Smiling elephants, 600 pink flamingos, a polar bear in the tropics — just another day at Singapore zoo.
S INGAPORE — The days always start out interestingly enough. On day one, I find myself seated right next to a table of orangutans at breakfast. Orangutans, real ones, with better manners than some humans, swing from a tree branch and onto a wooden platform to patiently wait for their meal. They eat peacefully without disturbing others, without making random noises while their mouths are full, being social within proper boundaries. A big one taps a younger one’s head while he scarfs down a bowl of fruit. Humans take photos of every single move they make, selfies with them in the background, someone forgets to turn off the flash and still the orangutans remain unfazed. Here, they are celebrities — total pros — who neither ham it up for the cameras nor hide from them. They keep their calm and carry on, just a day in the life at the zoo — if you can even call it that.
My idea of a zoo comes from my last memory of visiting one. It was sometime between being inducted into Girl Scouts and shaving my eyebrows out of curiosity for the first time — a long time ago. I remember the earth being dry and crackled, and seeing an elephant and realizing that his skin looked exactly like the ground. The lion wouldn’t come out of its makeshift cave. The ostrich was too proactive for my liking. And there were flies, which is never a good sign. “Animals in captivity,” a phrase that I hear a lot on this trip, seemed like the best way to describe their situation. If it’s not a pleasant experience for us, it can’t be so pleasant for them.
After being zoo- free for years, Wildlife Reserves Singapore takes me to not one, not two, but four destinations full of animals. The group runs Singapore Zoo, River Safari, Jurong Bird Park, and Night Safari, which altogether take
Singapore's open-concept parks allow endangered species to roam freely within their habitat — and yeah, you can walk right alongside them.
up quite a massive piece of land that has been designed, landscaped and nurtured to recreate conditions in the wild. Singapore Zoo, which we visit on the first day of the tour, covers 26 hectares and is home to over 2,800 animals. Among these animals is the orangutan, the zoo’s flagship species, which are housed in the world’s first free- ranging in- zoo orangutan habitat. Over two days we explore the four zoos, get up close and personal with the animals, and even go behind the scenes. ( We visit the zoo infirmary — an adorable concept, I know — a. k. a. the Wildlife Healthcare and Research Center, a $ 3.6 million facility that handles the serious medical business of the animals, and the Bird Discovery Center, where we get to meet a genderless, daysold white cockatoo — the species only reveals gender a year after birth, through eye color.)
Singapore Zoo, as well as WRS’s other facilities, is famous for its “open concept” rainforest environment, which means animals are free to roam within their “habitat.” These habitats include Fragile Forest where there are sloths, lemurs, flying foxes, and bats as big as cats, the Great Rift Valley of Ethiopia, Elephants of Asia, and Australian Outback.
On day two, it rains in the rainforest. Lunch is served at Jurong Bird Park home to 5,000 birds from 380 species, at a restaurant that overlooks a pond with over 600 pink flamingos ( you can’t sit with them, even if it’s not Wednesday). Of course, someone notices two out of the 600 are mating — and we consider it an omen of good luck. Later on we meet three baby flamingos that look more like ostriches. They are born gray and develop their pink tint as they age. The day would be peppered with trivia like this as the group explores the Breeding and Research Center, African Waterfall Aviary, Penguin Coast, Bird Discovery Centre, Lory Loft, Pelican Cove, and Birds of Prey. The birds are captive born, or acquired through conservation and research programs with other zoo facilities, including Avilon Zoo in Rizal, Philippines.
Come nightfall, we head to the Night Safari, a 35-hectare secondary forest that holds over 2,500 animals of 130 species, 38 percent of which are endangered. The park is an 11-time awardee of Singapore Tourism Board’s Best Attraction category and receives over 1.1 million visitors every year. Thirty-five minutes on the tram that takes us around seven geographic regions — surrounded by pitch black on the week before Halloween — can get a little spooky, as if the idea of being surrounded by animals in an open environment isn’t enough to put one on edge. Our Filipino guide, Roy Fabi, operations executive of Night Safari, assures us that it’s completely safe. “The animals are well-fed. They won’t eat you,” he says, and explains that the dens are designed strategically. For example, a canal that’s not visible from the road fences some dens.
Night Safari’s iconic animal is Asian bull elephant Chawang, who has sired four calves so far, under the park’s breeding programs that contribute to the global population of endangered species. The moon is full and his tusks seem to glow in the dark. Captive breeding is one of its focus areas, in line with its mission to promote diversity. Over the years, it has bred Malayan tigers, Asian elephants, fishing cats, red dholes (a kind of wild dog), clouded leopards, anoas (a midget buffalo), markhors (wild goat), bantengs (cattle), Malayan tapirs (a pig-like herbivorous mammal) and Asian lions.
Being at a zoo brings out the kid in jaded, tired adults. If I came across a meerkat on the street, I would probaby run the other way (I mean have you seen them? Terrifying!). But seeing them in an environment they are comfortable with, where they are not stressed out by external aggressors like strange techno noises, humans who get too close, or extreme climate change, you do get to appreciate them. I guess if I were a ferret and I saw myself on the street, I would freak out and act crazy, too. If you explore the zoo with childlike wonder, you might just get over a phobia or two, and come out more sympathetic towards our friends from the wild.
Asian bull elephant Chawang is one of Singapore Night Safari’s most iconic animals. He has sired four calves so far under the park’s breeding program, contributing to the world’s population of endangered species. Photos by JUSTIN ONG,
Jurong Falls is one of the world’s tallest man-made waterfalls at over 30 meters.
The Lory Loft at Jurong Bird Park is the world’s largest walk-in flight aviary for lories. Feeding the birds is a popular activity at this attraction.
There are over 600 flamingos at Jurong Bird Park, located at Jurong Hill, Singapore, about one hour away from the city.
It may be dark, but nocturnal creatures like the hippopotamus and these lionesses are always in the spotlight.
There are penguins at Jurong Bird Park (and there is a polar bear at Singapore Zoo). Their dens are designed and landscaped to mimic their natural habitat.
About eight meerkats live in this little log. Just about every kid — and adult — yelled “Timon!” as they came out to play.
At Singapore Zoo, you can have breakfast with orangutans and they wouldn’t bother you at all — most likely, you’ll bother them.
This panda may look lonely and sad, but it’s actually just really full. We saw it eat bamboo leaves off its own stomach. Adorable on pandas, not so on humans.
This adorable creature is called “lesser panda” or the red cat-bear. I don’t think it’s inferior in any way.
A herd of zebras grazing in Singapore Zoo’s Wild Africa exhibit.
The gender of a white cockatoo can only be detected through the color of its eyes, which develops only a year after birth.