Hornbills, otters and even tapirs: Singapore is rewilding

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TSingaporean happiness The big one is angry. The otters have got their hands on the prized koi carp once again. They swim over the canal, slide over his fence and dive into his pool. Once you take one bite of each fish, it leaves a trail of destruction. The loss of this nobleman represents a notable gain for the second most populous country in the world (after Monaco). The soft-furred otters that live in South and Southeast Asia are an endangered species that disappeared from Singapore by the 1970s, when rapid economic growth was prioritized over everything else and Singapore’s waterways were clogged with waste.

But efforts to clean the water canals have paid off. The fish returned, and in 1998, the otters returned as well. At first, they stuck to the beaches of the relatively undeveloped northern side of Singapore. Then they spread. In 2016, Singaporeans voted a family of otters appearing in the heart of the downtown tourist district as that year’s national emblem. Today you can meet otters in the state’s famous botanic gardens, next to the bars of Clarke Quay and along the east coast.

Other successes are truly a source of pride, especially two stunning birds. The blue-crowned hanging parakeet was once threatened with extinction, but has now returned in large numbers. The eastern hornbill (pictured), with its exceptional ivory cap, has been locally extinct for a century. Now pairs of hornbills are feeding outside this reporter’s window.

In a city of 5.6 million people, says Lim Liang Jim, head of the National Parks Board’s conservation department, the priority has been to preserve or recreate natural habitats, as well as to connect natural spaces with corridors to allow species to move and spread. Renaturalizing river banks that were previously covered in concrete has helped the otters. The former railway line to Malaysia is now a “green corridor” whose damp edges are filled with insects, frogs and waterfowl. The planted sides and center edges of highways allow small animals to move more safely.

However, the recent successes come against the backdrop of more than a century of severe species declines and habitat loss. Headaches arise when wild species collide with humans. On September 10, the Malaysian tapir – an endangered herbivore that can weigh up to 560 kilograms – swam into Singapore and roared at terrified cyclists and pedestrians early in the morning. Singapore wants wildlife, but not always on the animals’ terms.

Correction (September 15, 2023): This story previously reported that Lim Liang Jim was head of the National Parks Board’s biodiversity department. He is actually the head of conservation. This has been changed.

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