By Ivan Kwan, Naked Hermit Crabs volunteer
The Naked Hermit Crabs have been leading guided walks at Chek Jawa and the Pasir Ris Mangroves for more than a decade. Through our walks, we want to show people the beauty and diversity of Singapore’s natural heritage, and highlight the importance of these green spaces. Another important aspect is teaching people to see our wildlife in a different light. It is easy to get people to care about birds, butterflies, and otters. But during our walks, we often encounter other animals like wild boar, long-tailed macaques, snakes, and monitor lizards. Many people are fearful, and think that these animals are dangerous. However, our guides are always eager to show that for the most part, as long as people give the animals the space they deserve, and don’t disturb or feed them, it’s perfectly possible to have safe encounters with such wildlife.
There has been a lot of public discussion about wild boar recently, thanks to two highly publicised incidents - in the first incident, a wild boar charged at a woman at Sungei Api Api Park in Pasir Ris on 17th November, injuring her. In the second incident, a video started making its rounds two weeks ago, showing a wild boar stealing a packet of curry puffs from a bicycle, while ignoring the woman who was trying to keep it from reaching the food. Although none of us are experts on wild boar, we have had many encounters with these large animals, and we would like to share our own experiences and observations about wild boar.
Many people have blamed instances of conflict between humans and wild boar on deforestation, that habitat loss has displaced these animals, and they are now coming into our urban areas because they have nowhere to go. This is definitely a contributing factor in some cases - for example, many of the highly publicised incidents in Punggol happened after large areas of woodland and forest were cleared for future developments.
Similarly, in Pasir Ris, many of the wooded areas outside of Pasir Ris Park have been lost in recent years.
But this is not the case for Chek Jawa. There’s no deforestation going on in Pulau Ubin, so why are the wild boar snatching food from visitors?
The main cause, not just in Chek Jawa, but also in Pasir Ris, has to do with feeding.
Wild boars at Chek Jawa
Many people get excited when they manage to spot the wild boar at Chek Jawa. These are usually shy, timid creatures, and in most other places in Singapore, wild boar tend to be nocturnal and avoid people. In the past, there were few locations where it was so easy to see one of Singapore’s largest native mammals out in the open. The adults are truly impressive animals, and the piglets, with their watermelon stripes, are adorable.
Unfortunately, over the years, we have seen several examples of negative interactions. Most of the time, it’s not because the animals have become more aggressive, but it’s because some people are behaving badly.
In essence, many visitors to Chek Jawa are unaware of the basic rules when it comes to interacting with wildlife. When faced with a wild animal, some people react with fear, yelling, shouting, stamping their feet, or even throwing stones. Others rush forward with their cameras and mobile phones while screaming excitedly, or hollering to their friends to come over. Some even reach out to touch the animals, or try to take a selfie.
Such actions may startle and frighten the wild boar, or make it feel cornered, and then it is provoked into defending itself. When running, a wild boar does not really care about obstacles (or people) in its path, it simply bolts. Even the simple act of running away can result in serious injuries to bystanders, especially if people are standing nearby when it panics, or when a running wild boar collides with someone.
We’ve also heard of incidents where people chased or crowded around the piglets in an attempt to take photos. This is a very bad idea, since it’s likely that the adult females will charge if they think the piglets are in danger.
Another issue we would like to draw attention to is feeding.
More than a decade ago, we already noticed that some wild boar would approach the van drivers who transported visitors to Chek Jawa. Because they were used to receiving food, these family groups of wild boar would often emerge from the forest, and stand near the vans, hoping to be fed.
We’ve seen how some of the van drivers are able to get close to the wild boar, even touching them, and encouraging other visitors to do the same.
Unfortunately, many people who witness such acts might have the impression that these wild boar are tame and friendly. Just because some wild boar have formed a bond with a particular person (who has fed them many times before) does not mean that they will readily tolerate similar acts from people they do not recognise. Even the same applies for pet dogs and cats, let alone wild animals.
At first, it seemed alright at first; the wild boar focused their attention on the van drivers, and appeared to ignore other people most of the time.
However, it was not long before we realised that the wild boar were starting to approach visitors as well.
It’s possible that in addition to the van drivers, more visitors have also been feeding the wild boar, making them even more used to getting handouts from humans. Some of the wild boar that we saw as piglets years ago have certainly grown up by now, and then had piglets of their own, passing this behaviour to the next generation.
These days, the wild boar will often hang around the entrance to Chek Jawa, as if waiting for someone to feed them.
The people who feed the wild boar might mean well, but how does this affect the wild boar? It’s very similar to what we’ve seen with the conflicts that arise when people feed long-tailed macaques.
Wild boar are omnivores, and can consume both plant and animal matter. However, just because they can eat something doesn’t necessarily mean that they can eat it too often. Just like how humans can technically live on a diet of potato chips and bubble tea, but it doesn’t mean that it’s good for us.
Compared to what they eat in the wild, the food they end up getting from humans is their equivalent of junk food - it’s full of calories, and high in sugar, salt, and fats. A meal like that can quickly satisfy their daily calorie requirements.
Regular feeding habituates the wild boar - not only have they developed a taste for our food, they quickly lose their fear of humans, and see us as a potential source of food.
Wild boar have poor eyesight, but have a very good sense of smell and hearing. They’ve quickly learnt that people often bring food in plastic bags, and so the rustling of plastic and food packaging will get their attention. If nobody offers food, they will satisfy their cravings through other means.
Some wild boar have learnt that people will park their bicycles and leave food, drinks, and sometimes entire bags in the baskets. If these items don’t get snatched by the resident long-tailed macaques, the wild boar will readily push the bicycles over, or stand up on their hind legs to steal whatever is inside.
And unlike monkeys, wild boar can smell food hidden in bags. On several occasions, we have seen wild boar approaching people from behind, sniffing their backpacks, then trying to steal their bags by biting and pulling hard.
No wonder the wild boar and long-tailed macaques spend so much time at the entrance to Chek Jawa. Why bother foraging in the forest for the entire day, when you can hang around by the roadside and wait for someone to offer them biscuits, or steal somebody’s currypuffs?
Many of the people who visit Chek Jawa might not know how to react if a large wild boar started approaching them; the wild boar is interested in food, but the people might see it as a sign of aggression, and respond in a way that frightens the wild boar, or causes it to become defensive.
The recent viral video taken at Chek Jawa is a clear example of how wildlife quickly adapts to take advantage of easy opportunities.
In this instance, nobody was hurt. But what if someone slipped and fell, or what if the wild boar was startled, or what if it had swung its head and happened to make contact with a person? Such interactions could always have a different outcome - no matter how habituated they may be, these are still wild animals that are unpredictable to some extent, and wild boar are large and powerful animals. When there is practically no safe distancing between humans and wild boar, somebody could get injured.
In 2012, an elderly woman was injured when a wild boar tugged at a bag containing food that she was carrying. She was part of a group of visitors to Chek Jawa who had been feeding the wild boar.
The incident was reported as an “attack”. But it was the visitors who had encouraged the wild boar to approach them by feeding it, and taught it to associate their bags with food.
The behaviour we are seeing here, where wild boar are approaching people for food, and trying to snatch bags from them, is clearly due to feeding, and not because they can’t find enough food in the forest. There’s no loss of habitat at Chek Jawa, and on days when there are not many visitors, the wild boar can still be seen foraging naturally.
And there are other impacts. After finishing the food, wild boar may continue to chew and even swallow pieces of plastic packaging, which could have serious effects on their health. If the food wrappers and plastic bags are not eaten, they are dropped onto the ground, adding to the problem of plastic litter in many of our green spaces.
This issue can be resolved in two ways. First of all, people at Chek Jawa, whether it is the van drivers or visitors, need to stop feeding the wild boar. And visitors need to develop the habit of keeping all food and drinks concealed, not leaving their belongings unattended, and to keep their distance from the wild boar. Once wild boar learn that they are not getting food from people, they will eventually stop approaching people, and revert to a more natural diet. The same goes for the macaques; the troops at Chek Jawa, as well as in many other locations across Singapore, have drastically changed their behaviour in a matter of years, thanks to clueless humans giving them abundant opportunities to steal food and drinks.
Ultimately, the issue of wild boar trying to snatch food from people at Chek Jawa is the result of years of feeding. Combined with the regular encounters with people who are not familiar with how to behave around wildlife, and it’s amazing that the wild boar have been so tolerant, and that there have not been more serious incidents.
Habitat loss at Pasir Ris
Unlike at Chek Jawa, where humans are merely visitors, the wild boar of Pasir Ris live in an area with nearby residential housing estates, and a public park that is used by many people. We don’t usually see wild boar during our guided walks at Pasir Ris Park. However, based on sightings and photos from other visitors, it seems that the wild boar have been appearing in the park more regularly.
In the past, wild boar were mostly seen in the more secluded fringes of the park, in areas with fewer people. Most encounters involved lone individuals foraging in the grass next to wooded areas, usually in the evening or at night. But now, it seems like they are now making more frequent forays into more crowded areas of the park, and often in broad daylight.
The wild boar here have faced habitat loss and fragmentation. With a smaller area of forest, it’s not surprising that some of them end up foraging in Pasir Ris Park.
While we understand the need to clear and develop some areas of land, we are also wondering whether those involved in developing these areas have fully considered the broader impacts of displacing the wildlife that resides in these patches of habitat. If an area of forest is cleared, and the wildlife are unable to flee to other nearby forests, they will inevitably spill over into neighbouring urban spaces.
But habitat loss is just one aspect of what’s going on at Pasir Ris. The other factor, and one that actually makes things worse, is once again, feeding.
For years, people have been feeding wild boar regularly in some areas outside of Pasir Ris Park.
At a corner close to Pasir Ris Drive 3, large herds of wild boar can be seen gathering next to the road in the evening. People have been seen stopping and throwing packets of food. This has been going on so often, and for so long, that this has been mentioned in the media repeatedly.
Somewhat further away, there is another site in Lorong Halus, where wild boars are fed regularly.
Because the feeders often offer food in plastic bags, styrofoam boxes, and other forms of packaging, the wild boar feeding sites are usually littered with trash, which is not only unsightly, but also contributes to plastic pollution. Uneaten food can attract rodents and insects, which pose other problems for people. As the sounders gather every evening, their trampling and rooting means that the ground at these spots is completely bare, and no plants can grow.
A lot of the issues we brought up with regard to feeding of wild boar at Chek Jawa applies to Pasir Ris, except that wild boar in Pasir Ris have not started tugging at bags or snatching food from parkgoers’ bicycles.
Instead of staying in the forest and avoiding people, habituated wildlife quickly figure out that areas with more humans potentially offer more feeding opportunities. Tempted by the prospect of rich pickings, wild boar that have been fed by people are even more motivated to enter nearby parks and residential areas.
While searching for food in urban areas, wild boar risk getting hit by vehicles as they cross roads. They may scavenge on trash and food waste, or in some cases, come across more food offered by people. As a result, these wild boar quickly learn to keep returning again and again, because the rewards outweigh the risks.
When a wild boar wanders into an area with more people, like a residential area or public park, it is more likely to encounter people who might not know how to behave around them. Some people might react out of fear, and try to chase the wild boar away, while other people, in their curiosity and excitement, might get too close while trying to take photos. Just because a wild boar has been habituated to humans doesn’t mean that it stops being a wild animal - it can still be frightened by the actions of people around it. In an unfamiliar environment, and faced with unfamiliar, potentially threatening humans, a wild boar may panic, and it will defend itself, either by running away, or charging. In such a situation, the risk of someone getting hurt is a lot higher.
All populations of wild animals are limited to some extent by the amount of food and other available resources in their habitats. In any given area of forest, there is supposed to be a maximum number of wild boar that the forest can support - this is known as the carrying capacity. If there are too many wild boar, eventually there will be a time when there is insufficient food to support all of them. Some wild boar are forced to leave in search of other areas with more food, while others might starve, and the population drops back below the carrying capacity. This is one key way in which populations of wild animals are regulated; other factors like predators, competition, and diseases also play a part.
In places where wild boar are fed regularly by humans, they can afford to spend less time foraging in the forest. Which results in more time and energy for other activities, like reproduction. Eventually, as the wild boar increase in numbers, this could affect other plants and animals that share these habitats.
When wild boar visit public parks and urban areas, they might be motivated by several factors - with an abundance of food provided by well-meaning but misguided people, the population may have grown beyond what the forest can naturally support, and some end up moving towards where they can find even more food. On top of that, these wild boar may have learnt to see people as a potential source of food, so instead of actively avoiding them, they might approach anyone they encounter, regardless of whether the humans react in a friendly manner or not. In these locations, with more people around, a wild boar that is spooked, even accidentally, has a higher chance of injuring someone.
Take a population of wild boar, feed them regularly so that their numbers increase and they see humans as a source of food, then combine this with ongoing habitat loss, and it’s obvious why wild boar are becoming a more frequent sight in Pasir Ris Park. With more reports of wild boar venturing out of the remaining patches of forest, incidents like the one at Sungei Api Api Park are bound to happen. The unfortunate woman herself might not have provoked the wild boar; it’s possible that the wild boar was simply startled and charged. But her injuries are arguably the direct consequence of a combination of human actions - if feeding had not made the wild boar of Pasir Ris more likely to wander out of the forest, this incident might not have happened.
After the 17th November incident, residents in Pasir Ris have been requested to share their views on the wildlife that live in their midst, and wild boar are included as one of the species of concern.
Most of us in the Naked Hermit Crabs do not live in Pasir Ris, and we understand if residents are not comfortable with having wild boar around - after all, they can pose a genuine safety hazard in certain situations. At the same time, we hope that we have highlighted some of the factors that have led to human-wild boar conflict in Chek Jawa and Pasir Ris. For both places, we strongly believe that the primary driver that we need to focus on is the feeding of wild boar.
We believe that the main course of action required is stronger enforcement action, especially regarding the persistent feeding of wild boar in Pasir Ris. As wild boar stop associating humans with food, they are much less likely to venture into the open, and will largely remain in the forest patches. At the same time, we also believe that more needs to be done to get people to take the necessary precautions when visiting Chek Jawa, so as to avoid having their food snatched by wild boar or macaques.
The National Parks Board has useful information on what to do should you encounter a wild boar.
If a plot of land that has been earmarked for urban development needs to be cleared, we believe that more work needs to be done to ensure that any wildlife that is displaced can easily move to adjacent areas of habitat, and should not be forced into nearby urban areas and even public parks, especially for species that are more likely to come into conflict with humans.
It’s true that in the 21st century, wild boar populations in Singapore do not face much predation pressure. Monitoring wild boar populations and determining the carrying capacity of a given area can be challenging, but we think that such work needs to be done if we are to be able to take a science-based approach to tackle the issue. Removal (in other words, culling) is an easy way to deal with human-wildlife conflict, but first, we need the baseline data, and we also need to explore alternative management options. As we have seen with other species, culling may work in the short term, but if the root causes are not tackled, especially feeding by humans, the conflict simply keeps recurring.
As Singapore strives to be a City in Nature, encounters and interactions with all sorts of wildlife are bound to occur. Ultimately, it all boils down to respect for the creatures that live among us. Despite their size, strength, and weaponry, wild boar are not terrifying, fearsome monsters, but at the same time, they should not be treated like pets, and definitely should not be getting handouts from people. If people are able to stop feeding the wild boar, keep a safe distance during encounters, and basically treat them with the respect they deserve, it is possible to reduce the likelihood of such incidents happening in the future.