Brief 100-year history of how native S'pore otters vanished, returned & became a national icon

Soft truths to keep Singapore from stalling.

Mothership | July 27, 2020, 09:50 AM

COMMENTARY: Otters, which have always been native to Singapore, are a rare case of returning native species after most of their original habitat was destroyed.

Much of their original habitat was destroyed in the 1960s, with the Singapore River and Kallang Basin becoming too polluted to support animal life. However, the otters managed to re-establish themselves in the 1990s after the rivers were cleaned up.

Now, their high visibility has garnered international attention.

We reproduce an excerpt from the essay "Lovable Lutrines: Curated Nature and Environmental Migrants in the Ottercity" which delves into the science behind the return of the otters, their endearing appeal, and what lies beneath their transformation into national symbols for Singapore. 

Written by Heeeun Monica Kim, the essay is part of a book titled Eating Chilli Crab in the Anthropocene which is published by Ethos Books.

You can get a copy here.

By Heeeun Monica Kim

Otters have always been a part of Singapore's landscape in the past

Ferally, obscenely wild. This is undoubtedly the answer that residents of Sentosa Cove might give, after hungry otters wreaked destruction upon their private koi and tilapia ponds.

Reeling at the “brutality and violence of the scene,” one bereaved koi pond owner cried, “Nobody is helping us. We’re so desperate. We just want to cohabit with the otters peacefully.”

The otters’ encroachment upon private gardens contains a certain irony.

Environmental historians might point out, for example, that the otters’ original mangrove habitats were wiped out by decades of urban development.

Slash-and-burn agriculture had begun razing the forested landscape even before Sir Stamford Raffles planted the British East India flag on the Singapore riverbank in 1819; by 1883, an estimated 93 per cent of the forest had been replaced, largely by pepper, sugarcane and rubber plantations.

The smooth-coated otter (Lutrogale perspicillata) and the small-clawed otter (Aonyx cinereus) survived this period of accelerated habitat loss until the 1960s, when further land reclamation projects, intensive coastal development and heavy waterway pollution destroyed their already marginalised niches.

Much of their original habitat was destroyed in the 1960s

The 1960s saw rapid loss of the mangrove forests—the most suitable habitat for otters in Southeast Asia.

Singapore’s already-degraded mangroves covered at least 63.4 square kilometres in 1953, but only 4.8 square kilometres remained in 1992, scattered throughout the mainland and on satellite islands such as Pulau Ubin.

While 92 per cent of these immensely biodiverse habitats disappeared within 40 years, other suitable aquatic environments became increasingly polluted or were lost to urban development.

The most poignant symbol of habitat destruction was the heavily polluted Kallang Basin and Singapore River, which was aptly nicknamed “Dead Chicken River” for the proliferation of animal carcasses that choked its waters, along with sewage, cargo oil, debris and other industrial waste.

A 1969 analysis of the river water confirmed what residents could already see and smell—the reeking, black river had such low oxygen content that it could support no marine life, nor the natural process of breaking down the organic matter.

From deforestation to waterway pollution, human activities led to a species extinction rate in Singapore estimated to be as high as 73 per cent by the 1960s.

The losses in Singapore followed a pattern of human-induced “biological annihilation” that was (and continues to be) mirrored around the world in what has been called the “Sixth Extinction” or the “Holocene Extinction.”

With their mangrove habitats razed and bodies of water polluted, Singapore’s two native otter species were believed to be part of this vanishing population.

But the otters persevered and returned to their original location

As we now know, the otters persevered. Likely migrating southwards from the Johor Straits, the smooth-coated otter was sighted again in the early 1990s.

A family established itself in the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve by 1998, and more sightings of otters in the northern Pulau Ubin and Serangoon Reservoir regions soon followed.

In 2015, they made their way to the river banks of the tourist hotspot Gardens by the Bay—precisely the region that, a few decades ago, stank of excrement and bloated animal carcasses.

The otters represent a rare case of returned migration, population establishment and eventual flourishing that is shared by no other native species in Singapore.

What their history on this island mirrors, however, is the redemptive Singapore River story: the government-spearheaded clean-up of the Singapore River and Kallang Basin from 1967 to 1977 that involved the physical cleaning of the waters as well as the implementation of proper sewage infrastructure, anti-pollution measures, business resettlements and even a stocking programme to re-nurture marine life.

As further government efforts such as the 2006 Active, Beautiful, Clean (ABC) Waters Programme continued the initiative to improve Singapore’s water bodies, the Singapore River and other scattered canals around the island became just what the Public Utilities Board (PUB) had aimed for: “postcard-pretty community spaces for all to enjoy.”

Humans and the prodigal otters found new spaces for life; the Dead Chicken River of the 1960s had been transformed into a lutrine playground.

They soon became mascots as a result of their high visibility

The otters were now hunting in dammed rivers and making dens in concretised waterways, a testament to their ability to adapt to the suboptimal waterbodies of urban environments.

While the otters had been largely invisible to the public in Serangoon and Punggol, the establishment of five smooth-coated otters in Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park in 2014 and Marina Bay in 2015 led to greater visibility.

Whereas a viewing in the wild would normally require hours of setting camera traps or trekking through watery jungle, in Singapore the furry families could be seen frolicking mere metres from morning joggers.

Crowds flocked. Soon enough, this novelty—not just the fact that wild otters exist in Singapore, but that they could be observed in such close proximity—garnered international attention.

From marginalised residents to celebrities commanding the dogged attention of Singaporean paparazzi, these lutrine stars, once invisible to the public eye and consciousness, suddenly found their photos and videos making viral waves in local media.

Whether it’s the birth of five new pups in the Bishan family or the Pasir Ris family’s antics on the Changi Airport tarmac, Singaporean media outlets are hot on the otters’ (literal) tails.

No longer is this a species confined to the distant mangrove forests up north; they’re smack in the middle of Singapore’s Central Business District, drying their fur on park grasses and spooking overly curious toddlers.

They’ve starred in CNA’s “Wild City: Singapore” documentary (narrated by David Attenborough), been labelled “Singapore’s celebrity urban otter family” by the BBC, served as the official icon for Singapore’s 51st birthday, and even led National Geographic to crown Singapore “The Ultimate Otter City.”

Despite a vulnerable population of just 80 in Singapore (as of 2017), the otters are the new kids on the block; if locals haven’t already run into these furry creatures, they’ve surely heard about them.

The cuteness of the otters is a product of their evolution

Why are the otters so popular? The answer is quite straightforward: they’re highly visible—an oddity for a species that is listed as “vulnerable” by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and “critically endangered” by Singapore’s Red List.

It also helps that the otters are, in the words of the National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre, “otterly adorable.”

Science tells us why: a widely documented concept in mammal research known as “the baby schema” proposes that infantile features such as round heads and bodies, large eyes and soft textures are perceived as cute. Cuteness elicits caretaking behaviour in both humans and other animals, thus serving the evolutionary purpose of enhancing survival.

In other words, the big-eyed, downy, podgy otter pups, whose infantile features are further emphasised by their high-pitched squeaks and playful gambolling, are the perfect recipe for triggering warm and fuzzy feelings.

One doesn’t need to consult peer-reviewed research on their effect on viewers’ mesocorticolimbic systems to know that these ottery mammals make human hearts melt. Crowds gather around the Marina otters and follow these frisky creatures around the water banks with the adoration of doting parents.

No one is more doting of the otters than Singapore's government

Perhaps the most doting parent of all is the Singapore government, whose environmental campaigns have been credited for the otters’ return.

As mentioned earlier, today’s views of otters hunting in glistening, stocked waters would not be possible had it not been for the massive river clean-up projects that began in 1967.

Despite being driven largely by commercial and economic concerns rather than environmental conservation, the clean-up did transform Singapore’s rivers into viable habitats for marine life.

By 2015, after various initiatives under the “Green” and “Blue” plans, as well as the landmark ABC Waters Programme, the major rivers and canals in Singapore had become more than just viable; they were green and beautified leisure spaces that human Singaporeans, otters and tourists could share.

This latter group was critical, for over the next few years Singapore’s environmental programmes would be lauded globally as the driving force behind the nation’s rich urban wildlife.

Mongabay, a US-based environmental news agency, cited Singapore’s stringent anti-litter laws, Lee Kuan Yew’s 1967 Garden City Plan, PUB’s ABC Waters Programme and Singapore’s status as the city with the “highest density of greenery in the world” in an article about how otters came to live “right in the city center.”

The Ethicalist, a Middle Eastern eco-lifestyle magazine, similarly pointed to the role of the ABC Waters Programme and the National Parks Board (NPark)’s 2009 National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan, as well as the 2013 “City in a Garden” campaign in bringing the otters back.

These initiatives fall under the umbrella of the “City in a Garden” campaign, which encompasses the government’s many environmental policies.

The Ethicalist summed up the success of this integrated effort in its introductory paragraph, arguing that the otters’ return “shows that given a clean environment, awareness and respect, some wildlife can thrive alongside humans, even in busy cities.”

The otters are now a source of national pride

Otters frolicking in the Singapore River are the perfect image for a government that has transformed Singapore into a “clean and green” state conducive to the return of evicted wildlife.

This is certainly a profile that the nation takes pride in, as evidenced by the government’s appointment of “Ottie the Otter,” a cartoon of one of the Bishan pups, as the mascot of Project Blue WaVe, an island-wide environmental conservation initiative by the People’s Association.

However, Ottie the Otter and his 80 or more friends that rollick in full view of city dwellers have come to represent more than just a conservation initiative: they have been made into symbols of the responsible leadership and caring community of a biophilic nation that strives for environmental excellence.

Ede Ijjasz-Vasquez, Senior Director for the World Bank Group’s Social, Urban, Rural and Resilience Global Practice, paints a broad, congratulatory picture of what Singapore’s otters represent for the nation:

Who would have thought that these otters would make a dense urban environment like Singapore home? ... Was this a big deal?Absolutely. In a small city-state where land is considered a scarce resource, the tension between urban development and biodiversity conservation can be very pronounced. This was not the case in Singapore.

They have been mobilised as national symbols

This was not the case in Singapore. No—in Singapore, the otters represent a difficult and critical bridge between urban development and biodiversity conservation.

In short, the otters have been symbolically mobilised as proof of Singapore’s impressive integration of the natural environment and urban life. According to this flattering narrative, this integration has been achieved through responsible government planning.

The Straits Times summed up this claim after an interview with the grand prize-winning otter photographer: “Her image of these otters against the backdrop of the Singapore skyline is how she views home: A progressive and environmentally responsible place for everyone.”

In this context, it is no wonder that these lutrine critters keep popping up in Singapore’s National Day events and are so fiercely protected by the community of otterwatchers. Every fisherman’s hook that is caught in an otter’s paw is an assault on Singapore’s progress as a City in a Garden, a broad and amorphous concept that is now crystallised in the national imagination as a furry, fish-hunting swimmer.

So what are the otters ultimately mascots for?

The urban otters have indeed become mascots for Singapore—but to what end exactly?

To present a “clean and green” country that cherishes and nurtures wilderness? To showcase efficient management of water and green technologies? Or as an arbitrary focus on one species—or category of humans—over another, based on arbitrary factors such as cuteness or citizenship?

Currently, these celebrity otters seem to conjure in the local and global consciousness a monolithic image of Singapore as a wholesome and biophilic paradise, an efficient leader in all things from river beautification to green architecture.

While we can and should appreciate the otters—and appreciate the appreciation—let us also view them as a mirror that not only reflects the positive aspects of Singapore’s environmental campaigns, but also refracts attention away from important questions about who receives care and who doesn’t in this meticulously curated city, now and in the years and decades to come.


Top photo from OtterWatch, map adapted from NAS.