Nature & Conservation / Southeast Asia

The otter side of Singapore

by Kathy Xu
Length 9 min

Did you know that wild otters are often sighted in Singapore? One of the few wildlife species well-adapted to urban environments, otters are popular enough in the Garden City to be featured in David Attenborough’s Wild City documentary about Singapore in 2015, as well as in BBC Earth’s Wild Cities in 2019.

How do otters survive in 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 has made the island’s waterway systems its home, booming in number over the years. The first ever recorded otter sighting in Singapore actually dates back to 1938, on Lazarus Island, with the next sighting of otters recorded in the 1970s.

There are four species of river otters in Asia: the smooth-coated otter, small-clawed otter, hairy-nosed otter, and Eurasian otter. There is scant information on the sea otter, which is only 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 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 Pulau Tekong since the 1980s.

Interestingly, the branch of otters we now have in Singapore is believed to be a unique hybrid population—the result of an even union between both species, making it a surviving population that nearly went extinct. Local scientist Meryl Theng who contributed to an international paper on the population movement of otters, brought this to light.

The otter population in Singapore was initially thought extinct between 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, before deciding to make the island their home. By 2014, the otter population had expanded to the west and south coasts of Singapore, and the current population had begun breeding by 2015.

These sightings are of much delight to conservationists, as the presence of otters usually signals the health of the waters they are seen in. Thanks to the Singapore River clean up in 1977, its ecological conditions and biodiversity have proven ideal for supporting 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, numbering around 70 otters in total. These otters are surprisingly intelligent, able to climb out of drains and travel across large patches of land to get to other waterways. Most have not been sighted in typical otter habitats—often the wilder plots of nature in the country. The otters of Singapore have proven flexible in adapting quickly to an urbanised landscape, having had to cope with very little space to dry 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 each day. Smooth-coated otters are not fussy eaters, and they tend to eat whatever is available where they are. Their diet usually reflects the diversity of fish species in the waters they inhabit, as well as the absence of predators. Singapore’s waterways today have enough marine life that otters can comfortably survive in them.

N. Sivasothi, a senior lecturer from the Department of Biological Science, Faculty of Science, National University of Singapore, has been monitoring and following these otters with his students for years. According to Sivasothi, otters are social species, and they almost always travel together in families.

Lone otters are typically males in search of a group, and the size of these groups varies according to what different environments can provide. If there is less food around, otter families will split up into smaller packs to seek food.

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 can make things difficult when preventive action is required. The current WABA review is addressing this.

For otters to continue thriving, they require adequate space to feed in, reproduce, dry their fur, and rest. Critically, the fish species that otters rely on as sources of food need to thrive in Singapore’s waterways for the otters to remain. Otters need space to rest and sleep, and especially to dry their fur off after a hunting swim—this helps them maintain the waterproofing ability of their fur before they return to the water again.

Conflicts and problems with humans

One of the first male otters sighted in the Marina Bay family was suspected to have been poisoned. Although there was no known proof of actual rat poisoning, the otter died soon after in July 2017.

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. A few months later, in February 2018, an angler was seen throwing rocks at otters swimming by the Punggol Waterfront.

Human–animal conflicts are common in urban spaces, but these can often be prevented with further awareness and education on appreciating Singapore’s native wildlife without threatening or encroaching on their territory. Though education alone is not enough to change behaviours around our wildlife, several impassioned otter watchers have been volunteering their services to help new otter watchers stay mindful of their subjects—a heartening gesture.

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

In Sentosa Cove, a luxury district in an island off Singapore’s southern coast, residents have found the otters a problem. The animals enter their private but open ponds and feed on the expensive pet fish within, such as tilapia and koi. Residents have erected fences to keep them out, but nature conservationists note that these fences, deployed neither adequately or appropriately, have been effective at stopping otters adapted to surviving in the urban environment.

Growing otter pet trade in Southeast Asia

The cuteness of wild otters has led to a spate of avid otter watching in Singapore. However, the adorable small-clawed otters, smaller in size than their smooth-coated counterparts, have also been highly trafficked in Southeast Asia, according to a report by wildlife conservation organisation Traffic. Highly social creatures that move around in herds, otters do not take well to being sold as pets and kept individually.

Thankfully, several countries are concerned about stopping the trafficking of wild otters. India, Bangladesh, and the Philippines have submitted proposals for a ban on the international trade of Asian small-clawed otters and smooth-coated otters.

That said, the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC), an American environmental organisation with global reach, says that enforcement at the species level has not been carried out thoroughly. The NRDC has since been partnering with organisations around the world to put together a strong case for the ban.


Coexisting with humans in an urban space

In July 2016, the 13th International Otter Symposium was held in Singapore for the first time. An Otter Working Group was set up in Singapore, comprising researchers, conservationists, scientists, wildlife officers, and government institutions. The group was created in a bid to promote awareness and public education to protect of the now-native otters, as well as to mitigate potential increases in human–animal conflict.

Encouraging good wildlife ethics, along with public involvement in research and monitoring of the species, helps the ongoing conservation and management of otters in Singapore. The rise of citizen science has also created an even wider pool of data on otter observations and documentation of species behaviour, with groups like the Otter Working Group actively helping in the management and rescue of otters.

Academics like assistant professor Philip Johns of Yale–NUS College’s Life Sciences Department are also looking to encourage citizen science by building a mobile app that allows anyone to easily upload high quality videos of the otters from their mobile phones. This lets citizens help scientific researchers monitor otter behaviours, encouraging citizens to become more invested in Singapore’s wildlife and, hopefully, learn more about the country’s 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 are the subject of interest for many in Singapore, and a ground-up initiative to create a crowdsourced database on them—which you can add to!—has been completed. Otter enthusiasts have also set up their own Facebook pages, such as Ottercity, to spot and track their movements.

Many of these enthusiasts have produced well-edited videos that vividly relay relatable stories about the otter populations in Singapore. Otterwatch, another Facebook group focused on otters, was set up in 2012 by the National University of Singapore’s N. Sivasothi to help support several student projects with otters.

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