Dawn was breaking along the Buloh Besar River.
It was the golden hour and fruit bats were returning after a night of hunting, replaced by colorful kingfishers who called out in song as they swooped down to fish in the water with pinpoint accuracy.
A painted stork flies into the Sungei Buloh nature reserve. Photo: Wallace Woon
Storks, slender white egrets and grey herons joined in, stalking the banks for breakfasts of frogs and fresh fish.
It was almost as if the forest was slowly waking up after a long night’s sleep.
A grey heron stalks the river for prey. Photo: Wallace Woon
And then I spotted it.
Nestled along the muddy banks of the mangrove and well-hidden among its roots was a young crocodile of the saltwater variety, the first I had ever seen in Singapore. It was brown and yellow, with distinctive leopard-like spots.
The young croc we spotted. Photo: Wallace Woon
My companion for the morning, Debby Ng, a wildlife ecologist and passionate environmental journalist and blogger, noted the croc’s relaxed stance.
“This croc is an early bird,” she laughed, adding that it was basking in the sun to conserve heat and energy for the day ahead. She often comes out to the marshes in the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve and Kranji and Mandai districts to birdwatch, and is no stranger to crocodiles in the area.
We spot a few more crocodiles in the area. Photo: Wallace Woon
That was when we heard soft splashes in the water and saw ripples forming on the surface.
Swimming against the tide was an even bigger crocodile, more than three times the size of the young one we saw chilling in the mud.
As it swam beneath us, its massive outline came into view. Even though its powerful jaws were submerged, there was no denying that there was a truly apex predator in our midst.
“This is Tailless,” Ng said, unfazed by the giant creature’s glaring abnormality. “She’s a local legend.” Ng suspects the reptile lost her tail in a fight with other crocs in the area.
Local legend “Tailless” makes her appearance. Photo: Wallace Woon
But there was also something gentle and calming about her presence.
“She’s truly a survivor. And we are lucky to have her and other crocodiles adding to the biodiversity in our wetlands and mangroves.”
Two crocs, one river. Photo: Wallace Woon
Saltwater crocodiles are the largest reptiles in the world, with wild adults being recorded at astounding lengths of more than 23 feet, some even weighing more than 2,000 pounds. They have the strongest bite of any animal, and as far as reptiles go, remain one of the closest living relatives of the dinosaurs, according to experts.
Due to the abundance of mangroves and swampy marshes up in Singapore’s north, and an increase in people exploring during their pandemic downtime, crocodile sightings in the area have been in the spotlight of late—spotted in waterways, beaches, storm drains and jetties.
On social media, groups of curious nature lovers around Sungei Buloh also document their experience of running into crocs lazing about on trails. Some speculate that the animals might have escaped from local farms that once served as a popular attraction during the mid-1980s or swam downstream from neighboring Malaysia.
Mangroves which line Singapore's coast. Photo: Wallace Woon
VICE contacted representatives from Singapore’s National Parks Board (NParks) to ask about the recent rise in wild crocodile sightings. NParks did not respond for comment but it issued a previous public advisory about wild crocodiles in Singapore.
“Warning signs and advisory notices have been posted at areas where these animals are most often seen [and] visitors should heed these signs, which advise the public to stay on the visitor routes and not venture off the designated paths,” it said.
A crocodile sign in the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve. Photo: Wallace Woon
Indeed, there are hundreds of clearly-marked signs in these locations that indicate the presence of the crocodiles and warn against approaching them. There has been some public fear of wild animal attacks—which wildlife experts and nature watchers said was only aggravated by sensational media reports—but no croc-related fatalities or accidents have been reported to date.
In fact, sightings of crocodiles like Tailless and another one affectionately nicknamed “Barney,” have captured public interest. One local angler and retiree known as uncle Richard, spends his evenings fishing and often sees crocodiles like Barney. He said they were a “familiar presence.”
“We’re very used to seeing them,” he told VICE. “They are very smart animals and don’t compete with us or disturb our catch. They only go after the fish that are old and dying to balance and regulate the food chain and ecosystem—fishermen and crocodiles have coexisted very peacefully for years.”
A water monitor stalks the wetlands during low tide. Photo: Wallace Woon
Across Southeast Asia, in countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia and the Philippines, the animal has long been a part of local folklore, sometimes seen as symbols of fertility and worshipped as gods and river guardians that safeguard fishermen and villagers from storms and floods. Many local fables also tell the stories of warriors being transformed into white crocodiles.
But it’s a different story for crocs in real life. For centuries, their numbers in the wild have been greatly decimated by habitat loss, poaching, and hunting for the skin trade.
A crocodile killed in Malaya back in 1946. Photo: Courtesy of Kate Pocklington
In 1996, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources classified crocodiles as “regionally extinct” in Singapore but British conservator Kate Pocklington highlighted the recent increase in croc sightings, especially at the height of the pandemic last year, that prove otherwise. Many seen and caught in recent years along rivers, reservoirs and coasts, are believed to have fled coastal destruction as a result of redevelopment works in neighboring Malaysia.
Sankar Ananthanarayanan, president of the Herpetological Society of Singapore, hosts guided nature walks around Sungei Buloh. Trails are clearly marked and there are plenty of signs in the vicinity that warn trekkers against wild crocodiles that might be lurking in the area.
Though not as beloved or cuddly as otters, which have quickly captured public attention in the island city-state, Sankar and others say that the presence of crocodiles in Singapore’s marshes and coastal mangroves is just as crucial because their presence signifies a stable and thriving ecosystems. “Nothing preys on a fully grown crocodile,” he told VICE.
“Nothing preys on a fully grown crocodile.”
“Crocodiles have actually been in Singapore for a very long time and are a mainstay of the green spaces in our northwest. The fact that our rivers are able to support large apex predators like them is only testament to the overall health of the food webs in this space.”
A dead stingray is found washed ashore. Photo: Wallace Woon
Muddy wetlands in Sungei Buloh. Photo: Wallace Woon
When Pocklington arrived in Singapore in 2013, to begin work on a crocodile exhibition at the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum, she was told that, like tigers, crocodiles had gone extinct in the country. But she wasn’t so sure.
“These are elusive, misunderstood animals that have been severely overlooked in the region for centuries but are actually a huge part of natural history in Singapore,” Pocklington told VICE, adding that crocodile records in Singapore dated back to its early days of colonial rule.
British conservator Kate Pocklington at work. Photo: Courtesy of Lee Kong Chian Museum of Natural History
Major general William Farquhar, who served British statesman Thomas Stamford Raffles on behalf of the East India Company, was living on the island and overseeing its development when he suffered a tragic mishap with a giant local croc.
According to the history books, his beloved pet dog waded playfully out into a nearby river and was seized and killed by the reptile. In anger, Farquhar ordered for the river to be barricaded and the crocodile speared to death.
A textbook illustration depicting the capture of a crocodile. Photo: Courtesy of Hornaday, Kate Pocklington
Pocklington’s latest book, Beast, Guardian, Island: The Saltwater Crocodile in Singapore, details the journey and evolution of crocodiles in Singapore for hundreds of years—dating back to its defining early days as a fishing village, up until their survival in colonial times, where they were hunted and caught in great numbers by the British who sought to clear the mangroves, their natural habitat.
“Even from the beginning, there was always a fear surrounding crocodiles and a sense to eradicate them in the name of urban redevelopment,” Pocklington said. “But they are resilient as they are ancient, and are reminiscent of a time thousands of years ago. History paints them as beasts, monsters and brutes and they were killed in great numbers by the colonialists who failed to see their role in the environment. We now know better and need to learn and understand their roles.”
“History paints them as beasts, monsters and brutes and they were killed in great numbers by the colonialists who failed to see their role in the environment. We now know better and need to learn and understand their roles.”
Singapore's mangroves, home to saltwater crocodiles. Photo: Wallace Woon
Experts like Ng and Pocklington stress the importance of Singapore’s crocodiles and maintain that they should be left alone.
“Singapore has come a long way, from destroying its mangroves to restoring them,” Ng said. “The return of wildlife, like crocodiles, to our country is a firm nod that our hard work has paid off.”
“When they are around, it means that the local ecology of a place is good and they’re there because it’s simply their territory,” Pocklington said.
“They’re really old animals and have managed to survive so many things so they deserve some justice after all these years.”
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