By: Gregory McCann

Few people would look to Singapore, an almost entirely urban first-world island nation, for nature and wildlife in Southeast Asia. But in fact the island, just 50 km. from east to west and 27 km. north to south, boasts an astonishing array of fauna in addition to the skyscrapers, stock markets and Sentosa resort. One of the world’s most densely populated nations, it boasts more than 8,200 residents per square kilometer. 

The country’s unfailingly technocratic government and its world-leading Wildlife Reserves Singapore zoological institution deserve at least part of the credit for its establishment of captive breeding programs and the fostering of endangered wildlife colonies in its parks and nature reserves. The wildlife institution said it had husbanded at least 540 wild animal births and hatchlings in zoos, parks and reserves in 2017.

But beyond that there is wild wildlife that occasionally swims across the Strait from Malaysia, including wild tigers – not the ones in the Singapore Zoo, one of the premier such institutions in the world.

The legend is that the last wild tiger on the island was shot under the billiards room at the Raffles Hotel in 1902. (In fact the beast had escaped from a “native show” on Beach Road, which runs in front of the hotel).

But supposedly, on a balmy evening in April, 1997, another tiger, and not one from a “native show,” swam across the narrow strait that separates the Malaysian mainland from the Singaporean island of Palau Ubin, where it was said to have washed up on the island’s shore and was spotted by several groups of workers, who fled in terror and alerted authorities.

The tiger may have been hunting pigs or seeking a new territory to establish itself in, but whatever the case, it apparently strode around unmolested, sniffed the air a few times, and then vanished, most likely back across the Strait and into the forests along the Johor River in Malaysia, which connect up with Berlumut Mountain Recreational Forest, and beyond that, Endau Rompin National Park, one of the final holdouts of the Malayan tiger, and, some say, Malaysia’s very own “bigfoot.”

Men armed with rifles went out in search of the great cat, but found nothing. But if the idea of a tiger swimming to a Singaporean island sounds far-fetched, consider that a wild elephant actually did accomplish that very swimming feat from Malaysia to Pulau Ubin.

“There are a lot of wild boar on the island which swim over, and tigers are very good swimmers. If a boar could make it, a tiger certainly could,” KP Tan wrote at the time of the 2004 sighting.  And if the idea of a tiger swimming out to an island stirs skepticism, Lt. Col. A. Locke in his 1954 book The Tigers of Trengganu, wrote that a tiger “is reputed, before the war, to have been in the habit of swimming some four miles to an island of Malaya to hunt the pigs which existed in numbers there.” If a tiger could make it an island four miles out to sea, swimming from Malaysia to Pulau Ubin would be like a splash in a puddle.

Otters are clearly doing well, establishing colonies along the rivers and coastline and expanding in numbers, and sea turtles are being spotted on the shores of the country’s southern islands. A few years ago three Oriental Pied Hornbills were released into the jungle on Pulau Ubin where they joined existing wild populations of the species, part of a project sponsored by Singapore Avian Conservation Team, Wildlife Reserves Singapore and National Parks.

In traditional Singaporean biodiversity strongholds such as Bukit Timah Nature Reserve,  Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve, and the Kranji Marshes, naturalists regularly spot colugos, pangolins, Ruddy Kingfishers, Sunda Scops Owls, Buffy Fish Owls, Greater Racket-tailed Drongos, and an astonishing variety of flora. In fact, just .25 percent of the nation’s natural forest cover remains, and much of it can be found in Bukit Timah, which was established in 1883, over a half a century after Sir Thomas Raffles started carving up the island’s jungles to create what we know today as Singapore.  

Sungei Buloh, located on the eastern coast, contains wetlands and mangroves and is the host to migratory waterbirds, as well as mudskippers, otters, water snakes, long-tailed macaques, and even saltwater crocodiles. And in the Chinese Gardens, otters have been spotted jostling with monitor lizards over fish kills.

If all this seems surprising or improbable, before Raffles and the ensuing large-scale logging and forest conversion that kicked off in the early 19th Century, Singapore would have been as densely forested as Peninsular Malaysia was at that time, being part of the oldest rainforest in the world and sharing the same fauna and flora as the mainland. Bukit Timah Nature Reserve was mercifully spared wholesale logging and stands today as a reminder of the dripping tropical forest that once blanketed what is now a city-state and an economic powerhouse.

But almost exactly two centuries ago—a mere blip in geological time— most of the island nation was a riot of biodiversity second to none in the world.

Possibly the odd great cat is trying to reestablish itself on Pulau Ubin. In fact, an expat naturalist informed me that National Parks staff found a Malayan tapir swimming to the island from the mainland, and that mousedeer that swim over from Malaysia are now firmly established on Pulau Ubin. He remarked that there is absolutely no reason why a tiger wouldn’t make the swim.

Otters, colugos, pangolins, mousedeer, crocodiles, sea turtles, monitor lizards, macaques, hornbills, kingfishers and shorebirds for sure. That’s an impressive list of wildlife that a visitor to a national park in Malaysia or even Thailand would be hard-pressed to beat. And then there’s the very outside chance—or even just the idea—of a tiger, a tapir, or an elephant— washing up on the shore of tranquil Pulau Ubin. If you’re a naturalist who is not feeling up for a multi-day, leech-infested slog in the jungles of Malaysia, Sumatra, or Thailand, then Singapore is actually a fantastic place to actually catch a glimpse of what remains of Southeast Asia’s wildlife.

Gregory McCann is the Project Coordinator of Habitat ID and the author of the book Called Away by a Mountain Spirit: Journeys to the Green Corridor. You can support his conservation projects in Cambodia and Sumatra here