An Otter in Singapore's Bishan Park.  Photo by Max Khoo

An Otter in Singapore's Bishan Park. Photo by Max Khoo

WHY WE SHOULD LIVE IN CITIES WITH OTTERS

By Tim Beatley

March 2019

By now you may have heard about or seen footage of Singapore’s Otters - they have achieved a remarkable celebrity status, locally and internationally. The otters are the subject of various news reports and video segments, with film crews from the UK, Japan and elsewhere seeking out these highly charismatic critters.

On a trip to Singapore last year, I had the chance to see them for myself. They are, to be sure, one highly visible outcome of this city-state’s commitment to supporting urban nature. That otters have returned to this dense and growing city is itself remarkable, as is the fact that they have become a public craze and an international sensation. On a Sunday afternoon, I had the chance to see them up close (and we brought along a videographer to capture the experience, some of which can be seen in the film segment below). Guided by Lena Chan and Max Khoo of Singapore’s National Parks Board (Nparks), we found and followed the so-called Bishan family of the Smooth-Coated Otter (Lutrogale perspicillata). Indigenous to this city-state, these otters have only re-appeared in recent years. Max Khoo, who is studying the otters for this senior thesis, tells me that there are an estimated 10-12 distinct families living in Singapore, with a total of as many as 80 otters

Otters in the Cityscape.  Photo by Max Khoo

Otters in the Cityscape. Photo by Max Khoo

Why the resurgence of otters here? Max attributes it to several factors, including efforts to replace hard flood control structures with more natural, softbank streams and creeks. This has happened most spectacularly in the case of Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park, where a formerly, largely sterile concrete channel has now become an extremely popular, meandering river running through a dense neighborhood in this vertical city. Since the removal of the concrete channel, water quality has improved and remarkable biodiversity is now seen there, including the otters.
 
On this particular Sunday, we sight the Bishan family swimming as a group (we are able to count seven otters, with several, Max tells me, likely remaining behind in their den, helping to tend to newborn pups). It reminds me of whale watching in a way, as individual otters surface as they swim along this portion of the marina reservoir. I am surprised at how noisy the otters are, with squeaks and squawks along the way. We have a hard time keeping up with them, but one otter hangs back, and stops close to shore, where a small group of picnickers and others watch intently (and pull out their phone cameras to snap an image). This otter, we realize, is munching on a rather large fish. It was a moment of excitement and natural energy amidst a highly developed backdrop.

Feeding time for the Otters! Photo by Max Khoo

Feeding time for the Otters! Photo by Max Khoo

The otters are almost universally loved in Singapore, though there have been some conflicts, especially when they have raided koi fish ponds. But the conflicts have been few. There is an active citizen science effort to study and monitor the otters, and there is a Facebook page (OtterWatch) that has 30,000 followers. Max Khoo tells me about one avid follower who reports on the whereabouts of the otters every day on his morning bike ride. This is one lesson of the Otter experience, Max tells me: Singapore’s extensive Park Connectors - a network of trails and nature corridors that allow residents to move around the island and to experience much of the nature there - provide the chance for residents like the bicyclist Max mentions to see and report what they are seeing.
 
Even dense, highly developed cities such as Singapore can and must serve as biological reservoirs, serving an increasingly important role in global conservation. The Smooth-Coated Otter is a species rated vulnerable by the IUCN Red Book, and its expanding numbers and habitat in Singapore are helpful to its survival. Contact with this highly charismatic species has other benefits for Singapore residents by providing a portal for urbanites to connect with biodiversity and nature more broadly.
 
Max Khoo calls it a “stepping stone”: “to see otters and to see wildlife in our highly urbanized country, it kind of gets people excited and wanting to know more about wildlife.” And with a little education and engagement urban residents can learn how to coexist with species like otters, or in other places coyotes or bears. There is also a remarkable elevation in the quality of urban life when we live in spaces and places where the sounds and sights of an otter might appear unexpectedly: the reemergence of a friend that we recognize; a neighbor, a co-occupant of the natureful city.