Article by Dr Adrian Loo, Botanist
From a young age, my interaction with wildlife has always been more or less positive. I used to keep swordfish in a large Chinese earthenware pot, wondered about them as they swam amongst the Hydrilla and fussed about them as they had their young. I had a cat when I was about 7 years old and she had 5 kittens. She used to carry them to my stomach for warmth in the wee hours of the morning and each day, I had to wake up carefully. I think I first learnt how to appreciate animal behaviour when I watched “All Creatures Great and Small” the BBC series written by James Herriot (a pen name). It was a story of a veterinarian who treated farm animals in Yorkshire. As a teenager, I read several books by Gerald Durrell and reread "My Family and Other Animals" a few times over and enjoyed imagining his idyllic adventures and observations of flora and fauna on the Greek Island of Corfu. Then of course every Christmas, “The Wind in the Willows” would be on the Saturday morning TV. Closer to home, in my time, we had stories of the "Sang Kancil outsmarting the Buaya".
(Above: Remake of The Wind in the Willows)
With this very anthropomorphic view of animals, I didn’t think it was hard for me to really appreciate animals and the idea of wildlife. In junior college and university, I was hugely inspired by David Attenborough and was moved by the portrayal of Dian Fossey’s life in “Gorillas in the Mist” and Jane Goodall’s “My life with the Chimpanzees”. The exposure to these gave me some insight into the lives, behaviour and drama of our close relatives and shaped my thinking about the social nature of animals. My good friend, Sivasothi aka “Otterman”, also introduced me to a show about Temple Grandin’s life and her approach to the treatment of farmed animals. It profoundly made me think how our relationships with animals and their treatment could always be improved through empathy and good science.
Until today, each time I encounter a squeaky blind shrew, I am brought back to a childhood experience where I caught hold of one that had wandered into the house and scurried under my parent’s rattan couch, thinking I could keep it as a pet. Needless to say, I received a painful bite on my hand. I won’t go into details about getting scratched by a monkey in Penang as a young boy, getting bitten very painfully by a spider on my finger and fed on by many leeches in the forests of Malaysia.
During Covid restrictions, while working the trails in the Central Catchment, I saw quite a few monkeys making a hurried escape carrying bubble tea drinks. I spoke to the victims of this encounter and they said they couldn’t stop themselves from sweet drinks in plastic packaging…. The other victims, as I listened with empathy on the loss of their $5 drink, said it was their first time visiting the tree-top walk and hence didn’t realise our native fauna had a taste for bubble tea like them.
(Above: Extract from "Our Better World: Learning to Coexist with Our Furry Macaque Neighbours". Watch the full video on Our Better World YouTube channel.)
Human-wildlife conflicts can range from such unpleasant encounter — from stolen drinks to nasty injuries to both wildlife and humans. As a community within Our Wild Neighbours, - an initiative spearheaded by local nature groups to promote coexistence - we are keenly aware of this and that biophobia is the flip side of the coin to biopilia. As someone who is quite comfortable with walking past a troop of macaques at a distance and with a stance that reduces any chance of encounters, I can imagine it may not be an easy thing for the uninitiated to do. There are some interesting “laws” at play here, for example, the cockroach always flies towards the person who starts to panic and run away from them. Staring at a macaque is often perceived as a threat by them, and when they yawn with eyes wide open, it is a 'stay away' signal in their world. So having lived through and studied in a school during an era where gang fights could be triggered by staring incidents, I am well-equipped to avoid a confrontation with macaques.
When I think of what would be a good textbook example of how we can work towards co-existence - I think the Otter Working Group is probably a prime example. It is a collaboration of home-makers, retirees, students, academics, nature enthusiasts, and veterinarians, as representatives from relevant public agencies (NParks, PUB), ACRES, Mandai Nature and Mandai Wildlife Group and other organisations in the nature community. This group has gone from celebrating the appearance of the otters in Singapore to mitigating human-wildlife conflicts with otters through outreach and education, community work and wildlife management ops, including rescues of injured otters. And still celebrating the presence of this charismatic creature.
An important starting point is probably educating the public on otter behaviour, social structure and ecology. It’s not only about tolerance from irate members of the public but extends into solutions that may exclude otters from entering condo or home gardens and accessing koi ponds. The on-the-ground outreach has been crucial in getting people to “observe from a distance” especially when the otters have pups, making the adults more protective in behaviour.
(Above video: The Otter Working Group rescue case to free Aquarius from a plastic O-ring.)
Together, a science-based and community approach becomes a holistic way of approaching co-existence. It’s an adaptive process but the working group is dynamic and responds in a concerted manner, and takes each media query as a chance to educate the public - keeping both humans and wildlife safe.
OWN would like to end off the article with a sweet moment shared between a mother and child macaque, filmed by Dr Adrian Loo: