Sunday, June 23, 2013

Flashback: wildlife news in 1960s Singapore

A 6 metre long whale shark (Rhincodon typus), shot by police after it was trapped at a kelong near Pulau Sebarok in 1964. This is the only record of this species in our waters;
The Straits Times, 7 June 1964

This year's theme for the Singapore Blog Awards is "60s Fever", and I thought it would be nice to take a look back at what it was like for Singapore's biodiversity in the 1960s.

Singapore's Master Plan from 1958. Some of the Southern Islands are not included in this map.

Singapore, according to the Urban Redevelopment Authority's (URA) Master Plan 2008. You can see how much our coastline has changed since 1958.

It's difficult to characterise the 1960s as being better or worse for our wildlife as a whole. On the upside, there was less urban development. Forest patches were still connected to one another in a mosaic of agricultural land, plantations, secondary scrub, and other rural landscapes. And this was a time before extensive land reclamation changed our coastline and affected the clarity of our waters. The seas were extremely rich in marine life, and numerous communities along our shores depended on such bounty for both livelihoods and recreation.

Species now very rare or even extinct in Singapore, like the cream-coloured giant squirrel (Ratufa affinis), were still found in many areas. This photo was taken in the Panti Forest in Johor;
(Photo by K S Kong)

On the flipside, protecting wildlife and habitat conservation were not high priorities among the people, both before and immediately after we became an independent nation. Many of the articles I've found are reports of wildlife being dealt with through lethal means, when today we place emphasis on live capture and relocation, and promote education and changing human attitudes as a better strategy to resolve human-wildlife conflict. And strange as it may seem, some species that we now find in Singapore today were absent during the 1960s, having first vanished during the initial wave of deforestation during the 19th century and early 20th century. It is only in recent years that some of these formerly extinct animals have been rediscovered or returned to their former haunts, possibly due to a combination of extensive planting of urban greenery and the creation of parks and other green spaces, as well as increased habitat loss in southern Johor.

Oriental Pied Hornbill, Anthracoceros albirostris
The Oriental pied hornbill (Anthracoceros albirostris) died out here in the 19th century, but made a comeback during the 1990s;
(Photo by kampang)

Here are ten articles that provide us with a glimpse of Singapore's wildlife during the 1960s...

Giant sawfish caught off Pasir Panjang

The Straits Times, 15th April 1965

The Straits Times 15 April 1965
The Straits Times 15 April 1965

I haven't heard of any recent records of sawfishes in Singapore waters, but as this article shows, they used to be found locally. In 1960, another massive sawfish was caught, and was described as a monster that had been "terrorising fishermen and picnickers."

Green Sawfish
Green sawfish (Pristis zjisron), Underwater Adventures Aquarium in Minnesota, United States of America;
(Photo by Zoodiver)

Today, all species of sawfish are listed as Critically Endangered, and all international trade has been banned since 2007. Live trade for public aquaria was still allowed for one species of sawfish, but that too came to an end this year, after it was agreed that the largetooth or freshwater sawfish (Pristis microdon) should receive the same amount of legal protection against trade as the rest of its relatives.

Sawfish caught off the West Coast, 1965;
(Photo from Singapore Waters - Unveiling Our Seas)

It's sobering to think about the marine giants that were once abundant here, but which have since vanished from the seas around Singapore. Uncontrolled fishing of species that are slow to mature and reproduce certainly played a role, but it's also likely that habitat destruction was an important factor behind the disappearance of sawfish and other species. Our coastal waters still support a diverse range of marine life, but for now, these large predators are still absent.

Human remains found in shark caught off Pasir Panjang

The Straits Times, 11th July 1967

The Straits Times 11 July 1967

It seems as if Pasir Panjang has plenty of literal big fish stories. Sharks were once very common in Singapore waters, and could be found patrolling coastal areas. In one incident, a large shark that was caught at Siglap was simply dumped at sea instead of sold in the market, due to its supposed worthlessness.

We do still have sharks on our reefs, but besides rare sightings, the large species seem to have all but disappeared.

The shark that had been found with human remains in its stomach was a tiger shark (Galeocerdo cuvier), and its jaws used to be on display in the Public Gallery of the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research (RMBR).


Tiger shark, Bahamas;
(Photo by echeng)

After Singapore became an independent state, there were concerns that coastal development and reclamation were destroying our reefs and other marine habitats.

Singapore Waters - Unveiling Our Seas, a book published in 2003 by the Marine Conservation Group of the Nature Society (Singapore), shares many more photos and accounts of life by the sea during the 1960s, and the marine life that was once commonly found in these waters.

Singapore Botanic Gardens has a problem with monkeys

The Singapore Free Press, 29th December 1961

The Singapore Free Press 29 December 1961

Long-tailed macaques (Macaca fascicularis) are no longer found in the Singapore Botanic Gardens, save for the occasional wandering loner, but in the 1960s, the resident troop was accused of wreaking havoc. I'm sure much of it was due to overpopulation as a result of feeding by people. This led to lots of conflict between humans and macaques, although ultimately, the monkeys lost.

Long-tailed macaques, Upper Peirce;
(Photo by NatureInYourBackyard)

There are also reports of monkeys causing trouble in places where they're no longer found today, such as in Fort Canning and Sembawang, although some of the culprits were actually pets that escaped from captivity.

Speaking of captive primates...

Woman boards bus with pet gibbon, refuses to alight

The Straits Times, 31 August 1962

The Straits Times 31 August 1962

Singapore was an important location for wildlife trade in the region, and many people had exotic pets. In 1963, a female proboscis monkey from Sabah escaped from captivity at Alexandra Barracks, although there is no news as to whether she was recaptured.

Leopard cubs for sale in Rochor Road pet shop

The Singapore Free Press, 4 July 1960

The Singapore Free Press 4 July 1960

The 1960s were a time when Singapore was beginning to expand into the ornamental fish industry, with the breeding of aquarium fish for export being seen as a profitable business. Then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew had an aquarium worth $560 outside his office, to "put guests in a nice frame of mind" before meeting him.

It was also a time when the Van Kleef Aquarium (opened in 1955) was an extremely popular and well-renowned attraction, and when plans were still being made for the Singapore Zoo and Jurong Bird Park.

Van Kleef Aquarium
Undated postcard featuring the Van Kleef Aquarium;
(Photo from ofey)

Hunters kill three large pythons in Mandai

The Straits Times, 13 May 1960

The Straits Times 13 May 1960 1
The Straits Times 13 May 1960 3
The Straits Times 13 May 1960 2

Even today, reticulated pythons (Broghammerus reticulatus) continue to thrive in Singapore, although it seems like the irrational fear that people often have of snakes also continues to exist. There are many articles from the 1960s of pythons being reported in all sorts of places, causing panic among residents. Most were killed, others sold, while a few were brought into captivity. An editorial from 1965 about local snakes even noted that the king cobra (Ophiophagus hannah) was "fairly common", when today, not many can claim to have seen this snake in the wild.

Reticulated python (Python reticulatus)
Juvenile reticulated python, Queenstown;
(Photo by Anne Devan-Song)

King Cobra
King cobra, Sungei Buloh;
(Photo by myrontay)

It's also worth noting that during the 1960s, hunting was still a popular hobby, and many people owned rifles and shotguns. Some travelled over to Johor in search of game, while others pursued flying foxes, civets, birds, crocodiles, and pythons locally.

One of the favourite targets of Singapore's hunters in the 1960s, the Malayan flying fox (Pteropus vampyrus) is one of the world's largest bats, and is sadly now no longer resident in Singapore. It's likely that hunting at roosting sites not only killed large numbers of flying foxes, but also drove the survivors to seek sanctuary elsewhere. Today, these large fruit-eating bats are only rare visitors to Singapore, flying over from Peninsular Malaysia (where they are still hunted) or Indonesia to look for fruiting trees.

flying fox and his spread
Malayan flying fox, Singapore Zoo;
(Photo by Will Symons)

Man swims with python in Singapore River

The Straits Times, 23 June 1968

The Straits Times 23 June 1968

I'm particularly amused by this person's luck in encountering pythons while swimming. But seriously, even though the Singapore River has been cleaned up (another way in which the environment is actually better now compared to the 1960s), I still wouldn't swim in there. I certainly don't think that the waters off Boat Quay in the 1960s were a very pleasant place for a dip.

Villagers call off hunt for giant python

The Straits Times, 24 March 1962

The Straits Times 24 March 1962

Another big snake story, and one that's far larger than any of the longest reticulated pythons ever measured! For what it's worth, giant pythons always shrink whenever a tape measure turns up.

Pulau Ayer Merlimau was eventually joined with other neighbouring islands to create Jurong Island.

(Map from

Large crocodile frightens people in Punggol

The Straits Times, 18 March 1960

The Straits Times 18 March 1960 2

Another large reptile that generated much fear in Singapore during the 1960s was the estuarine crocodile (Crocodylus porosus). Although considered rare, even locally critically endangered today, it appears that back then, crocodiles were quite widespread and seen quite often in coastal areas. Some of these may have escaped from crocodile farms; Singapore was a major importer and re-exporter of crocodile skins.

Estuarine crocodile (Crocodylus porosus)
Estuarine crocodile, Sungei Buloh;
(Photo by Mendis)

Civets kill more than 700 chickens over three months

The Singapore Free Press, 15 August 1960

The Singapore Free Press 15 August 1960

The common palm civet or musang (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus) is one of several native mammals that are relatively tolerant of human activity. It's not surprising that during the 1960s, civets were often found near villages, where they made a living by feeding on rats, and raiding fruit orchards and chicken coops, although 700 does seem like a lot of chickens. Is it possible that not all the chickens were taken by civets? And how did the people know that there were 30 civets? Maybe the especially industrious civet at Serangoon Gardens that was said to have snatched 300 fowl over two months that same year was also at work in Yio Chu Kang!

Common Palm Civets in Siglap Estate
Common palm civets, Siglap;
(Photo by kwokwai76)

Based on these news articles, and many more that I've looked up, the 1960s would have been a very interesting time for wildlife enthusiasts and naturalists in Singapore! Although it does seem that some accounts might be the result of exaggeration or hyperbole, and need to be taken with a lot of salt.

D.S. Johnson's An Introduction to the Natural History of Singapore was first published in 1964, and gives an excellent overview of Singapore's biodiversity, as known during the 1960s. A revised edition, published in 1992, may still be found in public libraries.

There are lots of other interesting articles about wildlife in and around Singapore that can be found in the online news archives, and I'll share more of them another time.

(Cross-posted to SBA Plus)


Yen Kheng said...

Thank you for a very interesting post! Ria's FB shows a photo of a few otters in front of a man with cast-net and that reminds me of a story - In the 60s, fishermen fishing from their boats at Sungei Serangoon had to be aware of otters stealing their fish. To scare them away, they would paint an overturned salted-vegetable urn, and place it at one end of their boats. So, coincidentally, today I was wondering if such wildlife interactions are recorded in our National Archive.

Ivan said...

Yen Kheng: Thanks, that's an interesting account! Unfortunately, I didn't manage to find any mention of otters in the local press, let alone their interactions with fishermen.

Pat said...

@ Yen Kheng: "In the 60s, fishermen fishing from their boats at Sungei Serangoon had to be aware of otters stealing their fish. To scare them away, they would paint an overturned salted-vegetable urn, and place it at one end of their boats."

Ah, simulated boat-croc “scare-otters” ? Incidentally, the below news article mentions the traditional "animal enemies of the fish tribe" throughout the Malay Peninsula. I suppose the writer subconsciously meant that otters et. al. were "destroying" fishes that would otherwise be caught by fishermen.

* The Fisheries of the Far East (ST - 18 Jan 1889)
N.B: "Frogs, crocodiles, otters, and birds, especially cormorants, destroy multitudes of fish."

@ Ivan: "Unfortunately, I didn't manage to find any mention of otters in the local press"

This 1961 article briefly mentions "a pair of otters" being kept at a local private zoo belonging to Mr & Mrs Robert Ng Khoon Khoon: Animal Lovers (ST - 17 Sep 1961)

Apparently, it was fashionable & acceptable to keep wild otters as pets at that time.

* Mongrel Sukie is suckling 2 Otters (ST - 05 Dec 1953)
* Dog Nurses Two Baby Otters (S'pore Free Press - 04 Dec 1953)

University of Malaya zoology lecturer adopted 2 baby otters caught off S'pore, thought they would "make fine pets".

* Actor Orson finds otter friend in Penang (ST - 12 Mar 1959)
Orson Welles wanted to buy a Penang otter called "Ah Hee" back to Italy, so as to satisfy his "life-long ambition to have an otter as a pet".

* Pet Otters: Female of species to keep the peace ... (ST - 11 Mar 1962)
Member of public at Bukit Mertajam (Penang) enquired about methods to prevent 2 pet male otters from fighting.

Pat said...

To add on, otters (of S'porean & Malaysian provenance) were also occasionally mentioned in the local press during the other decades. The below archived news articles might be of interest to those seeking accounts of interactions with & observations of otters.

* Last Stand by the Survivors (ST - 29 Oct 1978)
S'PORE – Sightings of Aonyx cinerea (Small-Clawed Otter) at reservoirs during early mornings & late evenings; photo of 3 "Asian Otters". “Otter” digress: article also mentions the now locally-extinct Cynogale bennettii (Otter Civet) leaving tracks in wet soil along reservoir edges.

* Otter Ambush Bid Fails: Many Hurt (ST - 10 Apr 1958)
KUALA LUMPUR – Runaway pet otter jaywalked on vehicular roads. Human pursuers fell into monsoon drain, otter escaped into culvert.

* I found ... an Otter (ST - 24 Jun 1952)
LOCATION NOT STATED (S'pore or Peninsular M'sia)– Account by "Planter's Wife" about otter spotted beside "pool" connecting 2 canals near estate bungalow.

* Close-ups of some Wildlife (ST - 06 Jul 1952)
S'PORE – 'The Otters' section mentions stream otters whose "cry is very much like that of small piglets".

* Plea to Spare Sea Otters (ST - 24 Mar 1947)
PENANG – Resident Commissioner appealed to public not to shoot "sea otters" on Penang beaches, while Director of Museums (Malayan Union) claimed that "the otter is not at all common in Malaya".

* Spare the Otter (ST - 03 Apr 1947)
PENANG – Report clarifies that there's no separate "sea otter" species, refers readers to photo & accompanying notes for Lutrogale perspicillata by Director of Raffles Museum – see below. Report also states that otters were spotted on beaches "much more frequently" since after WWII.

* Otters on Penang Beaches (ST - 03 Apr 1947)
PENANG – Article begins by differentiating between Lutrogale perspicillata (Smooth-coated Otter) & Aonyx cinerea (Small-clawed Otter). Insert photo shows Lutrogale perspicillata. Article ends with mention of Malay folktales about the numerous "wives" of otters.

* Otters in a Jungle Pool: A Malayan Countryman's Diary (ST - 11 Dec 1946)
KOTA TINGGI, JOHOR – ”[...] there are three otters found in the Peninsula: the Smooth, the Hairy-Nosed and the Small-clawed." Hairy-nosed Otter presumably refers to Lutra sumatrana.

* The Otters in the Stream: A Malayan Countryman's Diary (ST - 11 Dec 1946)
SUNGEI SIPUT, JOHOR – About a group of otters in Sg Siput (man-made canal) that flows into Sg Permandi & Sg Johor.

* Notes of the Day (ST - 21 Feb 1935)
'Otters "At Home"' section mentions 2 otters from Malaya "cheerfully" spending their 3rd winter at London Zoo.

* Notes of the Day (ST - 04 Apr 1929)
S'PORE – 'Swamp Dwellers' section mentions Orang Seletar "aboriginals", crocodiles, bakau snakes & ... "What ignoramuses we office-wallahs are ! How many of us knew that there was such a thing as a tropical otter ?"

* How Animals Swim: Styles used by Otters & Squirrels (ST - 12 Dec 1922)
"Although the otter is a good swimmer, its powers in this direction are much overrated by the writers of modern nature stories."

Ivan said...

Pat: Wow, thanks a lot for sharing these articles! I think I did come across the articles from 17 Sep 1961 and 11 Mar 1962, but didn't take further notice since I was looking for reports of wild otters at that time. It's really interesting to see such a wide range of interactions between humans and otters in the region, especially considering that there doesn't seem to have been any exploitation of otters for fur, unlike in temperate countries.

Pat said...

@ Ivan: "there doesn't seem to have been any exploitation of otters for fur"

Actually, it seems that by the early 20th century, tropical otters might’ve been one of the top sources for fur products. In the below news feature, “THE OTTER” is the 2nd-listed animal, "highly valued for their fur", & its habits described in detail.

* Scientific Souffle – Animal Coats to Adorn Woman: Where the Furs Come From (S'pore Free Press & Mercantile Advertiser - 14 May 1929)

The last paragraph in the above article also states: "according to recent advertisements, the playful innocent monkey is being slaughtered to provide fur for trimmings for coats". Might the said "monkey" be the Long-Tailed Macaques of S'pore & Malaya ? Incidentally, none of other animals highlighted by the article are tropical or native to SE Asia.

I suppose most of the tropical animal furs & skins were exported to temperate countries, rather than sold domestically/ regionally – one of the reasons being that animal furs & skins are relatively difficult to maintain in a hot & humid climate. Here's a more recent report about how furs are kept in 6.1°C cold rooms in S'pore: Singapore Furs which stay in the cold (ST - 11 Apr 1984)

In addition, were/are wild otters eaten in S'pore ? In my previous comment, one of the news articles ('Last Stand by the Survivors'- ST, 29 Oct 1978) mentioning otters also reveals that one of the threats faced by S'pore's wildlife was being "much sought after for the cooking pots".

Might eating wild otters be so routine that it mostly went unreported by the media ? Furthermore, during the colonial era, wildlife hunting was apparently legal throughout the year, except during "close seasons" – Close Seasons for Animals (ST - 31 Aug 1947).

My other impression is that Aonyx cinerea (Small-Clawed Otter) was more widespread in S'pore till the early/mid-1970s – the ‘Last Stand’ article mentions past sightings by reservoir joggers. Did otters perhaps used to frequent *inland* reservoirs at the Central Catchment ?

[Note: The estuarine Sungei Kranji & Pandan Mangrove Reserve were converted to reservoirs in 1975, while Lower Seletar Reservoir was completed only in 1986. And during the 1970s, both Kranji & Pandan Reservoirs were rather “far-flung from civilization” – the 1st block in the new housing estate beside Pandan Reservoir was only built in 1978 – so there probably weren't many/ any joggers at these 2 still-brackish reservoirs.]

Other signs of the comparatively higher abundance &/or proximity of native wildlife in the past:

* Dugong (Sea Cow) for Sale (S'pore Free Press & MA - 26 Oct 1895)
* Fish Talk (ST - 21 Apr 1963)
N.B: "A female dugong was brought up the Singapore River only a few days ago – dead, of course."

And you might’ve come across the below 1965 article with the tragic foreboding about the now locally critically-endangered Manis javanica:
* A Guide to Singapore's Wild Life (ST - 26 Jun 1965)
N.B: "The pangolin, sometimes likened to an animated pine cone, also scrapes along, but probably is losing the battle."

Incidentally, S'pore was blacklisted by the US in 1986 as being a hub for illegal wildlife trade, after there was "a big upsurge in exports of pangolin skins to the US, many coming from Singapore" a few years back – Why Americans are Concerned about Wildlife (ST - 29 Oct 1986).

Alethea said...

such an eye opener :) we had such diversity of wildlife during then! very amazed with the sawfish and oh the civets are so cute :) so is the giant squirrel :)))