Call of the wild

Chew Hui Min

SINGAPORE (CNA) – It was a quiet morning for a juvenile monitor lizard stretched out under a bush – until wildlife rescuers arrived.

The bush was in the garden of a private home, and the residents had called the National Parks Board (NParks) after spotting the reptile.

The lizard was startled out of its hiding place when two men from a rescue agency contracted by NParks got close. It darted away, and there was a short chase before it was caught and placed in a clear plastic container.

Later that afternoon, NParks officers released the monitor lizard, barely half a metre long, in a mangrove area. This was one of the rescues that CNA observed in an attachment with NParks’ Wildlife Management Division on April 29 and 30.

Such encounters between wildlife and humans in Singapore, where green spaces and urban development are ever more enmeshed, are not uncommon.

Otters frolicking in condominium fish ponds or swimming pools, macaques venturing into housing estates or wild boars hurting people have made the news.

That’s when NParks’ Wildlife Management Group gets busy – not just to rescue animals, but also to educate people about co-existing with animals, and conduct research to inform their wildlife management plans and operations.

A monitor lizard being rescued from a home
A National Parks Board officer and two NParks contractors releases a palm civet. PHOTOS: CNA

In the first four months of this year, the public contacted the wildlife management division nearly 10,000 times.

It had been contacted around 9,500 times via calls, e-mail or its online form by April 30. About 6,800 of the contacts were about birds, and 2,700 for other wild animals, such as monkeys, snakes and monitor lizards, NParks said.

The Wildlife Management Group’s operation arm deals with such feedback by going down to understand the situation and, when needed, to rescue and release the animal that has been spotted.

The group had a major role in capturing an aggressive wild boar in Punggol earlier this year. About 30 people were activated to patrol the area the boar was sighted in after it injured two people on February 20.

Six days later, the animal was caught and later euthanised, but not before hurting two more people, including an NParks employee. Residents in the area, particularly those with children, were anxious while the boar was on the loose.

While such incidents are uncommon, it was a dramatic example of the conflict that can be triggered when interactions between animals and humans go awry.

Sharing more details about the incident on February 26, Group Director of Wildlife Management in NParks Dr Adrian Loo said that officers were already on the ground when a member of the public spotted the wild boar.

“We had our eyes on the wild boar it was hiding in the bush somewhere along the river park, and suddenly it dashed out,” he said in an interview on the division’s work.

NParks officers chased the boar and two of them caught up with it while it was biting a woman. The officers then tried to pull the wild boar away, and managed to distract it from the woman.

The member of staff who darted the wild boar with a tranquiliser gun was bitten on the hand, said Dr Loo. Both he and the woman suffered minor cuts.

“We are very glad that we reached there in time, before further damage was done,” said Dr Loo. “I think that was very brave of them, because they knew that … engaging the wild boar meant that the wild boar would turn its attention on them and it is an aggressive wild boar, but (it was) instinctive, I’m really proud of those guys.”

That operation was just one aspect of what the division does, while other things the group do that contribute towards “ensuring that these incidents don’t happen”, according to Dr Loo.

In the evening on April 30, CNA followed NParks to Linden Drive to survey monkeys. NParks manager for wildlife management & outreach Tow Jia Hao does this by tracking them and counting them – multiple times.

“We follow the macaques for a long period of time so that we can confirm the count, make sure we don’t double count and make sure we can identify the sex and their age accurately,” he said.

That day, the monkeys hid away as the weather turned, but Tow and his team will return.

The division is currently surveying the population of macaques at about 30 sites on the edges of nature and urban areas. The study, which started in February, seeks to understand the size and structure of urban macaque troops, which will provide data to devise future management plans, said Tow.

Animal surveys help to establish the population of each species, where they move and how they behave. One definite link is between the animal’s food source and its population.

Studies have found that more wild boars are found at former oil palm plantations. These commercial crops, which are not native to Singapore, have seeds that are rich in calories and support a bigger wild boar population, said Dr Loo.

Clearing the oil palms and replacing them with native plants would therefore help to reduce the wild boar population in a “natural way”.

He drew a similar link between pigeon populations and food centres. During the “circuit breaker”, when all hawker centres and restaurants had to close except for take-outs, it was observed that pigeon populations shrank when they couldn’t feed on leftovers at food centres.

This is also why people should not feed the animals, said Dr Loo.

In the two days with NParks’ wildlife rescuers, CNA tagged along as they retrieved a bronzeback snake from a closet, released a palm civet and a python into the wild, and visited a hornbill recuperating after it was attacked by a cat in Sentosa.

While the monitor lizard and bronzeback were immediately released, some are kept for a short time and examined for their health. Some animals are also microchipped.

Species such as civets and pythons, otters and long-tailed macaques will have this done so that NParks can collect more information about them, such as when and where they have been caught before.

Dr Loo called the studies on native wildlife “putting ourselves in the animal shoes” to better understand their behaviour and ecology.

“The ecological research that we do in wildlife helps us to formulate our approach to managing wildlife.”

The other large part of the division’s work is about empathising with people, and educating them about co-existing with animals, he said.

“By understanding a person’s fear (of animals), we can try to alleviate that fear by education and outreach and also scientific knowledge,” he said.

Officers will head down to areas where macaques roam, for example, to teach residents “monkey guarding” methods, which help mitigate potential conflict.

“It’s actually conditioning the monkey not to come to that area … not really chasing the monkey away,” he said. “We use a long pole, and then we tap it on the ground (to tell the monkeys): ‘You’re not supposed to be here. Try not to cross that boundary.’”

For unwelcome otters, they will tell the condo management to try to close any gaps in their fences where the otters are entering.

But there are also times when conflict arises because people who find the otters cute get too close, and the otters can get defensive when they have pups, he said.

“By and large, people find them very adorable … and then, of course, there are times when (the otter) goes to the pool and or the pond and takes a lot of fish … it’s sometimes quite not an easy scene to stomach,” he said.

“The best way to observe any animal right is to observe from a distance, there has been our mantra.”

This applies to all wildlife species, including otters, wild boars, macaques and hornbills, said NParks.