Singapore, be kind to otters

MAY 24 — One bright spot during the general disruption of Covid-19 has been the otters. 

These adorable half seal-, half dog-like critters have made a comeback in Singapore and the antics of these urban otters captured on CCTV and other footage have brought joy to millions of Singaporeans. 

At the height of the lockdown, we've watched an otter family frolicking by the Mustafa department store in Little India and before that we watched rival otter gangs (the collective noun is bevy) face off in a canal near Braddell. 

Now, the story of Singapore's otters is remarkable. 

Lutra Lutra, the Eurasian otter, can be found across vast swathes of the world from Portugal in the west all the way east to Korea and as far south as Sumatra, but otter populations globally have been in decline for decades. 

In Singapore, they were thought to have become extinct in the 60s and 70s but in 1998, otters were once again spotted in Sungei Buloh in the north of the island. It is possible a new population swam across from Malaysia.

Whatever their origin, they decided to stay. Steps taken in the 80s and 90s to clean up Singapore’s waterways and expand green spaces meant the city was once again a conducive habitat for otters.  

Remarkably a species declining in most other parts of the world began to thrive in one of the world's most densely populated cities. 

In the following years they spread from the north, through the island's canals and expanding park and park connector network. Today there are otter families across the island, even in the heart of downtown Singapore. 

The otters have been heralded as a major success and they are the unofficial emblem of our city's successful re-greening efforts. 

Singapore is not just an Asian tiger city; these days it is a "city in a garden" and the otters are our garden's stars. But some are now saying the otters' revival has gone too far. 

A letter on the need to curb the intrusion of otters into residential areas was published in Straits Times recently.  

The writer suggested using horns and even rubber bullets to ensure otters develop a fear of humans and stop straying into residential neighbourhoods.  

Of course the letter was rebutted by conservationists and the large part of the population that is keen to try to live with nature but there remains an idea that there is some sort of possible human-otter conflict in Singapore.  

That otters need to be stopped from causing damage to property and prevented from injuring people.  

The idea is absurd, just like human-elephant conflicts in other parts of the world — it is a complete misnomer.  

Conflict implies two parties in some sort of dispute but in these cases, we have armed organised humans vs animals trying only to survive. 

The animals are not in conflict with us, they are just living their lives. 

There will never be any true conflict because entire species of animals (apart from some fast-breeding insects and rodents) can be exterminated by human beings quite effortlessly. 

Basically, the otters aren’t straying into our environment; rather for hundreds of years, we have been trespassing in theirs.  

As unwanted guests in their natural world, it is incumbent on us to do as little harm as possible.   

If the creatures do occasionally eat our fish (which is only their instinct to survive)... well then, we really ought to think of better ways to keep our fish or just not keep fish in artificial urban habitats. 

It is important to remember that in total, there are thought to be perhaps 90 otters in Singapore. That's versus a human population of near 6 million. It seems absurd that all these humans can’t tolerate an animal population of negligible size.  

This might all seem rather superficial but it is important. If Covid-19 teaches us nothing else, it should be that respecting the environment and other species in it is essential for our survival and health.   

The truth is despite recent improvement, our island has a terrible environmental legacy in terms of preserving species.  

From the winged red squirrel, the Malayan tiger or the tapir — countless animals that once called this island home are gone. 

In this case one species managed to come back and we should do everything possible to ensure they stay here. 

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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