Welcome to Singapore – and welcome to its wildlife! This might be the third most densely populated country in the world, yet some beautiful and bizarre creatures call the island home. Here we take a look at the most interesting and elusive of them.
#1 Raffles banded langur
Let’s start with monkeys, though not the lunch stealing long tailed macaques. The Raffles banded langur is only found in Singapore’s Central Catchment Nature Reserve and in Johor (Malaysia); it feeds on leaves and fruits. Only 40 to 60 remain – the main problem is loss of habitat and food with many of its food species also endangered.
Safari tips: For the best chance to see a langur, quietly walk along Old Upper Thomson Road and the Lower Peirce Reservoir boardwalk early in the morning. Search high in the trees and remain on the designated pathways. Try not to disturb the monkeys; keep noise to a minimum.
#2 Malayan colugo
While you’re in the forest, keep an eye out for the Malayan colugo, also incorrectly known as a flying lemur. Despite being around 40 centimetres long and relatively common, it can be tricky to spot as it’s mostly nocturnal. Its most astounding feature is the skin membrane that stretches from its neck right around the body, between the limbs and incorporating the tail, allowing it to glide up to 100 metres.
Safari tips: Take a quiet early morning stroll on the trails and boardwalks at Lower Pierce Reservoir. Look out for dark or light grey shapes attached to tree trunks, or hanging from a limb.
#3 Common palm civet
Also known as the toddy cat or luwak, this stealthy fruit-lover is found in forests and low-rise housing estates, running along electricity lines, scouting for fruit, insects or small animals. Its bandit-like appearance comes from the distinctive black “mask” across the eyes. Recently, civets face a new threat in some Asian countries. The trade in Kopi Luwak sees caged civets used to process coffee beans through their digestive systems, with the civets often eventually dying.
Safari tips: Seek them out in Bukit Batok Nature Park, Siglap Estate, Bukit Timah, Portsdown and the Southern Ridges. Search at night near fruit trees or fishtail palms. Keep your nose alert, too – civets give off the smell of pandan.
#4 Wild pig
Common in the wooded areas on Pulau Ubin and increasingly common on the main island, these ancestors of domestic pigs are native to Singapore. Pigs recolonised the main island by swimming across from the outer islands and Johor, and are now breeding in the forests.
Safari tips: Pulau Ubin near Chek Jawa and Pasir Ris Park are hotspots for wild pigs. Observe from a distance, especially when piglets are present. Remember, never feed wild animals as this leads to aggressive behaviour.
#5 Pied oriental hornbill
Also common on Pulau Ubin, this large black and white bird has a distinctive “casque” on its head. Rediscovered in 1994, the bird had been absent from Singapore for 70 years. The main problem was a lack a large trees with suitable hollows for nesting. However, with the help of artificial nesting boxes, the birds are becoming quite widespread with around 100 now found in Singapore.
Safari tips: Other than Pulau Ubin, hornbills can now be found at Changi Village near the food centre, in East Coast Park and sometimes breeding in the Botanic Gardens, just outside the visitor centre.
Away from the forest and into the rivers, Singapore is firmly in the grip of otter fever. Smooth-coated otters made a welcome return to our shores in 1998, and in response to cleaner waterways, around 60 otters from about 10 separate families now share our island. They occupy fixed areas when they have pups, living in that area for several months before moving on. Altercations with other families over territory can be violent.
Safari tips: For a relatively easy bit of otter spotting, jump on a bike and cycle around Gardens by the Bay or even near Boat Quay. Otters are most active before 8.30am. Observe from a distance and keep dogs on a short leash. For regular updates on otter locations, check facebook.com/OtterWatch.
Less cute and far scarier, the saltwater crocodile inhabits the wetlands of the northern coastline. Here, Singapore’s largest carnivore quietly hunts for fish and small animals by night. Crocodiles have even been found lurking in the Singapore and Kallang Rivers.
Safari tips: At Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve there are often two crocodiles just over the bridge from the visitor centre, most often basking by the water. Keep a very respectful distance; they’re potentially dangerous.
#8 Sea turtle
At the opposite end of Singapore, around the Southern Islands, two species of endangered sea turtles are found. The hawksbill turtle and the larger green turtle are most commonly sighted around the Sisters Islands Marine Park. Turtles even nest on these islands occasionally.
Safari tips: Scuba divers can join a trip with a National Parks-approved dive operator in the Sisters Islands Marine Park. For non-divers, keep your eyes trained on the water next time you’re on a boat – you may just see the round head of a turtle as it pops up to breathe.
Also in our southern seas are several species of dolphin. Most common is the Indo-pacific humpbacked dolphin, which varies in colour from grey to almost white and even pink and has a small triangular fin on its back. Its larger relative, the Indopacific bottlenose dolphin, is grey in colour and has a hooked fin.
Safari tips: Dolphins are seen on a fairly regular basis around the Southern Islands. They’re easiest to spot from a boat, especially around the Sisters Islands and St. John’s Island and may sometimes be seen from the land at Sentosa or Pulau Brani.
Wildlife you probably won’t find
But what of the animals we can’t see? Increased use of automatic motion-detecting cameras (camera traps) has revealed that more animals share our island than previously realised. These rare animals are scattered throughout our nature reserves and on Pulau Tekong and Pulau Ubin.
• The Malayan porcupine, around 70 centimetres long and distinctively spikey, caused great surprise when it was found to be living on our island. First rediscovered on Pulau Tekong in 2005, it’s now known to be shuffling its way through the larger nature reserves of the country, albeit in very low numbers.
• The small leopard cat is Singapore’s only remaining wild cat. The main island contains an estimated 20 of these beautifully dappled felines, while around 29 survive on Pulau Tekong.
• Although it’s a mammal, the Sunda pangolin’s scales made of compressed hair make it appear like a reptile. Pangolin scales and meat are sought after by poachers, and according to WWF Singapore, they are the most trafficked animal worldwide. Here, the animal’s greatest threat is habitat loss.
• Standing up to two metres tall, the mighty sambar deer is Singapore’s largest. Around 20 individuals remain on the main island. Its tiny cousin, the lesser mouse deer, is only around 30 centimetres tall, and equally reclusive. The greater mouse deer is only known from Pulau Ubin.
• Dugongs are marine mammals – sailors of old apparently mistook them for mermaids. They’re occasionally sited in the Johor Strait, grazing on seagrasses while moving to other feeding sites.
For more helpful tips, head to our Living in Singapore section: