On a grassy strip along the highway, a blur of brown fur moves quickly, a small head popping up every so often to check for danger. Like many urban species, the aquatic mammals are changing their behavior to fit into their new home, research shows.
It’s a family of seven otters, likely on their way to their den at the Singapore Botanic Gardens. Commuters sitting in evening traffic appear oblivious, likely already accustomed to seeing the charismatic mammals traipsing about this Southeast Asian metropolis of 5.7 million.
It’s a far cry from 50 years ago, when Singapore’s rivers were choked with rotting animal carcasses, garbage, and sewage. Smooth-coated otters, native to the area, had disappeared and wherein danger of being locally extinct.
In 1977, the Singaporean government launched its Clean River Campaign, and in 1998, otters began to return to the tropical island on their own.
Now at least 90 otters, part of 10 thriving families, live within the island-state, and their population is growing, thanks to rich food sources—such as koi ponds—and lack of predators.
The 20-pound creatures have also adapted well to urban spaces, denning in concrete bridges and basking on patches of sand between slabs of pavement. (In one humorous incident, otters climbed up a metal maintenance ladder to exit a canal.)
But the rise of the urban otter has caused some conflicts with people.
Homeowners in the gated-community enclave on the island of Sentosa reported in 2015 that their koi carp ponds had been emptied by otters, and one hotel in the same area lost 85,000 Singaporean dollars’ worth of ornamental fish over eight months, according to local news reports.
In 2017, news outlets reported that an otter bit a five-year-old girl at a nature park, the Gardens by the Bay. Despite these run-ins, the Singaporeans are generally fond of their cheeky neighbors.
When asked to vote for a mascot that would represent Singapore in its 2016 National Day celebrations, citizens voted wholeheartedly for the otter.
For National University of Singapore biologist Sivasothi N, the arrival of the Singapore otter—and its popularity among residents—is a welcome development.
When the animals first reappeared in Singapore’s waterways, they were so unknown to most that people thought that they could be beavers or seals, says Sivasothi, who launched the website OtterWatch to help educate locals about these new inhabitants.
In the early 1990’s, he recalls traveling to Penang in Malaysia to study the species, walking through the mangroves for hours, hoping to spot a single otter.
Now, to do his research all he has to do is step outside his house to see the sleek, playful creatures that are doing just swimmingly in Singapore.
National Geographic / Crickey Conservation Society 2022.