This city girl is wild about Singapore's wildlife

When it comes to coexisting with wildlife in the city, tolerance is the key.

Singapore's greening efforts have drawn all sorts of wildlife - from cute otters and hornbills to mischievous monkeys and wild boars.

It is human nature to prefer some animals over others, but it would be difficult to cherry-pick the types of wildlife here. It would be far better to learn to tolerate - or, even better, appreciate - the fact that this concretised city thrives with so much life.

While it is the negative encounters with animals such as wild boars and long-tailed macaques that constantly make the headlines, the fact is that Singapore's land and sea areas are home to a far greater diversity of weird and wonderful creatures.

Take the Neptune's cup sponge, a sea creature shaped like a large goblet. It was rediscovered in Singapore waters in 2011 after being thought to be globally extinct. Now, there are a total of five of them in Singapore.

And while many people here may have seen or heard of the long-tailed macaque, few know of its rare, reclusive cousin, the Raffles' banded langur. These black-and-white leaf eaters are native to Singapore, but are on the brink of extinction.

Still, the sight of creatures such as pythons or crocodiles can be alarming. If not properly managed, some animals could have a severe impact on public safety. They may have the potential to destroy property, injure residents or carry diseases. In such events, human safety is paramount. People should not be up in arms if the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) has to cull or relocate some of them.

The authorities have been working to manage animal populations and risky encounters in other ways too. Warning signs, for instance, were put up in August by the authorities at Changi Beach Park after a reported sighting of a crocodile.

The National Parks Board (NParks) said then that it was working with AVA and wildlife rescue group Animal Concerns Research and Education Society to monitor sightings of the crocodile, as well as to catch and move it to another location for the safety of park users. But further sightings have not been reported.

THE TASK OF THE HUMAN SPECIES

However, members of the public must do their bit, too. One way is simply learning how to behave around wild animals, by leaving them well alone and not antagonising or feeding them.That is the first step. But it is time for Singapore to go beyond that, and learn to better value and appreciate wildlife.

As Dr Lena Chan, senior director at NParks' National Biodiversity Centre, says: "There are many benefits and advantages to living in harmony with wildlife - nurturing a sense of wonder and curiosity, sharpening reactions and improving motor skills.

"Instead of living in a closed environment, you go out in the open, and you have so much stimulation."

But I often hear the refrain that there is "nothing to see" in Singapore's forests and natural areas. Friends tell me they would rather have their fill of nature by visiting national parks overseas.

But take it from this reformed city girl, who knew nothing of wildlife in Singapore until starting work as an environment reporter at The Straits Times - there is actually plenty to discover here. Over the course of my work, I have had a chance to get up close to all that wild Singapore has to offer. I discovered that there is much to see, and all for free, if one only bothers to look.

Climbing to the top of the Jelutong Tower in the Central Catchment Nature Reserve one day, I saw a chestnut-bellied malkoha in flight, its iridescent feathers spread out as it swooped from tree to tree.

On another occasion, while on a boat ride out to the Singapore Strait with some scientists, dolphins made an appearance.

But, by far, the most memorable wild-animal encounter I had was with the carcass of a dead sperm whale. A whale - in Singapore's waters!

The species had never previously been found in the waters around Singapore until July 2015, when a 10m-long carcass of one was found floating off Jurong Island. It likely died after being hit by a ship, as its dorsal hindquarters had a large wound.

Wildlife in Singapore is as diverse as its people.

True, there may be some with annoying habits - birds calling outside my window may wake me up at times - but I would gladly accept the early wake-up calls if it means my city remains a haven for all the other creatures.

So is there a place for wild animals in Singapore?

As Dr Shawn Lum, president of the Nature Society (Singapore) and a senior lecturer at Nanyang Technological University's Asian School of the Environment, says: "Yes, definitely. It may take time for people to accept it. But cultural values can shift.

"Singapore has already moved to make the city liveable for many groups of people. Gradually, I hope we will come to see wildlife as part of our shared space, too."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 22, 2017, with the headline 'This city girl is wild about S'pore's wildlife'. Print Edition | Subscribe