SINGAPORE - People who feed wild animals are being made to pay a pretty penny for their actions, as the authorities move to clamp down on behaviour that could escalate chances of human-wildlife conflict.
Members of the nature community tell The Straits Times that this is a timely move, especially with Singapore's greening efforts paying off and bringing humans into closer proximity with wildlife.
On Wednesday (Jan 13), the National Parks Board (NParks) said it will be hauling 19 individuals to court for feeding wild boars in Lorong Halus - the largest number brought to court under the Wildlife Act since it came into effect last June.
Under the Act, the feeding and release of wildlife is illegal islandwide. Previously, it was only banned in parks and nature reserves.
So far, four of the 19 have pleaded guilty and were each fined $2,500. The other cases will be heard in court over the coming weeks.
The Lorong Halus site in Singapore's north-east is a known wild boar feeding hot spot, and NParks' latest action comes after a woman exercising in the area was attacked by a wild boar last November, leaving her with a cut on her leg and facial injuries.
Ms Anbarasi Boopal, co-chief executive officer of Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (Acres), said the wildlife rescue group has since 2018 been reminding people at Lorong Halus against feeding the animals.
"The harsher penalties act as a greater deterrent," she added.
In recent years, there have been numerous reports of negative human-wildlife encounters all across the island, from boars to chickens and long-tailed macaques.
Killing with kindness
People often feed wildlife out of compassion, but experts warn that this does the animals more harm than good.
When the animals start to associate humans with food handouts and actively seek them out, people could start viewing them as pests - increasing pressure on the authorities to cull them, say observers.
For instance, Ms Anbarasi noted that some people feed pigeons on windowsills or throw food from high-rise buildings. As a result, they congregate in large flocks on windowsills and defecate on laundry lines.
"Complaints have led to the poisoning of these birds," she added.
Feeding animals - such as free-ranging chickens - can also result in their populations surging.
As conservationist Ivan Kwan, who runs nature guiding company Nature Adventures SG, puts it: "The animals ultimately pay for human kindness with their lives."
It can also have an impact on the ecosystem.
As one of the larger bird species in Singapore, hornbills consume larger fruits and seeds - playing an important role in helping them spread.
But pointing to recent videos of the iconic birds being fed at Loyang Way Food Village and a condominium, Mr Kwan added: "If hornbills are now visiting coffee shops and balconies for food, that will affect the ability of the tree to spread its seeds and sustain a healthy and resilient population."
The cheeky long-tailed macaque, with its glossy brown fur and intelligent eyes, is perhaps the animal most known for getting to humans for food.
"A decade ago, the long-tailed macaques and wild boar at Chek Jawa on Pulau Ubin were shy, and mostly avoided humans," said Mr Kwan, who has been a frequent visitor to the island for 12 years.
"But thanks to feeding, macaques are now known to ambush approaching cyclists and hikers to grab food and drinks from their baskets or hands," he added.
Indeed, just the sound of rustling plastic at Bukit Timah Nature Reserve or MacRitchie could send the monkeys scurrying in that direction, Mr Kwan noted.
National University of Singapore (NUS) mammal researcher Marcus Chua said research has been done on long-tailed macaques to show that the artificial provision of food often leads to a change in their behaviour and undesirable interactions with humans.
Macaque troops fed by humans are larger and tend to associate things such as plastic bags and cars with food, said Mr Chua. The monkeys also pay a price - being drawn to cars and roads, they have been run over by vehicles before. They have also been trapped and killed due to complaints, he said.
Mr Chua added: "Feeding often results in closer and more frequent interactions between wildlife and humans, and thus a higher chance of transmission of pathogens and zoonotic diseases."
The latter refers to diseases that can be spread from animals to humans such as rabies and bird flu.
The coronavirus that causes Covid-19 is also believed to originate from a wildlife market, although investigations are still ongoing.
A study by NParks published last month in the scientific journal Biological Conservation found that pigeons flock where human food is - and that reduced food availability could affect the reproductive cycles of these birds.
Mr How Choon Beng, director of wildlife management and outreach at NParks, said that one finding was that in less than two months, the feral pigeon abundance in open food centres dropped by more than half.
Wild or not?
Feeding community animals such as stray cats and dogs, however, is legal as it is not covered by the Wildlife Act.
Wild animals have evolved with the environment over time, developing unique adaptations that will help them find food and mates in the environment.
Domesticated species like cats, dogs and chickens, however, have been selectively bred for certain traits over millennia, and many have lost traits that will help them successfully find food in the wild.
But NParks said it works closely with the animal welfare groups to ensure feeding animals are done responsibly and in a way that will not dirty the surroundings.
Co-founder of animal welfare group Save Our Street Dogs Malina Tjhin said: "We educate them on why irresponsible feeding leading to complaints will only hurt the dogs they care so much for.
"If the feeder is prevented from feeding as a result of irresponsible feeding, the dogs are the ones that will go hungry and suffer," she added.
The volunteer organisation supports around 50 feeders and about 1,400 community dogs in Singapore.
"When we work with stray feeders, it's a means to an end for us to trap and sterilise the dogs under NParks' Trap-Neuter-Release-Manage programme," added President of Action for Singapore Dogs (ASD) Ricky Yeo.
Launched in 2018, the five-year programme aims to sterilise more than 70 per cent of the stray dog population in Singapore within five years.
"Feeding can be detrimental without sterilisation.
"It only takes a year for the stray dog population to explode since a female can have two litters of between four and 10 puppies each year," said Mr Yeo who started ASD in 2000 with a strict no-kill policy for dogs.
Last year, Singapore announced plans to develop into a City in Nature, with more green infused into the cityscape.
As it progresses toward this goal, experts say people also need to learn how to behave around animals - to ensure that a greener cityscape is a home for both humans and native animals.
Said Ms Anbarasi: "Park connectors have brought greenery close to people and developments brought people close to greenery. Now they need to learn how to co-exist."
Penalties that offenders face
Under the Wildlife Act, a person must not intentionally feed wildlife.
This refers to any animal species that is of a wild nature, including its young. It excludes domestic dogs, cats, horses, cattle, sheep, goats, domestic pigs and poultry.
First-time offenders can be fined up to $5,000 while repeat offenders face fines of not more than $10,000.
A person who has the director-general of wildlife management's approval is exempted from this law. This is granted on a case-by-case basis for situations such as research and professional wildlife rehabilitation.
Aside from the Wildlife Act, it is illegal to feed any animal at a national park or nature reserve under the Parks and Trees Act.
Doing so can incur a fine not exceeding $50,000 and imprisonment for up to six months.
Those who fail to clear food used to feed community animals can also be fined up to $2,000 under the Environmental Public Health Act for littering.
Recalcitrant offenders face fines of up to $4,000 for a second conviction and a maximum of $10,000 for subsequent convictions.