This city jungle is home to so much diverse and bizarre wildlife, if you know where to look.
Between all the skyscrapers and highways, small and big creatures are roaming around our forests, waters and skies. For example, did you know Singapore wildlife includes 390 species of wild birds? Yup, not just pesky pigeons. Amazing Singapore wildlife is all around us, you just have to look more closely.
Unfortunately, many Singapore wildlife species are close to critical endangerment. If you’d like to know exactly what’s under threat, you can read all about them in Singapore’s Red Data Book List, which categorises the endangered animals of Singapore.
One great way of raising awareness for yourself and others, is to keep an eye out for Singapore wildlife on your walks and bicycle rides. Here are just a few of the species living on this little island.
1. Smooth-Coated Otters
You might have seen families of Smooth-coated Otters roaming around the lakes and canals of Singapore on your social media feed. They’re an encouraging success story for fans of Singapore wildlife. Some 50 years ago, Singapore’s rivers were choked with garbage, and sewage and smooth-coated otters had disappeared. Although native to this area, they were in danger of being extinct. In 1977, the government launched the Clean River Campaign, and in 1998, otters began to return to Singapore. Now, there are over 90 otters from 10 different clans living in Singapore’s city jungle. With rich sources of food and quick adaptability to urban spaces, the otter families are happily growing.
Where to spot: Smooth-coated otters are territorial, with different clans occupying different areas around Singapore. The most famous clans are in Gardens By The Bay and Singapore Botanic Gardens, but you can also find them in Ang Mo Kio Park, Boat Quay and Kranji. Otters are most active in the early morning, a perfect sighting for a peaceful morning walk. Observe from a distance when you spot otters, and keep dogs on their leash.
Tip: If you’re mad for otters, you can join OtterWatch, a Facebook feed set up by fans of Singapore wildlife.
2. Long-tailed Macaque Monkey
If you’ve ever spotted a monkey in Singapore, chances are it’s a long-tailed Macaque. There are around 1,500 individuals roaming in and around the fringes of nature reserves. Interestingly, the Singaporean long-tailed macaque has a smaller body size, different facial features and larger tail-body ratio than its counterparts found in neighbouring countries, it’s a seperate little family of Singapore wildlife.
The long-tailed macaque is very smart. They’ve been spotted entering houses to forage for food in kitchen, and houses near nature reserves in Singapore sometimes have to lock their rubbish bins in large mesh cages, to keep out macaque. These monkeys have also been spotted using different stone tools for their foraging. Others have even been spotted using human hair as dental floss. Pretty impressive!
Where to spot: Macaque monkeys mostly reside on the outskirts of Bukit Timah Nature Reserve and the Central Catchment Nature Reserve. You’ll also find them in Bukit Timah Batok Nature Park, Yishun Park and Admiralty Park, as well as Sisters Islands and Pulau Ubin.
Tip: These Monkeys can get greedy if you have a snack in your hand, so watch out!
3. Raffles Banded Langur
The Raffles Banded Langur are a cute fruit-eating monkey native to Asia. There’s a fairly large population of different kinds of langur found in the state of Johore in Malaysia. Sometimes these langur even swim across the sea from Malysia to SIngapore, in search of ripe fruit. Naturalists have found a small population of langur in Singapore’s Central Catchment Nature Reserve.
Singapore wildlife experts think there are only about 40 to 60 individuals here. Although the population has grown since its near extinction in 1980s, the continued loss of habitat and food sources have dwindled this unique species. Organisations like the Wildlife Reserves are committed to protecting the Raffles Banded Langur. You can learn more here.
If you do come across a langur, you can easily spot them by their black fur, white eye rings and the characteristic white stripe down the length of the stomach. They were named after Sir Stamford Raffles, who enthusistically wrote about the species in 1822.
Where to spot: Head up to Old Upper Thomson Rd. and the Lower Peirce Reservoir Boardwalk in the early morning. Keep your voices down. Langur are much more shy than the big grey Macaque monkeys.
4. Wild Boars
These hefty pigs are native to Singapore and can weigh up to 100kg, and live more than 20 years. Although most reside in the outer islands, like Pulau Ubin, you can sometimes find wild boar on the mainland. They’re expert swimmers and can cover very long distances, swimming along in fresh or salt water.
Singapore wildlife experts think such boar may be travelling to find food. Because females can start reproducing at 18 months old and have four to six piglets every year, the wild boar population in Singapore is rising.
But more wild boars means more human contact in Singapore. Should you be surprised by a wild boar, stay calm and keep your distance – especially if you spot young piglets. Boar can run fast and the females are protective over their young.
Where to spot: You’ll find wild boar roaming on Pulau Ubin near Chek Jawa nature reserve. Pasir Ris Park can also be a hotspot.
5. Common Palm Civet
Although they are commonly known as civet cats, these are not cats. Instead they’re more closely related to mongoose, except they have a signature black band over their eyes. These nocurnal creatures like to stay up high, so you’ll find civets in forests, parks and mangroves. They enjoy eating fruits such as mangoes, bananas and chikus and will also eat small snakes, small birds, insects and rats. Sometimes you’ll even spot civets running along electricity lines in urban areas, or living in roof spaces, happily keeping the rat population under control.
Weirdly enough, coffee culture is threatening this species. Some people believe that coffee beans eaten by civets give a more fragrant coffee. These part-digested coffee beans are known as kopi luwak in Indonesia and kape alamid in the Philippines. The demand for these expensive coffee beans means some civets are poached and kept in inhumane conditions.
Luckily, there are still many civets roaming around Singapore. Often called by their Bahasa Malay name of “Musang“, they’re generally quite harmless. You may even encounter one digging around your trash. Don’t be alarmed.
Where to spot: In Singapore, palm civets like to eat the fruits of the Fishtail Palm and seed pods of the Rain Tree. So if you spot these trees in fruit, you may just see a civet. Funnily enough, your nose may help you spot a civet – they smell slightly like pandan leaves. You may find them around the Bukit Batok Nature Park, Siglap Estate, Bukit Timah, Portsdown and the Southern Ridges.
6. Sunda Flying Colugo
Commonly mistaken for flying lemurs or bat, these round-eyed creatures roam around the Singapore forests at night. They have a big membrane of skin that stretches down from their neck all the way to their hands and feet. The stretchy skin forms a sort of animal cape, allowing the colugo to glide from tree to tree. And it can glide a long way – one colugo in Malaysia was spotted gliding 100 metres.
The stretchy skin also has another clever use – it shelters baby colugo. Although colugo are mammals, they raise their young in a similar way to marsupials. Newborn colugo are born undeveloped and spend the first six months of life clinging to their mother’s belly. The mother colugo curls her tail and webbed wings into a warm, secure, quasipouch to protect and transport her young.
Even experts in Singapore wildlife admit there’s much to learn about the Sunda Flying Colugo. They’re distantly related to primates but they’re much more rare. In fact, there are just two living species of colugos, one lives in Singapore and Malaysia and the other species lives in the Philippines.
A few years ago two women naturalists in Penang discovered that colugo communicate with ultrasound, like dolphins and bats. But no one knows much about how they live, or breed, or establish territory.
Where to spot: Unless you’re willing to trek through forests in the dark, colugo can be hard to spot. But if you go at dawn or dusk to Lower Pierce Reservoir or Bukit Batok Nature Park, you may spot them clinging on a tree. We’ve seen them in the Botanic Gardens and in high trees by the Swiss Club.
Tip: Colugo like to be high up a tree before they launch themselves into a glide. So if you see something that looks like a big bat hugging a tree and climbing up in a series of lurching movements, it may be a colugo.
7. Leopard Cats
If you see one of Singapore’s last surviving wild cats, you are truly lucky. There are thought to be only about 20 remaining leopard cats on Singapore’s main island, and 20 or 21 more on Pulau Tekong. These cats grow up to 56cm long and weigh about 2kg. They look literally like a mini leopard, with reddish brown fur, a white belly and black spots all over.
You can watch a short YouTube documentary by the Singapore Wildcat Action Group on the elusive species here. With such rapid urbanisation, wild cats are often the victims of car accidents. For these reasons, it’s extremely difficult to actually go out and find a leopard wild cat.
8. Sunda Pangolin
Despite its scales, this is not a reptile. In fact, pangolins are distantly related to dogs! The scales of the Sunda Pangolin, otherwise known as the scaly anteater, are made of compressed hairs – they’re like a kind of fingernail. Pangolins can curl up in an armoured ball in the face of danger, much like the famed armadillo. Sometimes, a pangolin will also use its anal gland to produce a foul smell to keep predators away.
Like so much of Singapore’s wildlife, Pangolins face endangerment from habitat loss. They are also poached for their meat and scales, which were once used in traditional tonics. But thankfully, products that contain pangolin are now illegal in Singapore.
Pangolins have a low reproduction rate of only one or two offspring per year. All of this means the Sunda Pangolin population is critically endangered.
Where to spot: You may get lucky and encounter a pangolin in the Central Catchment Nature Reserve or Bukit Timah Nature Reserve. Other forested areas include Bukit Batok, the Western Catchment Area, and on the islands of Pulau Ubin and Pulau Tekong.
Fun fact: Pangolins eat insects. Just one pangolin can eat more than 70 million insects a year, including mosquitoes. So we really don’t want this species to go away.
9. Pied Oriental Hornbill
With a wingspan of 1 meter, the Pied Oriental Hornbills is a large bird. It’s dramatically marked, with black and white feathers and the characteristic “casque” on its beak. This is a kind of hollow tube which helps to amplify the bird’s loud and noisy call. The Pied Oriental Hornbill is native to Singapore, but after the 19th century, the species started to decline, due to loss of habit.
At one stage the Pied Oriental Hornbill was almost extinct here, but in 1990 fans of Singapore wildlife started a breeding programme. This included providing artificial nesting boxes. It’s been a huge success, and now there are 100 individuals flying around Singapore!
Fun fact: These birds are true romantics. Pied Oriental Hornbills pair for life. Once together, the couple builds a nest by enlarging a hole in a tree.
Where to spot: You’ll most likely find these grand birds on Pulau Ubin. But you might also spot them around Changi Village, near the food centre. They’re also been spotted at East Coast Park, the Botanic Gardens and around wooded parts of Bukit Timah, Balestier and Newtown.
10. Black-Naped Yellow Oriole
The Black-Naped Yellow Oriole has eye-catching black and yellow feathers and a loud and melodious call, something like “too-whee-you”. They can also make harsh rasping noises. The species first arrived in the 1920s, when birds flew over from Indonesia, and were joined by pet singing birds, which had escaped. Since then, numbers have increased and orioles are now one of the most common birds in Singapore.
Between 1976 and 1984, the black-naped yellow oriole featured on the $500 note of the “Bird Series” of currency released by the Monetary Authority of Singapore. However, these birds aren’t just pretty faces. The oriole can be quite the aggressive agitator to other birds. Sometimes even raiding nests and feeding off eggs and nestlings.
Where to spot: You can find this species pretty much in any garden and forest area, as well as mangroves and urban areas. If you have durian or mangosteen trees growing nearby, keep an eye out for orioles feeding on the fruit.
11. Pink-necked Green Pigeon
Aside from the regular grey pigeons you see everywhere, these pink-necked green pigeons are much nicer to look at. The males (left) have a gorgeous pink head, compared to the green females (right). Both males and females put in the joint effort to incubate the eggs. The males are the day carers, arriving around 8 a.m. and sittig on the nest all day. Whereas the females are on night watch, arriving around 5 p.m. and sitting on the nest all day.
Where to spot: Many pink-necked pigeons flock to Punggol Waterway Park, but you can find them pretty much anywhere. Sometimes a flock of twenty can gather on fruiting trees.
12. White-collared Kingfisher
There are eight documented Kingfisher species in Singapore, including the White-Collared Kingfisher. These birds have a stunning aquamarine blue body, black bill and feet and a white breast and belly. They are normally found perched on branches near bodies of water to catch their prey, which include insects and small fish. Or you may have heard their peculiar call, which sometimes sounds like laughter! It is most commonly described as a series of five to six harsh ‘kip’ notes.
Where to spot: Despite being a coastal bird, this kingfisher has adapted very well to urban life. You can find it fishing in canals in the heart of the CBD! Otherwise, look for flashes of blue around streams and mangrove inlets in parks like Ang Mo Kio Park, and on Pulau Ubin.
13. Straw-headed Bulbul
The Straw-headed Bulbul bird is disappearing all over Southeast Asia due to habitat loss and a growing trade in songbirds. Throughout Asia, their beautiful and melodious calls are sought-after in birdsong competitions. Yet Singapore remains a stronghold for this endangered species, with around 200 Straw-headed Bulbuls living on Pulau Ubin and the Singapore mainland. The population is not only stable, but increasing. With the help of the government, NGOs and universities.
Where to spot: You can catch a glimpse of these rare beauties in nature parks along Dairy Farm, Bukit Timah and Bukit Batok. Bulbuls like thickly forested areas. Keep your voices down and listen for their sing-song tunes.
Marine and aquatic wild animals
14. Hawksbill Sea Turtle
Over by the southern islands, off the coast of the main island of Singapore, the critically endangered hawksbill sea turtle and the green sea turtle are putting up a brave fight for survival. They swim through one of the busiest sea lanes in the world, to lay eggs on our seashore. However, the urbanisation of Singapore confuses the baby turtle hatchlings, making them follow the lights of the city rather than the light of the moon, or light sparkling off the sea.
Singapore wildlife experts have sometimes found confused groups of hatchling turtles congregating under a nearby lamp post. There’s a conservation programme which tries to relocate turtle nests to somewhere safer, in hopes that the majestic turtles continue to lay eggs on Singapore shores.
Where to spot: If you’re lucky, you can find these sea turtles along the coastal shores of East Coast Park and swimming over coral reefs around Singapore’s offshore islands.
The dugong is an iconic Singapore wildlife symbol. Yet these gentle marina mammals are hard to spot, since they’re underwater! Dugongs, also known as sea cows, are found throughout the Indo-West Pacific region. Like land cows, they graze in fields of sea grasses that grow in sunny water.
Dugongs have a rounded head and streamlined bodies, kind of like the manatees that live in the shallow areas of the Caribbean Sea, the Gulf of Mexico, the Amazon basin, and West Africa. Male dugongs have a pair of tust-like incisor teeth that they use to fight with, during mating seasons. Fun fact: Some people believe sailors invented the legends of mermaids, after glimpsing dugong, which can look like half-human/half-fish.
Unfortunately, The Singapore Red Data List identifies dugongs as critically endangered. There’s less sea grass due to urbanisation and land reclamation, plus they are still hunted in some areas of Southeast Asia.
Where to spot: You may spot some Dugongs off Chek Jawa nature reserve, on Pulau Ubin, where there are still large fields of sea grass.
The most common species of dolphin found swimming around Singapore is the Indo-Pacific Humpback Dolphin. It can grow up to 2.8 meters long and varies in colour from grey or white to pink-ish. The back fin is a signature triangle shape. The humpback’s relative, the Indo-pacific Bottlenose Dolphin, is smaller, a grey colour, and the back fin has a more hooked shape.
Although Singapore is highly industrialised, the southern waters around the island are relatively clean of bacteria and chemicals. Which explains why you can find dolphins around the island’s shores. Even still, Singapore’s Red List categorises dolphins as endangered, because they do get tangled in fishing lines and nets.
If you’re ever on a boat around popular Lazarus island and see a dolphin, call yourself the lucky one – you’ve seen one of the stars of Singapore wildlife.
Where to spot: Take a boat trip to the southern islands like St. John’s Island and Lazarus Island. If you’re on Sentosa or Pulau Ubin, you can sometimes see dolphine swimming past the islands.
17. The Singapore Crab
Forget about Chilli Crab dinners for a second. This mini freshwater crab, formally known as Johoro singaporensis, can only be found in Singapore! It’s still found all around the island, but numbers are falling, due to habitat loss, urbanisation and water acidification. For this reason, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has listed the Singapore Crab as tone of the top 100 most threatened species in the world.
The need to conserve Johoro singaporensis is real. About 99% of crabs living in Singapore also live in other parts of the world. But for some reason, this little crab has evolved only in Singapore’s streams.
Where to spot: You may find it hard to actually see the Johoro singaporeansis, because this tiny little crab only grows to about 30 millimetres in size. This itty bitty member of Singapore wildlife can be found sitting on rocks in hilly streams in the Bukit Timah, Bukit Batok and Bukit Gombak nature reserves.
Originally by Isabel Wibowo, August 2021