Wildlife & Biodiversity

Blame Stamford Raffles: How the British ended the Malayan tiger’s reign over Singapore

Island has lost 37% of its biodiversity in the 200 years since it was first colonised, says new study; this includes the Malayan tiger  

By Rajat Ghai
Published: Sunday 31 December 2023
Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles (Left) and a Malayan Tiger (Right). Collage by Ajit Bajaj / CSE

The British colonisation of the island of Singapore, which began in 1819, started the destruction of its biodiversity. Over 200 years later, the island has lost at least 37 per cent of its wild flora and fauna, including the Malayan tiger (Panthera tigris jacksoni or Harimau in Malay), according to a new study.

“We compiled a comprehensive dataset of biodiversity in Singapore, comprising more than 50,000 individual records and representing more than 3,000 species and ten major taxonomic groups (mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, freshwater fishes, butterflies, bees, phasmids, decapod crustaceans, and plants),” a note on https://ryanchisholm.com/ stated. Ryan A Chisholm from the Department of Biological Sciences, Faculty of Science, National University of Singapore (NUS), is the lead author of the paper.

“We developed novel statistical methods that account for “dark extinctions”, i.e., extinctions of undiscovered species, and estimated that 37% of Singapore’s species have gone extinct over the last two centuries,” the note added.

It observed: “Singapore was almost entirely forested two hundred years ago but today less than 1% of the original primary forest remains today, with an additional ~20% of the landscape covered in lower quality secondary forest.”

“Many species have gone extinct from Singapore, from the majestic tiger, the last of which was shot in the 1930s, to the humble epiphyte Hoya finlaysonii, which was last seen in 1837,” the note said.

‘Lion City’, named after a Tiger

The findings, especially regarding the Malayan Tiger, are significant. Singapore is the English pronunciation of the Sanskrit-derived Malay word Singapura (‘Lion City’).

Interestingly though, lions are not native to Singapore. Even the closest wild lion population — the Asiatic Lion — was found in the Indian subcontinent. Its range extended as far east as Palamu in today’s Jharkhand. Today, it is restricted to the Gir forest of Gujarat’s Kathiawar Peninsula (Saurashtra).

The reason for the island being named after lions could be a case of mistaken identity. The Sejarah Melayu (known in English as The Malay Annals) recounts a legend about the founding of Singapore.

The text tells of a Malay prince, Sang Nila Uttama. He belonged to Palembang, a historically Indianised Hindu-Buddhist kingdom on the southern part of the island of Sumatra (today part of Indonesia).

The legend tells how Uttama and his men were shipwrecked on an island known in his time as ‘Temasek’. On the coast, Uttama saw a “strange animal with a red body, black head and a white breast, which swiftly disappeared into the jungle”. On being told it was a lion, he considered it an auspicious omen and founded a new kingdom on Temasek. He named it Singapura. The year was 1299 CE.

The historicity of the legend is not certain. However, the name stuck. Maritime Southeast Asia, including the Malay Peninsula and the island of Singapore, was home to several Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms. Both faiths were spread in the region by Indian traders.

With the coming of Islam to the archipelago (said to have been brought by Arab, Persian and Indian traders), the region’s Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms largely became Islamic Sultanates, though Hindu influences are still strong in the area’s syncretic culture: The Balinese and Cham Hindus of the region; Lord Ganesha being present on Indonesian Rupiah notes; the Indonesian national carrier being called Garuda; the many versions of the Ramayana (Yama Zatdaw; Reamker; Phra Lak, Phra Ram; Ramakien; Hikayat Seri Rama and the Kakawin Ramayana) and Mahabharata; and the name of Singapore.

The lion (Simha in Sanskrit) was a common motif in ancient India. It could have been carried by the traders who headed across the sea every year to trade in a region which did not host the big cat. But it did host its cousin, the tiger (Vyagraha in Sanskrit).

The animal seen by Uttama may have, after all, been a Malayan tiger. Tigers were common in Peninsular Malaysia, just across the Straits of Johor from Singapore Island, from where they could have colonised it.

But the reign of the Malayan was to end six centuries after Uttama founded Singapore. In 1819, the British statesman, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles was successful in negotiating a treaty with the Johor Sultan to found a trading outpost on Singapore island. It provided the British with a strategic foothold near the Straits of Malacca, a sea lane which connects West Asia and the subcontinent with Southeast Asia.

The Dutch, the great rivals of the British, recognised the British presence in Singapore with the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824. It became a colony the same year.

Decimation of the tiger

A note on a sister website of the NUS details how British colonisation decimated Singapore’s tigers. It cites Associate Professor Timothy P Barnard (NUS Department of History) and Dr Mark Emmanuel’s paper Tigers of Colonial Singapore (Nature Contained, 2014):

As agricultural expansion pushed back forest boundaries, plantation workers became exposed to wild tigers in the 19th century. Originating from the Malay Peninsula, these Malayan tigers swam to Singapore, claiming their first reported victim in September 1831. A startling 200 deaths from tiger attacks were estimated in 1850, in a population of just 50,000 people. Agricultural settlements grew tremendously as gambier and pepper were key exports of the country, leading to immense deforestation, which caused more tiger attacks.

The colonial government offered rewards for capturing and killing tigers to safeguard plantation workers and the economy.

The note observes:

After the 1850s, tiger attacks went down a lot, and tigers were viewed more as entertainment than a threat … The last wild tiger was killed in 1930 in Choa Chu Kang, marking the end of a century-long history of Singapore’s tigers.

Two centuries of biodiversity discovery and loss in Singapore, published by Chisholm and others in the journal PNAS, also has another shocking statistic.

“We extrapolated Singapore’s historical experience to a future scenario for the whole of Southeast Asia and estimated that around 18% of species would be lost regionally by 2100,” the note on https://ryanchisholm.com/ said.

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