Tigers in Singapore
Tigers in Singapore (Panthera tigris jacksoni)1 were sighted mostly in the forested areas of Bukit Timah, Choa Chu Kang, Tampines2 and Changi during the 19th century until the 1930s. They became a menace to the populace when large swathes of Singapore’s forests were cleared for roads and plantations. Subsequently, the intensive hunt for tigers, bolstered by the promise of financial rewards for their capture and killing, led to their diminished numbers and eventually wiping them out from the wild.
The thick virgin jungles that covered Singapore, home to prey like pigs and deer, were the hunting grounds of tigers.3 Being good swimmers, tigers were known to swim across the Strait of Johor into Singapore, some even getting caught in fishing stakes along the shore.4
The earliest newspaper report about the existence of tigers was published on 8 September 1831 in the Singapore Chronicle. It was reported that a male Chinese national had been killed by a tiger, and that the same tiger probably had also killed a local shortly after.5 In 1835, colonial architect G. D. Coleman and some convict labourers were attacked while they were laying a new road through a swamp in the jungle near town, but no one was killed.6 In May 1839, The Singapore Free Press reported that two Chinese had been carried off by tigers near a newly built road called Rangong Road (today’s Serangoon Road).7
When the cultivation of gambier and pepper took off in Singapore in the 1840s, plantations extended beyond town and encroached on jungle areas. By the late 1840s, the number of plantations had peaked at 600.8 Chinese plantation coolies became easy targets for tigers. Reports of encounters with tigers increased in the 1830s and 1840s.9
Tiger attacks grew so intense that, by the middle of the 19th century, tigers were rumoured to claim one life every day.10 Governor of the Straits Settlements William Butterworth, upon being questioned in the House of Commons about the tiger problem, stated that the figure was probably 200 deaths a year due to tiger killings – which was nonetheless alarming in a population of 50,000 people.11 In 1859, one village near Bukit Timah was abandoned due to overwhelming tiger attacks.12
It was believed that tigers in Singapore killed 300 humans in 1857, but only seven deaths were reported to the police. The actual figure could be higher as many tiger attacks were unreported. Plantation bosses often did not report the deaths as they did not want to scare away potential workers.13 During the 1860s, more than 350 lives were lost because of tigers.14
Containing the tiger menace
In order to contain the tiger problem, the government initially offered a reward of $20 for every tiger killed. But the growing number of casualties led to the reward being progressively increased – to $50, $100 and $150.15 Pits with a depth of 4 to 4.5 m were dug and traps set. Tigers caught were sometimes hauled out alive and put into strong rattan baskets that they could not bite through.16 Other times, they were shot dead in the pit.17 Their skin and body parts could also be sold for extra money, up to an additional $70.18 Tiger hunting became seen as a rewarding sport that offered money and adventure, and two Europeans even made a living out of tiger hunting.19
In 1859, in response to the tiger threat, Superintendent of Convicts J. F. A McNair arranged for some convict labourers to patrol the Bukit Timah, Serangoon, Changi and Choa Chu Kang districts. These patrols led to the killing of half a dozen or so tigers within a year.20 Occasional tiger attacks were still reported towards the end of the 19th century: A man was killed by a tiger at Thomson Road in 1890, and two tigers were shot in Bukit Timah in 1896.21
In 1902, a tiger wandered from its travelling circus on Beach Road and was shot by the principal of nearby Raffles Institution, Charles McGowan Phillips, in the Raffles Hotel. It had been hiding under the hotel’s Bar & Billiard Room, an elevated building.22 The last wild tiger, roaming in Choa Chu Kang, was shot and killed in October 1930.23
1. Timothy Barnard and M. Emmanuel, “Tigers of Colonial Singapore,” in T. P. Barnard (Ed.), Nature Contained: Environmental Histories of Singapore, ed. Timothy Barnard (Singapore: NUS Press, 2014), 58–59. (Call no. RSING 304.2095957 NAT)
2. “The Tampenis Tiger,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (Weekly), 10 November 1897, 299. (From NewspaperSG)
3. Charles Burton Buckley, An Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1984), 219 (Call no. RSING 959.57 BUC-[HIS]); Walter Makepeace, Gilbert E. Brooke and Roland St. J. Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore, vol. 2 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1991), 367, 369. (Call no. RSING 959.57 ONE-[HIS])
4. Singapore Chronicles: A Special Commemorative History of Singapore (Hong Kong: Illustrated Magazine, 1995), 142 (Call no. RSING 959.57 SIN-[HIS]); Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times, 220; Makepeace, Brooke and Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore, 369.
5. “The War at Malacca,” Singapore Chronicle and Commercial Register, 8 September 1831, 3 (From NewspaperSG); Makepeace, Brooke and Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore, 369.
6. Gretchen Liu, Singapore: A Pictorial History 1819–2000 (National Heritage Board and Editions Didier Millet, 1999), 79. (Call no. RSING 959.57 LIU-[HIS])
7. Singapore Chronicles, 142; “The Free Press,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, 23 May 1839, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
8. Barbara Leitch LePoery, ed., Singapore: A Country Study (Washington, DC: Federal Research Division, Library of Congress, 1989), 21. (Call no. RSING 959.57 SIN-[HIS])
9. Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times, 220; LePoery, Country Study, 21.
10. Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times, 220.
11. Peter Boomgaard, Frontiers of Fear: Tigers and People in the Malay World, 1600–1950 (New Haven: Yale University Press. 2001), 102–03 (Call no. RSEA 599.7560959 BOO); Barnard and Emmanuel, “Tigers of Colonial Singapore,” 56.
12. C. M. Turnbull, A History of Modern Singapore, 1819–2005 (Singapore: NUS Press, 2009), 63. (Call no. RSING 959.57 TUR-[HIS])
13. Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times, 220.
14. “When Tigers Ruled Singapore,” New Nation, 21 March 1974, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
15. Singapore Chronicles, 142–43; Song Ong Siang, One Hundred Years’ History of the Chinese in Singapore (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1984), 60. (Call no. RSING 959.57 SON-[HIS])
16. Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times, 220–21.
17. Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times, 221.
18. John Frederick Adolphus McNair, Prisoners Their Own Warders (Miami: Hardpress Publishing, 2013), 50. (Call no. RSING 365.95957 MAC)
19. Turnbull, History of Modern Singapore, 63; Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times, 221–22; LePoery, Country Study, 21.
20. McNair, Prisoners Their Own Warders, 50–53; Song, One Hundred Years’ History of the Chinese, 61.
21. Liu, Pictorial History 1819–2000, 79; Turnbull, History of Modern Singapore, 63.
22. “A Tiger in Town,” Straits Times, 13 August 1902, 4 (From NewspaperSG); Edwin A. Brown, Indiscreet Memories: 1901 Singapore Through the Eyes of a Colonial Englishman (Singapore: Monsoon Books, 2007), 104–05. (Call no. RSING 959.5703 BRO-[HIS])
23. “Notes of the Day,” Straits Times, 27 October 1930, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
The information in this article is valid as at March 2020 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.