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

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.

Singapore's smooth-coated otters playing on artificial turf. (Photo: Tan Yong Lin/Facebook)

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.

OTTERS FLOURISHING IN URBAN LANDSCAPES DEFY "EVERY MISCONCEPTION": EXPERT

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.

Singapore's smooth-coated otters playing in the Marina Bay waters. (Photo: Tan Yong Lin)

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.

ECOLOGICAL BALANCE: ‘MAGIC NUMBER’ STILL BEING STUDIED

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.

Singapore's otter population, like other species, will be limited by the availability of food, such as fish, and space to grow their family. (Photo: Tan Yong Lin)

“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. 

OTTERS A PUBLIC NUISANCE? NOT LIKELY SAY EXPERTS

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.”

WORK WITH PUBLIC AS WILD ANIMALS FLOURISH IN URBAN SPACE

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." 

Source: CNA/mo