Nature & Conservation / Southeast Asia

The otter side of Singapore

by Kathy Xu
Length 9 min

What’s the likelihood of finding wildlife that is well-adapted to urban dwellings in Asia? Do you know that in Singapore, otters are often sighted? In fact, they are such high profile characters in the garden city that they were featured in David Attenborough’s Wild City documentary about Singapore in 2015, as well as in BBC Earth’s Wild Cities, in January 2019. How do they survive in such a highly urbanised city state like Singapore?

Wild otters in Singapore

Take a walk on the wild side in Singapore and you will find that one of the most adaptable immigrant wildlife species have made the waterway systems of Singapore their home, and boomed in numbers over the years. The first ever otter sighting recorded in Singapore actually dates back to 1938, on Lazarus Island, and resurfaced again in the 1970s.

There are four species of river otters in Asia. The smooth-coated otter, the small-clawed otter, the hairy-nosed otter, and the Eurasian otter. There is scant information on the sea otter, which can only be found in the coastal waters of northern Japan.

An illustration showing the differences between the smooth-coated and Asian small-clawed otters that are commonly seen in Singapore.
The differences between the smooth-coated and Asian small-clawed otters that are commonly seen in Singapore.

The two common species of otters we can spot in Singapore are the smooth-coated otter (Lutrogale perspicillata) and the small-clawed otter (Aonyx cinereus). The smooth-coated otters were residents in the Sungei Buloh Wetlands Reserve in 1998 and the small-clawed otters have been around as residents in the Pulau Tekong since the 1980s. Interestingly, the branch of otters we now have in Singapore are even believed to be a unique hybrid population result of an even union between both species, a surviving population that nearly went extinct. This was a finding that came to light in a research paper that local scientist, Ms Meryl Theng, contributed to, an international paper that studied the population movement of the otters.

The otter population in Singapore was initially thought to be extinct in the 1960s and 1970s, but sightings in the 1990s confirmed their presence in the Sungei Buloh wetlands area. The smooth-coated otters are believed to have swum across the Johor Straits from Malaysia to the North side of Singapore in 1998 and decided to make this island their home. By 2014, the population had expanded to the west and south coasts of Singapore and the existing population began breeding by 2015. The sightings are of much delight to conservationists. This is because the presence of otters usually signals the health of the waters they are seen in. Thanks to the Singapore river clean up in 1977, the ecological conditions have proven to be ideal for the otters, a far cry from our once oxygen-starved waterways.

A picture of two otters
Photo of otters feeding by James Wong, Ottercity Facebook page

There are currently an estimated 10 families of otters in Singapore that comprises about 70 otters in total. Surprisingly, these intelligent otters are able to climb out of drains and travel across large patches of land to get to other waterways. Most of the areas where they have been sighted  are not typical otter habitats, and are considered wilder habitats in nature. But the otters of Singapore have proven flexible in being able to adapt quickly to an urbanised landscape and had to cope with needing very little space for drying off their fur.

Distribution of the otter families in Singapore (Data source: Khoo, M de Yuan and Sivasothi, N (2018)b. Population Structure, Distribution, and Habitat Use of Smooth-Coated Otters Lutrogale perspicillata in Singapore . IUCN Otter Spec. Group Bull. 35 (3): 171 – 182)

Otters eat about 15 to 25 percent of their body weight a day. The smooth coated otters are not fussy eaters and tend to eat whatever is available wherever they are. Their diet usually reflects the diversity of species of fish in the waters they are in, and the absence of predators. This means that Singapore’s waterways do have marine life that the otters can comfortably survive on feeding from.

Sivasothi, a senior lecturer from the Department of Biological Science, Faculty of Science, National University of Singapore, has been monitoring and following the otters with his students, for years. According to Sivasothi, otters are social species, and mostly travel together as a family. Individuals who travel alongside are almost always related. Lone otters are typically males in search of a group. The size of groups vary according to what the environment can provide. If there is less food, the families will split up to seek out food in smaller packs.

There are laws against the trapping and killing of otters in Singapore. The Wild Animals and Birds Act (WABA) protects wildlife, but the law requires evidence of the act which is difficult when preventive action is required. The current WABA review is addressing this. In order for the otters to continue thriving, they require adequate space to feed, reproduce, dry their fur and for rest. Critically, the fish species that the otters rely on as a food source need to continue to thrive also in Singapore’s waterways.  Otters need space to rest and sleep, and dry their fur off at after a hunting swim (important in order for them to maintain the waterproofing ability of their fur before they go back in the water again).

Unfortunately, one of the first male otters sighted in the Marina Bay family, was suspected to have been poisoned, and died (although there was no known proof of actual rat poisoning) soon after, in July 2017.


Conflicts and problems with humans

In December 2017, a five-year-old girl on holiday in Singapore with her family, was bitten by an otter near Gardens by the Bay. An angler was also seen throwing rocks at the otters swimming by at the Punggol Waterfront, in February 2018.Human-animal conflict situations are likely to happen in urban spaces, but can be prevented with further awareness and educational material on how to appreciate Singapore’s native wildlife, without threatening or encroaching on their territory. Education alone would not be enough, but several impassioned otter watchers have been volunteering to ensure new otter watchers are mindful, and that is heartening.

A landscape photo of the Sentosa cove in Singapore.
Photo of Sentosa Cove. Source: Jeremy Wong, Flickr, taken 21 February 2008

On Sentosa island off Singapore’s southern coast, In Sentosa Cove, a luxury district in an island off Singapore’s southern coast, residents have found the otters to be a problem as they walk into their private but open ponds and feed on the expensive pet fish such as tilapia and koi. Residents have erected fences to keep them out, but nature conservationists have said that would not be sufficient or effective in stopping the otters who have intelligently adapted to surviving the urban environment, given that the fences were not deployed adequately or appropriately.


Growing otter pet trade in Southeast Asia

Given the cuteness factor of the wild otters that has led to avid otter watching in Singapore, the small-clawed otters that are smaller in size, have also been highly trafficked in Southeast Asia according to a Traffic report. Being highly social creatures that move around in herds, this does not bode well for the otters being sold as pets individually.

The good thing is, there are countries that care to stop this and India, Bangladesh and the Philippines have submitted proposals for the ban of the international trade of the Asian small clawed otter, and the smooth-coated otter. The Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) says enforcement at species level is not carried out thoroughly, and they have been partnering with organizations globally to put together a strong case for the ban.


Coexisting with the humans in an urban space

In July 2016, the 13th International Otter Symposium was held in Singapore for the first time and an Otter Working Group in Singapore was set up, comprising of researchers, conservationists, scientists, and wildlife officers, and government institutions. It was set up in a bid to promote awareness and public education for protection of the now native otters, as well as to mitigate possible increasing human-animal conflict.

Encouraging good wildlife ethics and public involvement in research and monitoring of the species would be beneficial to developing ongoing conservation management of otters in Singapore. The rise of citizen science has also allowed the provision of an even wider pool of data on otter observations and documentation of species behaviour with groups like the Otter Working Group that actively helps in the management and rescue of otters.

Academics like assistant professor Philip Johns of Yale-NUS College (Life Sciences Department) in Singapore, are also looking to encourage citizen science, by working on building a mobile app that allows anyone to be able to upload good quality videos of the otters  from their mobile phones easily. This allows for monitoring otter behaviours for scientific purposes, and to encourage citizens to be more invested in the Singapore’s wildlife of Singapore, as well as possibly to impact environmental policies.

People taking videos and photos of otters.
Otter watchers can be a part of citizen science too (Photo by Tan Yong Lin)

Otters have been a point of interest for many in Singapore, and a ground-up initiative has been made to create a crowd-sourced database about them, that you can add to as well. There are also otter enthusiasts who have set up their own Facebook pages, like Ottercity, to spot and track their movements, as well as produce well-edited videos to vividly relay relatable humanlike stories about the otter populations in Singapore. Otterwatch is another Facebook group set up in 2012 by N. Sivasothi, in the National University of Singapore for use with several student project work with otters.

*Special thanks to the community of avid otter watchers of Singapore who have been so helpful in providing us photos, information and datasets on the beloved otters for this story.