Family of otters frolicking outside Mustafa Centre is looking for a permanent home

This is the same family that was found splashing in the swimming pool of a condominium in Newton. PHOTO: SCREENGRAB FROM YOUTUBE

SINGAPORE - As the country enters the third week of its circuit breaker period and with most people cooped up at home, animal residents unbound by safe distancing rules are taking this opportunity to explore urban spaces now empty of humans, as they have never been able to do before.

On Friday (April 24) morning, one family of smooth-coated otters, took to frolicking on the empty streets outside Mustafa Centre, a shopping mall in the Little India neighbourhood. A video of the playful animals has been circulating on WhatsApp.

National University of Singapore biology lecturer N. Sivasothi told The Straits Times that the family of seven - consisting of two parents, three adult pups, and two pups from a more recent litter - is exploring the areas around the adjacent canals looking for wider hunting grounds. He added that they have been on the lookout for bigger territory since January this year.

This is the same family that was found splashing in the swimming pool of a condo in Newton and roaming outside Tan Tock Seng Hospital last month, he noted.

"Now that there are fewer people and cars, the animals are able to sit down for a rest outside areas that they normally can't because of the crowds," said Mr Sivasothi.

"I call this the CB (circuit breaker) effect."

Since they have to move across urban spaces to move from one canal area to another, there is a high risk the animals become roadkill, he said, adding that pangolins becoming roadkill in the Central Catchment area was also common for the same reason.

Mr Sivasothi, who is part of the Otter Working Group, pointed out that the family had previously raised the pups who were born in October last year at the Singapore Botanic Gardens. But now the pups are grown and the family needs to find a larger territory.

"When the pups are young, the otters need shallow water areas because that's where the parents teach them how to swim and hunt," said Mr Sivasothi, adding that pups are not born with an innate ability to start swimming straight away.

"The Botanic Gardens might be good as a nursery site, but it's not good for long-term hunting.

"It is like an accompanying parent eating in their kids' school canteen. You might make do with smaller servings and sit at smaller tables. But eventually the parent and child will need bigger servings and larger space."

Unfortunately for this family of otters, most of the existing hunting spaces in the Central Watershed - which includes the Singapore River, Kallang River and the naturalised river at Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park - are already occupied by other otter families, so they have to keep searching, said Mr Sivasothi.

The alternative will be to engage in territorial battles, which might result in the pups being injured or even dying, he added. Losing families are forced to retreat to other spaces.

There is a limited carrying capacity - or the ability to support a fixed number of animals - in urban areas, noted Mr Sivasothi.

"The ones who find the space will survive; the ones who don't, die. I hope things work out for the otters."

Mr Sivasothi also pointed out that the latest litter of pups originally consisted of six pups, but four had died since. "The ability of pups to survive can be variable. They are exposed to threats of injury or drowning when they are not strong enough to keep up, as well as roadkills."

He estimates that about 10 per cent of the otter population does not survive because of these reasons.

He urged the public to give the otters space when they are sighted and to enjoy the scene from a safe distance.

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