Only natural

It's a wild ride for animal lovers at Singapore's four manmade reserve parks
Only natural

Something tells me it&rsquos all happening at the zoo. And I do believe it &mdash I do believe it&rsquos true.

Maybe it&rsquos the yellow-naped Amazon parrot singing me birthday wishes over a Lunch with the Parrots, of laksa and Singapore Sling, on the Songbird Terrace at Jurong Bird Park. Could be the shower of peckish lorikeets that settle on my shoulders and arms like coloured confetti at lunchtime, too, or the hawks and vultures, owls and eagles that swoop shockingly close during the Kings of the Skies show.

Or maybe it is the up-close and personal encounter with a buffoonery of orangutans that join us for the next day&rsquos breakfast at the Ah Meng restaurant in Singapore Zoo, the venue named for the late great grandmother (or at least godmother) of them all. Perhaps the pebble-y rough-smooth immediacy of the reticulated python, who patiently lets me hold and pet him (It&rsquos certainly a good way to wake yourself up before the coffee is poured, for nervous novices like me.)

I wonder if he was a cousin or a closer relation of the &lsquosmall&rsquo one that emerged from a nap under our bench, appropriately scaring the living daylights out of us at the Creatures of the Night Show. That chap certainly got our adrenaline pumping, as did the popcorn-sniffing binturong&rsquos high-wire act. Both quite unlike the gentle tapir and calf that kept pace with our tram within stroking distance but alike in the sheer strangeness of such intimacy outside the make-believe of the movies.

Yes, the shows are spectacular at all three venues, and like the movies, the spectacles &mdash for some of which you pay extra &mdash are big draws. However, the parks run by Wildlife Reserves Singapore are more than mere circus and gawk fest. Of course, for those of us shamefully accustomed to a &lsquozoo&rsquo being a sorry menagerie behind bars, it is refreshing to wander inside the African Waterfall Aviary where 1,500 avians fly free around the 30m (98ft) waterfall and an Okavango delta mock-up, and to find penguins waddling and diving free under the tropical skies (they&rsquore not too hot under their tuxedo collars, hailing from Africa as well). But there&rsquos more that impresses about the parks in their interactivity, their technology and their educational promise.

Teaching moments abound. Such as the Jurong Bird Park&rsquos hatcheries where abandoned eggs and chicks nestle in incubators, hand-reared by carefully anonymous (to them) &lsquobird nannies,&rsquo who help them go back to their kind in the wild when they are ready to fly their high-tech coops. The park has had quite a few rare hatchings under its wings, including the first-ever twelve-wired bird of paradise, as well as the king penguin, hyacinth and blue-throated macaws, and black palm cockatoo.

The forty-year-old Singapore Zoo is breathtaking in its own right, using its site in the Mandai rainforests to mock up Australian outbacks, African savannahs and Himalayan foothills to make its 2,800-plus denizens quite at home. It turns out to be as much an immersive experience for the animals and their caretakers as it is for the 1.6 million annual visitors &mdash it prides itself on being a &lsquolearning zoo&rsquo and a centre of biodiversity conservation that has volunteers from around the world vying for a place.

This is also true of its twin, the Night Safari, next door. They do good food too, at the Ulu Ulu Safari restaurant and aboard the Gourmet Safari Express, after greeting you with tribal dancers at the entrance &mdash quite the complete nightlife experience. These make impressive venues for a junglee wedding celebration or corporate herded seminar but they are largely window dressing cum fund raisers for the more serious work of breeding endangered species such as the Asian lion, Malayan tiger and shy-intrepid fishing cats.

These three wildlife parks have long been ubiquitous on Singapore visitors&rsquo itineraries from both travel agencies and the island nation&rsquos own government &mdash to the point that some tourists shrug and write them off as &lsquotouristy&rsquo gimmicks, in the same vein as Sentosa&rsquos entertainment arcades. However, that&rsquos shortchanging yourself &mdash I can attest from personal experience, having spurned their lures until my fourth sojourn in the Red Dot. For children especially, but for unjaded adults too, they should be on an Asian traveller&rsquos must-do list.

The more so now that they are one more. The ambitious and unusual River Safari finally launches this year after a slow start on the collecting and creating. Yes, creating, because the conceit of the park&rsquos organization is to replicate the habitats bordering the world&rsquos eight great river systems the Ganges, the Yangtze, the Mekong, the Mississippi, the Amazon, the Nile, the Congo and the Murray. The boat safari that floats you through it all opens later this year, but for now the early exhibits in the soft launch phase include the world&rsquos largest freshwater aquarium and Southeast Asia&rsquos largest panda exhibit, starring the cute (sorry, there is no other word) couple Kai Kai and Jia Jia.

Ever met an arapaima No Then you need to dip into the ecological showcase of the Amazonian &lsquoFlooded Forest&rsquo, for an underwater encounter with the rainforest in the rainy season. The enormous Mekong River aquarium houses the gigantic Mekong catfish as well as freshwater stingrays. Gangetic gharials, soft-shell turtles, goonch catfish, barramundi, Australian lungfish, robber crabs and humungous Murray cods, toothy tigerfish and fin-ful bichirs, freshwater puffers and rare Mississippi paddlefish make up the full complement of continents. But there are amphibious and terrestrial, arboreal and avian friends to make as well &mdash giant salamanders, golden pheasants, jaguars and tapir, river otters and maned wolves, spider monkeys and squirrel monkeys&hellip

Yes, in Singapore, it&rsquos certainly happening at the wildlife parks run by WRS &mdash and giving Orchard Street a run for its money. You won&rsquot come away with bags to show for your show tickets and entry fees &mdash though you might if your kids drag you into the souvenir shops out front for tiger paws, panda hats, fluorescing nightlight owls and the more staid creature comforts by way of totes and towels. But even the lightest packer and most discerning shopper should come away overladen in the memory card(s). It&rsquos a bargain any which way you look at it &mdash bang for your buck or thrills per minute. Which arguably means these fiercely realistic artificial forests beat the attractions of the best curated of concrete jungles. Considering Singapore&rsquos such a city slicker&rsquos destination, that&rsquos pretty wild.

Jurong Bird Park S$20* (over 12), S$13 (children 3-12 years) 8.30am to 6pm

Singapore Zoo S$22* (over 12), S$14 (children 3-12 years) 8.30am to 6pm

River Safari S$25* (over 12), S$16 (children 3-12 years), discounted until the boat safari is operational 9am to 6pm

Night Safari S$35 (over 12), S$23 (children 3-12 years), inclusive of tram ride 7.30pm to midnight

*Extra charges for tram rides and some shows.

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