Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Otters in the garden

The smooth-coated otter, Lutrogale perspicillata, is a Southeast Asian specialist ranging from Southern China and India down through Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and other neighbouring countries. They were considered extinct or absent from Singapore for decades in the twentieth century. Then, in the 1990’s, otters began to be seen in Sungei Buloh Nature Park, a rich mangrove ecosystem in the North West of the country. It is thought that these individuals made the short swim across the Straits of Johor from Malaysia and found an inviting habitat where the three otter needs – plentiful supplies of food, a suitable den site and refuges from human disturbance – were met.
Family of smooth-coated otters. Copyright Evan Landy 2018
In the following years, they began to be seen along the Northern coast of Singapore, setting up in a couple of new sites in other estuarine and mangrove habitat. Moreover, perhaps due to the breeding success of these pioneering otter families, other otters began to make their way further around the coast and, most surprisingly, in-land to very urban habitats including reservoirs, the marina bay and parks. On one occasion, one of the groups even made its way into the main airport in Changi and were seen travelling on the runway. There are now thought to be 60+ smooth-coated otters in Singapore and whilst still critically endangered this is, so far, a wonderful success story.

Smooth-coated otters. Copyright Evan Landy 2018
Singapore has a population of five and a half million people and is the third most densely populated country in the world with approximately 85 people living per football pitch sized space. Otter density, meanwhile, is low as the 60 individuals found on the island could each have the run of over 1000 football pitches to themselves. Put another way, there may be approximately 1 otter per 90,000 people in Singapore. This, in one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet, with what remains of the great coral triangle and the tropical rainforests of Malaysia & Indonesia on either side. Ninety five percent of Singapore’s original tropical forests have long been lost in the face of radical urbanisation and development. However, in the past fifty years great efforts have gone into softening the urban landscape. A train ride from east to west reveals tree lined streets, ubiquitous planting and green roofs, walls and pocket parks aplenty. However, for the otters it is the protection, connection and cleaning of waterways and improvement of fish stocks which has helped them come back from the brink.

Gardens by the bay. One of the most prized otter territories in Singapore,
 with a very urban backdrop. Copyright Evan Landy 2018
The otters I live near are the Pasir Ris/Changi family. At the latest count, there are ten of them to be found fishing, playing and raising young in the local rivers and adjacent coastline. They have become so accustomed to a crowd of otter watchers that they regularly pass within a few metres of people and allow close views as they dry themselves on the beach or run across lawns to spraint. They use the tides to hunt. Following them from bridge to bridge I have watched them swim up canal channels as the tide drops, trapping fish that have been swept upstream. Another tactic they use is to swim in a V shape at a shoal of fish, as the fish panic and try to escape the otters just need to play catch.

Corralling fish is a typical hunting technique. Copyright Evan Landy 2018
It is their unique personalities that makes otter watching so addictive. A young female from the Pasir Ris family, named Aquarius, made the local news after being seen with a piece of rubber wrapped around her body. After an intensive and dedicated rescue effort, she was tranquilised before the rubber was cut away, freeing up her constricted body. As a result, she is easy to identify, even to the untrained eye as she has a ring of shorter fur around her body where it had previously been unable to grow. She is one of the younger members of the group but what she lacks in experience she makes up for in attitude. She makes a habit, like many young otters, of begging for fish from the more experienced fish catching adults. On one occasion, after receiving a half-eaten catfish she took the leftovers before batting its capturer with her tail and growling at her siblings that they were not taking any for themselves. Amusingly, we also watched as she half-finished another catch and looked around slightly bemused at what to do with the leftovers before plonking the guts, bones and scales directly on the back of a family member before swimming off to play. When she is not eating, it is common to see her squeaking passionately at the group. One evening, the group was split in two with Aquarius and half the family swimming upstream to their den and the other half still fishing in a tidal pool. Once it became obvious the lead group were not being followed, Aquarius made her way back and squeaked furiously in the direction of the feeding group until they bowed to her demands and continued towards the rest of the family. Aquarius’ story means she has a special place in the hearts of those who watch this family.

Aquarius. Copyright Evan Landy 2017
Otters are bio indicators of their aquatic environments - their presence or absence indicates the quality and health of its ecosystem. Here in Singapore, it is a great reflection on the conservation work being done by the government and local NGO’s that otters can thrive not just in the mangroves, but in the heart of the urban scene too. Images of otters in the foreground and sky scrapers in the background would be inconceivable in my home city of London but this shows it is possible provided certain conditions are met. However, as seen with Aquarius, there remain serious conservation concerns for Singapore otters and other wildlife. On daily walks through the mangroves it is impossible to ignore the vast amounts of litter – particularly plastic – floating and submerged in the waterways, on the mud flats and around the beach. As well as Aquarius having a life-threatening rubber O-ring wrapped around her, we have seen monitor lizards with plastic collars and kingfishers perched amongst tangled fishing line. Where this litter comes from is uncertain, some perhaps is washed in from the sea but some is dropped and left in-situ. A recent walk revealed a huge number of glow sticks littering the board walks, we picked up all that we saw but no doubt some of these will come to rest in the mangroves for centuries. There are some excellent volunteer groups undertaking extensive litter cleans but litter must be cut off at its source for a truly sustainable solution.

Glow sticks, and other litter, are a regular feature around the boardwalks
There are also incidents of fisherman throwing rocks at passing otters and of holts being blocked off, as otters are perceived to eat too many fish. Here, human wildlife conflict is at its most farcical. Sixty otters competing with the environmental footprint of five and half million people? It is not the same level of conflict faced by millions in India, as hundreds of elephant’s raid valuable crops, destroy livelihoods and take lives. Most people who encounter the otters, however, have their phones and cameras out and are often smiling widely as they line bridges or beaches to respectfully watch them go about their lives. There are over thirty-three thousand followers of the Singapore OtterWatch Facebook group alone and the otters are regular celebrities in local news.

Living in an urban environment brings otters close to anthropogenic impacts. Copyright Evan Landy 2018
I am an urban nature advocate for two reasons. Firstly, it is reassuring that on our besieged planet there are species that are finding a way to live alongside us. Despite fragmenting wild habitats with roads and infrastructure and filling the environment with noise, litter and pollution, some species have shown remarkable skills to navigate this complex web of disturbance and eke out a living. Some even thrive. Peregrine falcons, for example, may exist at higher densities in the cities of New York and London than in pristine natural habitats. The second reason is a selfish one. Urban creatures unsurprisingly tend to be habituated to human presence. For naturalists and photographers this allows unique opportunities to get up close to species that in more wild environments are elusive. However, when I began my explorations into the world of urban nature, I never dreamt that one day otters would be amongst these species.

The otters will often play with items they find in the urban environment. Copyright Evan Landy 2018 
These charismatic semi-aquatic mammals have the potential to be a flagship species for wildlife in Singapore, one which engages city dwellers with nature and helps rally support to protect all other species which they share the ecosystem with. The public’s love for the otters has been reflected in the recent news that the most urban of Singapore’s otter families are now one of 51 icons representing the country. The otter watchers’ enthusiasm is the greatest conservation tool we could hope for. Not only does it lead to outstanding voluntary efforts to protect the species directly – such as the rescue of Aquarius - but it means there is a huge value attached to keeping these otters alive and well, because they bring so much joy to people. Improving the local environment created an opportunity for wildlife which the otters took. Now, it is up to us to sustain it and reduce the anthropogenic impacts for them and all other wildlife living in this wonderful garden city. 

Some species survive despite the challenges found in the urban environment. Smooth-coated otters in Singapore thrive with those challenges and opportunities. Copyright Evan Landy 2018

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