Singapore and its otters feature in new BBC Earth documentary series Mammals


British producer Lydia Baines and her team followed a group of otters called the Zouk family. - BBC STUDIOS

SINGAPORE: For around three weeks, British producer Lydia Baines trailed a family of smooth-coated otters in Singapore. Or, more accurately, she and her team raced after them.

“Otters are not slow animals. They are absolutely crazy fast once they start going. So we were running around Singapore in trainers with our gear in a trolley and listening down drain covers trying to find them again after we lost them,” Baines tells The Straits Times in a Zoom interview.

She is the episodic producer behind The New Wild, one of six parts in the new BBC Earth documentary series Mammals, which shines a spotlight on Singapore and its beloved furry denizens.

Premiering on April 7 at 8pm on BBC Earth (StarHub Channel 407 and Singtel Channel 203) and BBC Player, the series aims to show the intelligence that enables mammals to learn, remember, problem-solve, parent and cooperate.

It is narrated by Sir David Attenborough and comes more than two decades after a similarly themed series, The Life Of Mammals (2002), also presented by the respected 97-year-old British broadcaster, naturalist and author.

The New Wild, which airs on April 14, explores the way mammals live inside or on the fringes of man-made spaces, such as cities, agricultural plantations and former battlefields.

The animals and their niches explored in this second episode include sea lions that throng a fish market in Chile, Indian wolves in the minefields of Golan Heights in the Middle East, bison on the North American prairie, hippos in Tanzania, and pig-tailed macaques in Malaysia’s oil palm plantations.

Baines’ team followed a group of otters called the Zouk family, first spotted in 2018, close to the former site of the Zouk nightclub in Jiak Kim Street.

She credits local otter experts, otter-watching groups and enthusiasts for showing her team the patrol routes favoured by the family.

Her team caught the clan in a crisis – one member failed to cross a busy road and became separated from the rest.

“The one which was on his own was running around the city trying to find his family. It was one of those fortuitous events that we were there, and we were able to film that story,” she says.

The solo otter roamed Singapore, visiting places known to the family.

One camera team followed the family, and one followed the single otter. With the help of otter watchers and enthusiasts, both teams stayed on track.

“We had to check that the single otter we were following was our otter,” she says.

“He was trying to find his family. We wanted to say to the otter, ‘We know where your family are, they’re over there’. Obviously, we couldn’t, because we don’t speak otter,” she jokes.

The segment, however, ends on a happy note.

“When we saw them reunite, it was just one of those beautiful moments where we went, ‘Oh, this is a really strongly bonded family’. They were genuinely all worried to be apart from their loved ones and seeing them come back together made you remember that these are mammals – they have families, they are like us,” she says.

Baines calls the local population of 17 otter families an “inspirational testament” showing that the cleaning of waterways and other activities aimed at reducing the impact of humans on natural habitats have produced positive results.

“Most people in Singapore cherish and look after the otters. You have people dedicated to making sure they cross the roads safely. That is one of the most beautiful wildlife interactions I have come across,” she says.

Elsewhere in the episode, elephants are shown entering a town in Zimbabwe to feed on garden plants, destroying them in the process.

Living with otters is easier than living with elephants, says Baines. However, having otters in the city still calls for humans to make accommodations and compromises, which Singaporeans seem willing to do, she adds.

“One of the greatest things about these otters being able to live in Singapore is the fact that so many passionate people are willing to show others how to look after the otters, and how to stay safe around them, as these animals can be a bit disruptive. It’s important to get everyone on board, to appreciate the otters as an absolute wonder on your doorstep,” she says.

Mammals producer Scott Alexander adds that The New Wild episode illustrates ideas such as the fact that humans owe a responsibility to other animals.

“We are the most successful mammal on the planet, and as such we hold the future of our fellow mammals in our hands,” he says.

* Mammals premieres on April 7 at 8pm on BBC Earth (StarHub Channel 407 and Singtel Channel 203) and BBC Player.

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