Ask Singaporeans about otters, and chances are some can tell you which family they belong to, and how many babies the family has. With their sweet appearance and playful nature, it’s no surprise that otters we’ve all unofficially adopted them as Singapore’s mascot. Since they look so adorable, it may seem impossible that otters are dangerous.
However, when provoked, they’ll give brief chase – reaching up to 28kph on land at a full run, webbed toes an all – and they’ll snap. They have a sharp set of canines and crushing molars with a formidable bite, roughly comparable in force to a German shepherd’s (otters are carnivores, after all).
In essence, they can break hand bones and puncture skin – and have been known to bite humans who’ve come too close.
Painful encounters of the otter kind
It’s inevitable: rise of the urban otter has caused some conflicts with humans, which has been on the rise recently.
The latest incident happened at the Botanic Gardens on Nov 30 this year. A British man was bitten 26 times in just 10 seconds by a group of about 20 otters – some bit his ankles, causing him to fall face down. The otters then zoomed in on his legs and buttocks, with one biting his finger. He received tetanus shots and oral antibiotics after running away.
On May 13, a man was bitten by an otter during his morning exercise along the Kallang River – he was riveted by the sight of 20 otters when one of them soon scurried towards him and bit his left calf. Last December at Gardens by the Bay, a woman required stitches after a family of 4 otters “charged towards” her while she tried to take a video of them. Back in 2017, it was the same location where a 5-year old girl was bitten by an otter on her leg when it jumped at her from out of the water. She also required surgery.
The otters have also been known to cause havoc without being near humans. They gorged on expensive ornamental fish: in 2015, koi ponds in Sentosa were emptied by otters and one hotel lost $85,000 worth of fish! In 2020, an otter family intruded a condo pool in Newton to snack on koi fish, and the same family was publicly condemned for devouring the koi fish at a spa in Bishan.
In 2016, an otter family even ran across a Singapore Marathon route. Due to these public incidents, attitudes to the otters vary – while most find these otters cute mascots, some prefer to have them culled.
The Marina, Bishan, and Zouk families
Seeing an otter family today isn’t rare – it’s a far cry from 50 years ago, when Singapore’s native smooth-coated otters were in danger of being locally extinct. The Singaporean government launched the Clean River Campaign in 1977, and by 1998, otters began to return.
Most recent estimates peg the local otter population at around 150 (it’s a sharp increase since 4 years ago), with at least 10 thriving families. They now thrive all over the island – from Kranji in the north to the Botanic Gardens in the centre to the Marina Bay district in the south – and their population is growing, thanks to rich food sources (in the rivers and koi ponds) and the lack of predators. They’ve also adapted very well to urban spaces (one video showed otters climbing up a ladder).
The Bishan and Marina families are currently famous rivals. The Bishan otter family – known as Bishan 10 – has a pack size of 15, while the Marina family has an estimated strength of 11.
A confrontation between the Bishan and Marina otter families in 2015 sparked a fierce, ongoing rivalry between two of the most well-documented otter families in Singapore. These “otter wars” continue to be extensively covered by otter enthusiasts, with a local interest group sharing post-battle strategy analyses. Even humans got involved in the war in 2017 – members of the public banded together to block the Bishan otter family from coming onto contact the Marina otter family to prevent a possible bloodbath.
The Marina family have since been pushed out of their original territory, and have moved to the Singapore River.
The other famous group is the Zouk family (with at least 14 members), headed by a male from the Marina family and a female from the Bishan family, named after where it was spotted. Unlike the other two, the Zouk family is nomadic, and can be found roaming almost everywhere on the island – and were the ones responsible for devouring all the koi.
A smooth-coated otter family comprises monogamous parents, sub-adults, and 4-6 pups. While they’re thriving, their main cause of death is vehicle strikes (5-6 are killed a year), and their pups are vulnerable to another local apex predator: the water monitor lizard.
These otters have not only adapted to urban life well, they also seem to have picked up some Singaporean habits. Most wild otters would leave their family at around 2 years old, but Singapore’s otters will stay until they’re 3 or even 4. It’s just like a 35-year-old adult Singaporean living with their parents.
Another thing these otters share with Singaporeans: they have Facebook fan pages, including Ottercity where you can catch up to their antics online.
If you’re out and about and encounter an otter family, just remember to to stand at least 10m away from the critters, especially when babies are present. This is because an otter is not above biting someone, whether it’s to warn them to back off from their babies, to get out of their territory, or simply because they don’t like you staring at them.
Remember: they may be cute, but they’re still wild animals (with sharp teeth).