SINGAPORE — The putting down of a 3m-long saltwater crocodile spotted at Marina East has drawn strong reactions from animal conservation and welfare groups.
A few were vehemently against the decision, while one understood the reason behind the move.
Mr Kalai Vanan Balakrishnan, co-chief executive officer of the Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (Acres), said that the news of the culling was “saddening” and alternative solutions should have been considered.
Sharing his sentiments, Ms Aarthi Sankar, executive director of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), said: “Culling wildlife is not only cruel but may also be a short-sighted solution.”
Offering a different view, Mr Kannan Raja, president of the Herpetological Society of Singapore, said: “While the euthanisation of this critically endangered animal (in Singapore) is sad, we do recognise that the authorities are doing their job and trying to balance nature and human safety.
“However, we hope that this incident helps to initiate a helpful conversation about how these situations can be managed in the future.”
The Herpetological Society of Singapore is an organisation focused on the study and conservation of reptiles and amphibians.
In a statement by the National Parks Board (NParks), Mr How Choon Beng, director of its wildlife management and outreach unit, said that the captured crocodile was sedated and humanely put down in the interest of public safety on Thursday (Oct 12).
The crocodile was first spotted Tuesday on a beach at Marina East Drive, near where the coastline meets the Singapore Straits. It was captured in East Coast Park two days later before it was put down.
Since then, there has been a debate on what could have been the best way to handle the crocodile.
TODAY spoke to animal welfare groups to determine whether relocation may have been a more viable option and what this incident says about wildlife-human conflict on this island.
SHOULD THE CROCODILE HAVE BEEN RELOCATED?
In 2021, a 1.53m-long saltwater crocodile was captured and relocated to Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve in the northwestern part of the island.
NParks said that it was because the crocodile in 2021 was a “smaller specimen” and would have posed “a lesser risk to public safety”.
This latest crocodile was “relatively larger”, measuring almost 3m, and the option for relocation to Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve was no longer feasible.
NParks explained that the wetland reserve today has a large population of crocodiles and is no longer a suitable release site.
“There is also a risk of the crocodile returning to the location where it was captured,” it added.
Mr Kalai of Acres said that one of the alternative solutions should have been to relocate the crocodile in the latest case.
Addressing the concern that NParks had about the crocodile returning to the same spot, he said that it was just a possibility and not a guarantee.
“Considering that this was not a certainty, there was also a good chance that the crocodile might not have returned. This was a good enough reason to give the animal a chance at relocation in our ‘City in Nature’,” Mr Kalai added.
City in Nature is one of the initiatives of the Singapore Green Plan 2030 to conserve and extend the country’s natural capital island-wide and raise animal health and welfare standards here.
Mr Kalai also said that one cannot be entirely sure that the crocodile would have returned to the same location since many studies on crocodile behaviour were done overseas.
“It may not be the same (in Singapore). The animal could just be resting there before moving off to another place.”
On the other hand, Mr Kannan said that although relocation would have been a preferred option, the carrying capacity of the environment such as that in Sungei Buloh has to be considered.
Carrying capacity refers to the maximum number of animals the environment can support.
“If the carrying capacity has been reached, the crocodiles’ territoriality could pose a problem, with them engaging in more territorial standoffs, fights and displacements.”
Regarding this point, Mr Kalai said: “It is also possible that the animal may find a way to adapt and survive.
“This can’t be a reason to euthanise the animal.”
WHAT SHOULD HAVE BEEN DONE IF NOT RELOCATION?
Mr Kalai said that NParks could have considered putting measures in place to monitor the crocodile where it can be tracked, such as by telemetry (wireless transmission) to monitor the creature’s movements.
Another would have been deploying manpower to ensure public safety in the event that the animal was seen near more populated areas such as East Coast Park, he added.
For Mr Kannan, the best solution would have been to “leave it alone” and have members of the public take safety precautions and not disturb the crocodile when sighted.
However, he did say that if the crocodile had turned up in an area frequently used by people and the place was far from Sungei Buloh or Kranji, it would be best to inform NParks.
Mr Kalai said: “I have seen vast resources spent on certain species, so I am not sure why this was not looked into for the crocodile.
“It could be due to the perception that reptiles are dangerous.”
WHAT IS KNOWN ABOUT SALTWATER CROCODILES
Better known as estuarine crocodiles, saltwater crocodiles feed and rest in brackish (slightly salty) and freshwater areas.
They are usually found in the waters or on mudflats away from routes used by humans and are considered to be critically endangered here.
Mr Kannan said: “Crocodiles are solitary animals and are very territorial.
“Despite their size and power, they are usually wary of humans and will go out of their way to submerge and swim away from them.
“Unless there is a clutch of babies and a mother, or a male and a female, there may not be more than one or two crocodiles in an immediate area.”
He added that saltwater crocodiles mostly keep to themselves, and they are the largest reptiles on the planet.
Some males can grow to more than 2m long and they have one of the strongest bite forces of any animal on the planet.
“Even though crocodiles here predominantly eat fish and the occasional bird or monitor lizard, a stressed-out or intimidated crocodile acting defensively could cause serious harm to humans,” Mr Kannan cautioned.
Therefore, if anyone encounters any kind of crocodile in the wild, the best thing to do is to move away slowly and keep a safe distance.
And if the crocodile has been seen in the waters, people should stay away from the waters’ edge. Do not try to approach or intimidate the crocodile or engage with it.
As with many advisories from other crocodile-inhabited countries, avoidance is the best policy, Mr Kannan advised.
With all this in mind, he said that the Herpetological Society of Singapore does not want people to be “needlessly afraid” or develop strong “adverse reactions” towards crocodiles.
“Instead, they should be wary and practise caution when in an area where a crocodile has been spotted.”
As powerful as saltwater crocodiles are, an e-book by a senior conservator here notes that from 1997 to 2017, there has only been one recorded case of a crocodile attacking a human and no recorded instances of a crocodile killing a human.
In her e-book titled Beast, Guardian, Island: The Saltwater Crocodile in Singapore, Ms Kate Pocklington mentions that in 198 years (from 1819 to 2017), there were a total of 14 recorded instances of crocodiles killing humans.
She is with the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum at the National University of Singapore.
HOW CROCODILES ARE PERCEIVED BY THE PUBLIC
One of the possible reasons for such swift and exacting action on the saltwater crocodile in the latest case could be how the reptile is perceived as compared to, say, the otters that are commonly spotted around the island.
Ms Aarthi of SPCA attributes this to a lack of exposure to wildlife beyond what is popularised by the media.
She pointed out that otters are pictured in adorable poses, such as holding hands to stay together while floating on their backs, and are frequently “anthropomorphised”, especially when people interpret the upward curve of their mouths as a smile.
To anthropomorphise an animal or object is to show or treat it as if it is human in appearance, character or behaviour.
“These perceived human-like behaviours of affection could lead people to feel a psychological closeness to otters,” Ms Aarthi added.
Otters have been used in animation for the national TraceTogether contact-tracing tool during the Covid-19 pandemic, and plush toys have been made in their likeness by a political party here that used the animal as a party mascot.
Two months ago, a few days before Singapore’s National Day on Aug 9, a family of otters were featured on Google’s search homepage as part of its Google Doodle feature.
Ms Aarthi continued: “Conversely, crocodiles and pythons are portrayed as predators.
“The result is a learned fear that may be misguided but nonetheless manifests as a knee-jerk aversion to many wildlife species.”
Furthermore, most children are taught from a young age to fear these animals without reason, apart from the mistaken notion that they are extremely dangerous.
Mr Kannan said: “This could skew their perception of reptiles, which sets up an unwarranted negative reaction to them.”
Mr Kalai echoed his points as he said: “Historically, reptiles have always been portrayed as evil animals, going back as far as Greek mythology. They are also often mistaken as animals without emotions.
“Putting aside the conservation status of the animal, I hope Singapore can move in a direction where we can treat animals fairly, without labels, and look into alternative solutions rather than jump to euthanasia.”