Otters in a Jungle City

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Essay and Photographs by Katherine Lu
Singapore is a truly unique place to be able to see wildlife thriving in the heart of the city. It is a great example of how people and nature can co-exist together.

A Tuesday morning in November, I decided to embark on a pre-dawn bicycle ride, a new activity I had picked up during the Covid-19 pandemic to explore more of Singapore. My route would take me on a very scenic 25km path along the Kallang and Singapore Rivers, Marina Bay and East Coast beaches. About 25 minutes into the journey, I reach the Kallang Riverside Park and see the young dragon boaters getting ready for practice. As I approach the bridge to cross the river, a small group of people were gathered around looking towards the river. Thinking they were uncles and aunties doing their morning tai chi exercise, I nearly rode past them without a second glance. But instead, I saw silhouettes of seal-like animals with sleek bodies and then suddenly I realized, otters! I stopped the bike and quickly located my mobile phone and spent the next 1.5 hours watching them. 

This was not the first time I had seen or photographed otters. A couple years ago, I visited Pasir Ris Park several times in the wee hours of the morning in a hit or miss trial to see otters for the first time. With it being quite a distance away from my home, it was always a disappointment to get out there only to have missed them by a half hour or not to see them at all. As frustrating as it is to photograph wildlife, that is the way of nature. It is unpredictable and never guaranteed.

This time the otters were close to my home. The group I stumbled upon was the famous Bishan otter family. If you are an otter, the Bishan otter family is a force best not to be reckoned with. The Marina otter family knows this all too well. They were original residents in the Marina Bay area, hence their name, but were driven out. A YouTube search on the Bishan and Marina otter families document some of their infamous battles. In one video you can see them on the approach, as they swim in an impressive V-shaped battle formation, to confront each other in a river gang fight and land chase. The Bishan otters would end up victorious in all their battles and conquer the territory once held by the Marina family. Today there was no battle, but another special moment. The matriarch recently gave birth to her seventh litter of six adorable pups.

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The next day I returned at 6:30am with my Nikon D850. Luckily, I could still find them at the same den, called a holt. The pups were nine weeks old and just starting the lessons they would need to survive into adulthood. I watched as the family took the pups for swimming lessons. The runt clearly looked to be struggling in the water. The mother would grab it by the neck and drag it around in the water and then bring it back to shore. It was smaller and weaker and I wondered if it was the result of getting less milk than its other siblings. Female otters have two pairs of teats yet this litter had six pups, so two pups would always have to rotate in during nursing time.  

For the next hour, I watched as the mother and young adults took turns caring for the pups. Some kept security watch and marked their territory with spraint, also known as otter poop, with a distinct smell. Others went fishing and when they brought fish back, they would honk and grunt loudly in excitement to announce their return. The pups in return would make a high-pitched chirping sound like baby birds tweeting. At times the fish brought back was too large for the pups to handle and whole fish and carcasses could be found strewn around on the ground. To the human onlookers, it seemed so wasteful. Perhaps the fish were not all meant to be eaten, but to familiarize the pups with the smell and taste of solid food and the necessary hunting skills they would quickly need to learn. Luckily hungry crows lurked around for any leftovers so nothing would go to waste. After finishing their breakfast, the mother groomed her pups until their fur was dry and clean. With full bellies, the whole family would frolic in the “spa”, kicking up a sand storm, rubbing and bonding in the sandy patch and then later retreating to their holt for a good nursing and a snooze.

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There are two otter species in Singapore, the Asian small-clawed otter and the larger and most commonly seen, smooth-coated otter, and their return to Singapore is a success story. Otters are currently listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. During the 1960s they were made nearly extinct from the island nation due to habitat destruction and pollution of the Singapore River. In 1977 the government initiated programs to clean up the river and relocate settlements and industries away from the riverbanks. By the late 1990s, otters began to reappear on the island, a testament to the government’s successful clean-up efforts indicating healthy waterways that could sustain fish and the wildlife that would feed and live in them. 

The otters are believed to have re-populated the region by swimming across the Johor Straits from Malaysia. Now after many generations they are returning back to their native homes, but their homes are different now. Just like the locals who used to live in kampong villages across the island, the tranquil countryside and homes have been replaced by modern high-rise condos and shopping centres. With otters returning and living in a new urban environment, they too have had to adapt to the modern city. Instead of natural holes in the riverbank or under tree brush and roots, otters have taken up residence in man-made structures like the voids under bridges, concrete gaps, sewer tunnels and aqueducts. To get to these structures they have learned to jump from high concrete retaining walls into the water and climb ladders to get out of canals.  

With the lines between nature and the urban environment blurring, conflicts do arise, from the opportunistic otter grabbing an easy meal by raiding koi gardens and fish farms, to a five-year-old child getting bitten. Because of these high profile and publicized incidents, some people say there are too many otters and others say they should be culled. But the truth is the otter population is estimated to be around 90 individuals, with different families occupying the rivers, canals and basins throughout Singapore, a far cry from the 5.69 million people in Singapore. While they are protected from predators, the otters face other challenges, most notably vehicle accidents, plastic pollution, injuries from fishing hooks, and drownings from illegal traps or poisonings. People for the most part find their presence to be positive, and with on-going education, hopefully it can lead more people to appreciate the benefits of co-existing with nature in this modern city. 

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In recent times and with social media, the otters have reached a kind of celebrity status with otter enthusiasts and groups who watch and study their every movement. They are further popularized with well-produced video stories about the three big families: the Bishan, Marina, and Zouk. The Bishan otter family even have their own Wikipedia page.    Sometimes they show up in the most unlikely places, like a condo swimming pool, downtown water fountain, the lily pond at Marina Bay Sands, or next to a sleeping man. Their adorable faces and unexpected actions further their unique appeal and social media buzz. In my weeks of tracking and following them, I too have seen some of their funny antics such as sneaking past the nets to the floating platform to “play football”, and taking the helm of a small boat that was parked by the river.

Singapore is truly a unique place to be able to see wildlife thriving in the heart of the city. It is a great example of how people and nature can balance and co-exist together. When people ask me exactly where they can see the otters, I really can’t tell them. They are wild animals after all, but they are found everywhere around Singapore. My one tip would be to get up very early when they tend to be most active. It’s like an urban safari, knowing a bit about their habits and behaviour will also improve your chances of being able to track and see them. I have learned to take my camera on my bike rides. You just never know when and where the otters will show up, and you should consider yourself lucky to see them in this jungle city.

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