Updated: Dec 17, 2019
"I didn't see any wild animals on Bukit Timah Hill".
It is a comment that was frequently heard from visitors to Bukit Timah Nature Reserve. But, the nature reserve is home to many wildlife in the central part of Singapore, so the animals are really roaming around in the forests. It is not that there are no animals, it's just that most visitors are not paying attention in seeking them.
For travellers to Singapore and planning to visit Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, which encompasses Bukit Timah Hill, Hindhede Nature Park and Diary Farm Nature Park, you will probably have at most one day to hike and explore the forests. So, it is important to have some basic knowledge about nature in order to have a fruitful trip.
Common Mistakes Made
What are the most common mistakes that visitors made when seeking wild animals? Not just in Bukit Timah Nature Reserve but in all nature places in Singapore and around the world.
1. Allocating too little time to explore the place. People are always in a rush to finish the hike in the nature reserve as soon as possible, go for ice-cold drinks and on to the next programme of the day. Do they really expect wild animals to line up along the paths to show themselves in that short time frame? Then, it will be better to go to the zoo.
2. Visiting the nature reserve before a rain. Unlike humans who can use raincoats and umbrellas to avoid getting drenched in a rain, animals don't. Through their more developed senses, they will know a rain is coming (sometimes several hours ahead) and seek shelters well before the first raindrop hits the foliage of the forests.
3. Making too much noises. Most animals are shy and they tend to avoid humans as much as possible. Visitors who talk loudly, shout, play musics openly, or run with heavy footsteps are scaring the animals away way before you can see them.
4. Going on weekends. Weekends are really bad times to be looking for wild animals as many locals will be there too. When there are crowds, there will be noises. Most locals are there to work-out their muscles and are least interested in wild animals. And they will "drive" the animals away from you. Experienced animal-seekers and bird-watchers will always scout the nature reserve on weekdays or in more secluded spots.
5. Not understanding animal behaviours. There is no need to know a lot about the animals, just some basics will do. For instance, non-nocturnal animals will sleep at night and start to hunt for food after they woke up, so the best time to be looking for most of them should be in the morning. After they fed themselves and their young ones, they will rest for the day or until the next meal time (usually in the late afternoon). The length of feeding time varies depending on the weight of each animal. In general, smaller animals will be done feeding faster than larger animals. Nocturnal animals will usually be sleeping during the day, out of sights. Also, if humans will avoid the hot sun and get under shades, animals do that too.
6. Trying to look for wild animals using the eyes. Most animals are naturally born with abilities to camouflage themselves in the nature to avoid being detected by their predators or with keen senses to detect other animals nearby. As such, it is usually difficult for people who don't have sharp eyes to spot an animal even if it is just a few feet away. We should be using our ears to listen for sounds made by wild animals more than looking out for them. And that is what this post is all about — listen for rustles in the leaves made by the animals.
And good luck. You will need it too.
Keep Those Ears Open
While walking through the forests, it is our ears that will pick up rustling sounds in the leaves first before we can know where to look for the animals. So, unplug those earpieces and headphones and open your ears to listen to Mother Nature. She will guide you to the animals and also warn you of imminent dangers, especially falling tree branches from above you or a fast-moving animal heading your way.
Singapore's nature reserves are rather "well-tamed" with not many dangerous animals lurking in the forests — tigers are history, but snakes are pretty common. But, since the nature reserves are to be kept as natural as possible, most things are left as it is in the forests except for conservation efforts. Visitors should not be complacent and assume that safety is guaranteed. Never walk in the nature with music blasting in the ears.
You will need to listen out for:
sounds made by animals (both friendly and unfriendly),
falling trees and branches,
distant thunder before a rain fall,
loud and cacophony callings by crickets that signal a rain is coming,
approaching bikers, joggers, other visitors, etc.
In short, keep those ears open. You will get more than you ask for.
Here are some animals that you may be able to discover by listening out for rustling sounds in the leaves, be it up in the trees or among dead dried leaves on the ground.
Monkeys, or long-tailed macaques, in the trees. There are quite a number of them roaming around the nature reserves in tribes. Most of the time, they will be near walking paths and totally harmless. But when they are up in the trees and jumping around, take care when walking underneath them as they can cause tree branches to fall on you.
Recently, a tribe of around 20 macaques were seen crossing a pedestrian overhead bridge to Bukit Timah Shopping Centre. That is probably one of the reasons why they are missed by visitors in Bukit Timah Hill. The monkeys were out for some shopping.
The Malayan colugos are a common sight around the steep road up Bukit Timah Hill with tall trees where they can be easily spotted on clear days. You have to keep looking up and down the tall trunks of trees for them. Erroneously called the "flying lemur", the colugos neither fly nor are they lemurs. They glide when leaping from tree to tree, sometimes rustling the leaves as they "fly" through them. The colugos usually move around at night, some times on the ground in search of food, and are always on the trees during the day.
Don't miss them, the Malayan colugos can only be found in Southeast Asia (Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia). Bukit Timah Nature Reserve is probably the best place to see a wild one as the forest area is smaller. Philippine colugos are of a different specie that can only be found in the Philippines.
More about Flying Lemurs in Bukit Timah Nature Reserve
This spiny terrapin (endangered) was an extremely rare sight to be seen on the hill. Having a distinctive spine on its brown shell, it was very well-camouflage among the brown dried leaves. Only when it was crawling among the leaves in search of young greens to eat did it made some rustling sounds and was spotted. The scratches and paw marks (or teeth marks?) on its shell are evidence of what this terrapin had been through.
Stumbling on a spiny terrapin was really a lucky encounter but very rare. If you want to see some red-eared slider terrapins swimming, do visit Hindhede Quarry near the Visitor Centre. There are more than 15 of them there on one count. They will hide under shades when the hot sun is glaring down from above in the afternoon.
Another commonly-seen animal in the nature reserve is the monitor lizards. Several species can be found in the reserve, including clouded monitor lizard and Malayan water monitor lizard (above). Unlike other animals that will hide under shades in the hot sun, these reptiles will sprawl on walking paths and sunbathe. They are shy and will stay out of human's way. Just don't provoke it. You will hear them in the bushes more than you see them first. But they will always be crawling away from you.
Monitor lizards do not have keen hearing. They are always being startled by humans, when the latter get too close, and dashed into the undergrowth, which in turn, startle unaware humans. In short, we and these lizards startle one another.
Apart from animals that rustle leaves, some birds do so too. These are usually birds that feed on fruits and seeds on trees and in the bushes. The commonly seen ones are the scaly-breasted munia (above). The straw-headed bulbul (below) is classified as endangered worldwide but they are striving in Singapore. Don't miss these songbirds. And hear them sing (on Youtube).
Other birds that I have seen before are white-bellied sea eagles and blue-collared kingfishers at Singapore Quarry; flameback and banded woodpeckers, greater racket-tailed drongos, sunbirds and hornbills at Bukit Timah Hill. And several others that I could not name. Apart from Pulau Ubin, the nature reserve is also a heaven for bird-watchers.
Two snakes on a walking path. The rat snake was at least 2 metres long. Uhm, where is the other snake?
A close-up view and there is the smaller red-necked bronzeback being swallowed by the rat snake from the tail. Neither of them are venomous. When the rat snake was chasing the little snake through the leaves, the rustling sounds that they made attracted attentions before they were seen. With its prey within reach, the rat snake couldn't care less about the human standing right next to them.
After keeping its meal fully in its stomach, the rat snake crossed the path and disappeared into the undergrowth once again.
A beautiful Wagler's pit viper in the bush. Common knowledge will tell you that snakes with triangular heads are venomous because of the venom glands. It will not bite if unprovoked. Snake encounters are not very frequent in the nature reserve as they usually avoid large animals (including humans). This is one reason why you should not walk into any bushes or whack the bush unnecessarily. Do stay on the beaten paths, snakes will make sure they stay away too.
By the way, if you see a snake on a walking path, do report it to NParks staff. They will handle it to prevent unaware visitors from getting hurt. But if you wander off the designated paths and encounter one, that will be your own problem.
Wild boars can sometimes be seen near Dairy Farm Hut. These animals are usually hiding and feeding in the undergrowth. You will not notice them unless they rustle the leaves closer to the walking paths. When they are startled, especially by joggers and shouts, they can dashed about in the forest and across pathways. Do listen out for them. There was a near-collision before but nobody was sent flying by the boar. Listen and know that they are nearby, walk slowly and avoid startling them.
(It's not easy to get wild boars on photos on Bukit Timah Hill as the undergrowth are too dense. The photo above was taken on Pulau Ubin.)
These are wild animals and don't usually stay in the same spot, you will need patience and go slow and quiet to find them before they notice you. So, open up your ears and you will find them easily. Most of the shyer animals will stay away from Bukit Timah Hill as there are too many humans (visitors). You may have better luck of seeing more exotic ones when trekking from Bukit Timah Hill to MacRitchie Tree-top Walk. Sightings of Malayan porcupine, mousedeers and slow loris (critically endangered) were reported before.
Warning: Do not kill any wild animals or remove them from the forests. They could be endangered species. Singapore law is very strict with possession and killing of wild animals, including poisonous snakes.
Rare Wild Floras
While we listen out for movements of wild animals, our eyes can also pick up floras at the sides of the footpaths too. Here are some of the rarer ones that were spotted in Bukit Timah Nature Reserve.
Bamboo fungus (phallus indusiatus, 竹笙), or the veiled lady, is an edible mushroom that is commonly used in Asian cuisines and as Chinese medicine. The skirt is often cooked in hotpot. Bamboo fungus are usually grown commercially for consumption but a wild one growing on Bukit Timah Hill is rather rare.
White bat flower (tacca integrifolia) is a rare sight with its unusual flowering arrangement that seems complex and unlike any other flowers. It usually grows in well-drained soil and shady places of humid rain forest. Bat flower is also known as the "devil's flower" as it is deemed as inauspicious to the superstitious. The truly ominous-looking specie will be the black bat flower and it is really rare. See if you can spot one.
A multi-layer red fungus (unknown specie) on a log. When it comes to fungus and mushrooms, the usual warning of not touching them should be heeded, especially the more colourful ones, which attract attentions easily. When in doubt, consider them to be poisonous if consumed.
Refer to the map below for locations where some of the animals are usually seen. Those animals that are not indicated have no fixed location, they can be any where. Do check out our recommended trekking routes (10Km Full Circuit Trek and 7Km Hill Loop Trek) in Bukit Timah Nature Reserve too.
Do slow down your pace when trekking in Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, or any other natures, you should be able to see more wild floras and faunas if you give Mother Nature your full attention. And do listen.