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Text and photos by Nick Baker, unless otherwise credited.
Copyright ゥ Ecology Asia 2020



  Ring Of Bright Water  
    ... a close encounter with the otters of Sungei Buloh  


The Smooth Otter family emerge onto the mudbanks at low tide.


The otter can lay claim to being, perhaps, one of the most charming, amusing, and fun-loving creatures on the planet. Yet, the existence of otter species in Singapore is, at best, tenuous. Prior to the massive land reclamation schemes and destruction of mangrove habitat which has gone hand-in-hand with Singapore痴 economic growth otters were, apparently, once resident in Singapore痴 mangrove forests.

Presently, two species of otter are widely distributed in Peninsular Malaysia - the Small-clawed Otter Amblonyx cinereus and it痴 larger cousin the Smooth Otter Lutrogale perspicillata. Two other otter species are extremely rare in the peninsula these are the Hairy-nosed Otter Lutra sumatrana and the Common Otter Lutra lutra.

In their paper "A review of otters in Malaysia and Singapore", 1994, N. Sivasothi and Burhanuddin Hj. Md. Nor concluded that the Small-clawed Otter was the only otter species which had ever been resident in Singapore, and that was prior to the 1950痴. That said, in 1989 a family may have been briefly resident in Pulau Tekong Besar, but since then only individuals have been seen there. As far as Smooth Otters were concerned, there was little or no evidence to link them with the Republic at all.


Searching for crustaceans or shellfish.


Recent Sightings

Over the last few years, however, there have been frequent sightings of Smooth Otters in Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve. First a pair of adults were seen, then later two young cubs appeared during different breeding seasons. Thus, there is strong evidence that a family group of four Smooth Otters are resident in Sungei Buloh. Many people feel that the ecology of Sungei Buloh, after seven years of protection from fishing, poaching and encroachment, has recovered to such a degree that larger predators are able to live and breed in the area.

Even the most casual visitor to Sungei Buloh cannot fail to miss the shoals of Archer Fish, Mullet, Garfish, Half-beak, Green Chromide, Tilapia and other fish species which abound in the park. Such an abundant food source will have encouraged the Smooth Otters to remain in the area. (In an aside, it is worth noting here that the presence of the Estuarine Crocodile in Sungei Buloh is now officially recognised. As with the Smooth Otter, this is another large predator at the top of the food chain).

The Smooth Otters do not seem to frequent any locality in particular given the small size of Sungei Buloh it is quite likely that they consider the entire park their territory. Thus, visitors to the park need sharp eyesight and a degree of luck in order to see the resident otters. Early one morning in August, however, when the tide was at it痴 lowest I was treated to a close encounter with these wonderful animals.

Close Encounter


Swimming in the waters of  Sungei Bilabong Buloh.


Standing on the Main Bridge near the Visitor Centre I saw the entire family of four otters swimming in the headwaters of Sungei Buloh Besar. My pulse increased as the otters swam towards me, and I tried to conceal myself as best as I could. Then, right there before my very eyes, the two parents ventured out onto the mudflats adjacent to the Visitor Centre, closely followed by their excited offspring. They spent some moments searching in the mud, presumably looking for breakfast, and I was able to take a few, hasty shots with my trusty 15-year old Minolta. Soon, however, they returned to the water and swam right underneath the Main Bridge it was quite a sight to these see four dark shapes submerged under the murky waters.

I followed them quietly, anticipating the route they would take. Upon reaching the Straits Of Johor, the otters immediately turned towards Pulau Buloh, occasionally stopping to catch some fish. They seemed to do this with such ease, having no difficulty catching the slow moving Green Chromide (an introduced species from India and Sri Lanka). When the otters were submerged their location was extremely obvious the surface of the sea would be alive with fish desperately seeking some escape. Sometimes the otters would drive the larger fish up onto the mudbanks, and grab them immediately with their paws and mouths. 


Sniffing the air for signs of danger.


I was able to take more photos of their antics from the short boardwalk which overlooks Pulau Buloh. There I crouched excitedly with a staff from the National Parks Board, who has seen the otters many times. My final encounter was towards the headwaters of Sungei Bilabong Buloh where I crouched on the path behind a tree; the otters came within twenty feet of my trembling camera. The adults became wary the closer they came they were sniffing the air and briefly looked straight at me, but it seems their eyesight is not as good as their sense of smell and they were unable to locate me. This was curious, as it is reported that the species locates it痴 prey visually. Perhaps they tend to be short-sighted ! I scarcely dared to press the shutter and wind the film, for fear of being discovered.

The otter family finally emerged onto the mudbanks opposite Pulau Buloh, where they were later seen by National Parks Board staff soaking up the sun. 

I shall never forget that morning such encounters with wild mammals are rare, and are to be treasured. Let痴 hope that these handsome, endearing and intelligent creatures are able to continue living and multiplying at Sungei Buloh, protected from habitat destruction and persecution.

Final Word

Finally, a plea. That wonderful morning the otter family were first spotted on the mudbanks upstream from the Main Bridge across Sungei Buloh Besar. This area lies outside the park boundary and is frequented by men looking for shellfish, and by stray dogs. In fact, much of the mangrove which the visitor sees when he looks to the south from the Main Bridge has no protection at all. Can the boundary of Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve not be logically extended to cover this small area to preserve the aesthetic view from the Main Bridge, and to provide protection to it痴 rare inhabitants, the Smooth Otters ?


References : Sivasothi, N. & B. H. M. Nor, 1994. A review of otters (Carnivora: Mustelidae: Lutrinae) in Malaysia and Singapore. In: A. Sasekumar, N. Marshall & D. J. Macintosh (eds.), Ecology and conservation of Southeast Asian marine and freshwater environments including wetlands. Hydrobiologia, 285: 151-170.

Sivasothi, N, 1994. A family group of the Small-clawed Otter, Amblonyx cinereus (Illiger, 1815) (Carnivora: Mustelidae: Lutrinae), on Pulau Tekong Besar, the second resident wild carnivore in Singapore. In The Pangolin, Vol 7 : 23-31.

Links : The original text for this article first appeared in Volume 8, Number 4 of Nature Watch, published by the Nature Society (Singapore), December 2000