Travel Story Buffalo leeches and bird nannies: behind the scenes at Singapore's zoos

Orang utans at breakfast at Singapore Zoo
Photo of Gemma Nisbet

From the interactive shows to the enclosures to keeping the animals well fed, conservation is key at four of the Lion City's zoos and wildlife parks.

Most of us picture Singapore as a resolutely urban place: skyscrapers, traffic, malls, even the high-tech SuperTrees at Gardens by the Bay. 

But Sonja Luz has quite a different conception of her adopted home city.

“There are still places in Singapore where you look out and see only green,” she tells me over lunch at Singapore Zoo, where she worked for many years as a vet and is now director of conservation and research for its parent company, Wildlife Reserves Singapore.

Dr Luz says Singapore is a “very diverse” place in terms of wildlife. Its green and not-so-green spaces are home to everything from mouse deer, pangolins, banded leaf monkeys and macaques to the venomous slow loris, about 70 species of snakes and even wild boar.

Many of these creatures, and plenty more besides, can also be found at Singapore Zoo and its sibling parks: the neighbouring River Safari and Night Safari, plus Jurong Bird Park, all of which are managed by WRS.

In fact, for breakfast this morning we were joined by some of the zoo’s most popular residents: the orang-utans. The Jungle Breakfast allows visitors to enjoy a buffet breakfast in the open-air Ah Meng Restaurant while, metres away, orang-utans snack on fruit and seeds.

The restaurant was named for one of the zoo’s most famous charges, a female orang-utan who was kept illegally as a pet by a local family before coming to the zoo in 1971. Ah Meng later became the zoo’s animal “face”, meeting high-profile visitors such as Elizabeth Taylor and Prince Philip.

She died in 2008 but her legacy lives on, both literally — just before our arrival, it was announced that one of her granddaughters would take on the role as the “new Ah Meng” — and in WRS’s ongoing campaign against the illegal wildlife trade, for which Singapore is a transit hub.

The four WRS parks collectively receive more than 4.5 million visitors — locals and tourists — each year, presenting what Dr Luz describes as “a huge opportunity to reach out to a huge number of people”. They also support biodiversity through their breeding programs, which last year saw more than 700 births and hatchings. Among them were more than 40 threatened species. including orang-utans, cotton-top tamarins, southern white rhinoceroses and pygmy hippopotamuses. 

The parks are self-supporting financially and help to fund conservation and research in Singapore and the region — as one member of staff tells me, “conservation without money is just conversation”. Last year, WRS funded about 25 projects in South-East Asia, a biodiversity hotspot that’s facing serious ecological threats, and has supported conservation efforts relating to species ranging from rhinoceros hornbills in Sumatra to Palawan pangolins in the Philippines.

Then there are its interactive shows and experiences such as the Jungle Breakfast which — so the thinking goes — help to foster an interest in and respect for these animals, educating the public by weaving the conservation message into an entertaining format. 

Certainly the orang-utans, which include a couple of older animals as well as a few playful youngsters, make for charming dining companions. As a staff member describes over the loudspeaker how their wild cousins have been affected by the forest fires in Indonesia, I watch an adult male patiently fend off a mischievous youngster who seems determined to interrupt his breakfast. Something in the adult’s expression reminds me of the resignation of a tired parent pushed to their limits — so palpably human you can’t help but empathise. 

After both we and the orang-utans have eaten our fill, we head off to see some of the zoo’s other critters before a short tour of the zoological kitchen.

Here, wildlife nutritionist Francis Cabana gives us an insight into how meals for the zoo’s thousands of animals are prepared each day. Everything from fruit, vegetables and “browse” (leaves and branches) to meat and even cooked rice is on the menu, although some of it perhaps not for much longer — having started at WRS earlier this year, Canadian-born Francis is modernising the systems so the animals get a diet that’s as close as possible to what they’d eat in the wild.

The zoo places an emphasis on providing open, natural-looking enclosures — visitors pass through its free-ranging orang-utan habitat on a raised boardwalk, for example — and staff members proudly tell me it was one of the earliest “open concept” zoos.  Certainly there’s minimal separation between us and the animals at our next stop, the Fragile Forest, where birds, butterflies and mammals, including flying foxes and ring-tailed lemurs, roam freely in a walk-in enclosure — so freely that one of the latter brushes its soft, fluffy tail against my hand as it passes by. 

From here, we go behind the scenes to see some of the insects destined to become dinner for the other animals. Among them are crickets, buffalo leeches and a squirm-inducing tank of huge hissing cockroaches, into which Jagan Thanapal, the keeper showing us around, casually dips a hand to pull out a few fat brown bugs for a closer look.

The team here also breed insects for display, including delicate black-and-white tree nymph butterflies and huge bright-green stick insects. Then there are the shelves filled with tarantulas, most of which are confiscated illegal pets. I hesitate when Jagan pulls a plastic fish tank containing a large and hairy specimen down and offers to remove the lid so I can photograph the spider: “It won’t jump out at me, will it?” His reply isn’t comforting: “They don’t normally.”

There are plenty more animals to visit, from a baby giraffe to a colony of more than 100 baboons — not to mention a rhino feeding to attend, where I hand over slices of melon and get liberally slobbered on for my trouble. Then, after lunch, we head next door to River Safari, the most recent addition to the WRS portfolio, having officially opened in early 2014. 

Laying claim to being Asia’s first river-themed wildlife park, the River Safari recreates both terrestrial and aquatic habitats from waterways, including the Ganges, Amazon, Mekong and Nile. Its exhibits house critters that our guide Shaiful Rizal refers to with some enthusiasm as “river monsters”, such as an enormous snapping turtle, some sharp-toothed goliath tiger fish (“the piranhas of Africa”) and a gharial, an Indian crocodile.

There are also less ferocious critters, including a pair of giant pandas named Kai Kai and Jia Jia, which reside in a climate-controlled exhibit where they put away 20kg of bamboo each day and are monitored for their “mating window”, a period of just hours each year when they can breed. 

Fittingly given its theme, the River Safari also incorporates a couple of boat trips. There’s a cruise on the neighbouring Upper Seletar Reservoir as well as the Amazon River Quest, which is part theme-park ride and part zoological experience, combining a dramatic voice-over and Indiana Jones-style music with a ride that takes us past Amazonian animals, including giant anteaters, tapirs, jaguars, flamingos, monkeys and capybaras, a sort of giant guinea pig that Shaiful tells me is a favourite food of anacondas.

My favourite part of the River Safari, though, is still to come. The Amazon Flooded Forest recreates the river’s dramatic annual flooding, when its floodplain forests can be covered metres of water for months at a time. The exhibit includes electric eels, a tank of red-bellied piranhas with silver-flecked scales, and some playful giant otters. The centrepiece, though, is a large tank where various fish — including arapaimas, one of the world’s largest freshwater fish — swim with a herd of manatees. 

We arrive just in time to see the manatees being fed, and it’s very peaceful watching them floating about in not-very-hot pursuit of flapping bits of lettuce. With their rotund bodies and sweet faces, they’re pretty cute — but I find it hard to see how, as Shaiful tells us, sailors ever mistook them for mermaids.

The next morning, we head to Singapore’s west to visit the oldest of the WRS parks, Jurong Bird Park, which was founded in 1971. These days Jurong lays claim to being Asia’s largest bird park and is home to more than 5000 birds across over 400 species. 

It also has what I’m told is the tallest waterfall in an aviary anywhere in the world. At 30m high, it’s an impressive sight, surrounded by lush landscaping and hundreds of free-flying birds in the aptly named Waterfall Aviary.

We also check out the High Flyers Show, in which various species show off their special skills, from a macaw that flies through a series of hoops to a cheeky cockatoo that fetches a $5 note from the hand of a boy who seems at once petrified and delighted by the experience. I’ll admit I’m slightly surprised to find that it’s all a lot of fun — Quincy the talking parrot is a particular star and has me in stitches as he attempts to sing the chorus of Singapura Sunny Island, a patriotic local song.

We’re reminded of the serious intent behind the showmanship when we visit the Breeding and Research Centre, where visitors can learn about how the keepers hand-rear birds such as endangered black-winged starlings and Bali mynahs, both of which are threatened by the illegal pet trade. 

We watch one keeper (or “bird nanny”) carefully feed a tiny, fragile golden conure hatchling that’s less than a week old.

Caring for these birds requires long hours and hard work — assistant curator (and Murdoch University graduate) Angelin Lim tells us the chicks are fed regularly between 6am and 9pm, with some sensitive species requiring feeding until midnight. Unsurprisingly, she describes the park as her second home: “I probably spend more time here than at home.” Still, raising the birds is, relatively speaking, the easy part — “it’s not breeding them that’s the problem, it’s dealing with poachers,” Angelin explains.

That evening brings what’s possibly my favourite part of our animal-filled few days in Singapore: a visit to the Night Safari. A kind of open-air nocturnal house writ large, it was the first of its kind when it opened in 1994 and offers the chance to observe animals, from leopards to elephants to porcupines, under the cover of darkness. After the improbably entertaining Creatures of the Night show, which has a strong message about recycling and features a stage invasion by a raccoon named Cookie, we explore the park. Most visitors travel in an open-sided tram but we’re joined by a private guide in a golf buggy for a personal Safari Adventurer tour. 

As we pass through various geographical zones focused on animals from the Himalayas, India, Africa, Indo-Malaya and more, I’m surprised by how active the animals are — even creatures I wouldn’t have thought of as nocturnal, such as giraffes, rhinoceros and mountain goats, are up and about. It’s peaceful, too, particularly when our guide ushers us out of the golf cart to follow one of the walking trails. There are four of these paths, and we’ve chosen the Leopard Trail, which is themed around the animals of South-East Asia and will take us past otters, civet cats, hog badgers, fruit bats, a slow loris, a bouncy little primate called a tarsier and, of course, leopards. 

First, though, we watch a group of African giraffes, zebras and oryx grazing by the reservoir. There’s just enough light for us to see them without spoiling the atmosphere, and all is calm and very quiet, just the sound of a gentle breeze in the trees and the small noises of the animals themselves. These exotic species might not be the native wildlife Dr Luz described to me, but the effect of the scene is much the same, providing a welcome moment of stillness in the midst of the big city. 

Gemma Nisbet was a guest of Wildlife Reserves Singapore.

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