Taoist deities.

No festivity at a temple is complete without a traditional Chinese theatre performance, so Madam Tan and a few other puppeteers and musicians from the 15-member Ge Yi Ge Zai Xi troupe make the arduous trip from Singapore's mainland to the temple to put up the show to entertain, not only the devotees but more importantly, the gods as well.

On this occasion, the devotees were celebrating the reincarnation of Ne Zha, the prodigious child deity who could walk and talk at birth, on the eighth day of the fourth lunar month, which fell on May 3.

The troupe's performance was titled Hangzhou Revenge. It tells of a married man from Hangzhouwho falls in love with another woman on his journeys and marries her without either woman knowing about the other.

When it is time for him to go home, he abandons his second wife to prevent his first wife from finding out. The second wife hangs herself, and her ghost enlists the help of a traveller to kill the unfaithful husband and his colluding brother.

In the end, the ghost arranges the happy marriage between the traveller and the first wife.

Simple as the plot sounds, the show ran on for a few hours - almost as long as a Wagner opera.

Although devotees were sometimes too busy with prayers to pay attention to the performance, the atmosphere created by the puppets' colourful costumes and graceful movements, accompanied by the lively singing in Hokkien and the music, made the spirits come alive.

Temple devotee Joseph Liew, 45, said traditional puppet shows such as this are made possible through the financial support of the temple's worshippers.

Mr Liew, who directs a construction company and visits the temple a few times a month, added: "It is a good place to meditate - there's no traffic and it's quiet. The temple has a kampung atmosphere and a spiritual presence that is hard to explain."

Meanwhile, Madam Tan said the challenge was performing in the proximity of giant candles and burning incense. This makes singing difficult as performers need to inhale large amounts of air to continuously project the undulating voices typical of Chinese opera singing.

The puppets, which are dressed in exquisite robes, are made of wood that comes from Zhangzhou in Fujian province in China, a country where puppetry dates back to a few thousand years.

About five years ago, the puppets cost $100 apiece, but now each puppet is about $300, said Madam Tan.

Troupe member Madam Tan Poh Hong, 63, said she got interested in Chinese opera and puppetry as a "curious and playful" 10-year-old.

The pay was low but food and lodging were provided, and she loved the way of life, she said.

"We had freedom, the boss was caring and taught us the trade. We were like family and went everywhere together," she added.


Members of the Ge Yi Ge Zai Xi wooden puppet troupe give a performance at Wei To Temple on Pulau Ubin.

Read more!

Malaysia: Community is key to turtle conservation

The Star 3 Jul 17;

KOTA KINABALU: Their flippers flailing, some 100 green turtle hatchlings made their way to the sea where they will spend a large part of their life.

The Kudat Turtle Conservation Society released these hatchlings Saturday, witnessed by around 200 tourists and villagers from Kg Bavang Jamal.

Project coordinator Norfazilah Rahman said the event was part of its efforts to save the turtles.

“In 2012, there were many turtles coming to shore to lay their eggs. But then, we noticed that the numbers were dwindling due to human activities, such as hunting and egg consumption. So, we decided to come together to save the turtles,” she said.

Norfazilah said although there was still much to be done to restore the number of turtles coming to nest and to increase the hatching rate, the society was confident that its efforts were on the right track.

“We have released about 4,500 hatchlings since our inception,” said Norfazilah, adding that its staff also carried out nightly patrols along the beach from Pantai Kelambu to the Tip of Borneo (also known as Tanjung Simpang Mengayau) to look for turtle landings.

The society, she said, was also educating villagers and fishermen on the importance of turtle conservation.

“We have seen a significant change in the attitudes and awareness of the local community in Kudat but we still have a long way to go to achieve our goals.

“The villagers will now also alert our members if they know of any turtle landing so that we can take care of the eggs until they hatch,” she said.

The long-term objective of the society is to set up 50 community-managed turtle conservation areas within the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park.

Read more!