Sometime during the course of my tour of the four parks run by the Wildlife Reserves Singapore (WRS), I stopped telling the various officials I met, &ldquoYes, it&rsquos been lovely. This is actually my fourth visit to the Bird Park&hellip my third visit to the Zoo&hellip my second visit to the River Safari and Night Safari&hellip&rdquo My chant was beginning to sound tiresome even to my ears but the point I was trying to make was that, between them, the Singapore Zoo, the Jurong Bird Park, the Night Safari and the River Safari make up a formidable quartet of beloved visitor attractions.
Beloved around the world, so it&rsquos not just me every &lsquobest of&rsquo compilation of zoos will include Singapore&rsquos, if not list it right at the top. Just the Zoo receives over 1.7 million visitors annually the Night Safari some 1.1 million. The Jurong Bird Park is the oldest of the lot and mildly less popular with about 80,000 visitors, in some measure due to its location&mdasha considerable distance away from the other three and the River Safari, less than two years old, hasn&rsquot ratcheted up the numbers yet (but I see plenty of folks around). All this is remarkable, because the wildlife parks in this tiny city-state compete with the likes of the innovative San Diego Zoo, the venerable Vienna Zoo, the massive Toronto Zoo and so many more.
All this said, there still may not be enough here to really surprise you. After all, Singapore itself is a wildly popular tourist destination. And tourists love cheese there&rsquos plenty of it inside and outside these parks, in the form of repellent selfie-stick-wielding hordes posing against cutesy anthropomorphic animal cut-outs merchandise outlets located at strategic points selling every manner of stuffed animal-toy, animal magnets, park-specific star animal attraction merchandise F&B outlets selling ice slushies in animal-figure-topped packs and so on. So how do these parks draw repeat visits from veteran grumps such as me
First and most effectively, the animal exhibits are nothing less than enthralling. The Singapore Zoo is famed for its &lsquoopen concept&rsquo displays the animals do not eye you pathetically from behind bars, truly abject specimens of captivity, as in the zoos back home. Instead, the enclosures are designed so there&rsquos very nearly the illusion of walking in the wild&mdashthis illusion is most convincing on the Night Safari, when it can seem as if the animals will wake from their slumber and leap on to your tram in the dark. (In fact, there&rsquos considerable attention paid to safety&mdashboth the animals&rsquo and yours, in the form of the &lsquomoat system&rsquo of enclosures. Wideish but cleverly invisible waterbodies surround the recreated animals&rsquo habitats the animals cannot leap on to you.)
Then, too, is the fact that bore upon me only on this most recent visit that these parks offer a richly layered experience, each layer making itself evident at each subsequent visit. The first time I was at the Singapore Zoo, some dozen years ago, it was because it was a thing-to-do for a bona fide tourist. Being a common or garden animal-lover, it was pleasant and even interesting. The second time, five years ago, I brought my six-year-old daughter, who too had not thus far displayed any particular fascination for animals. She liked it, and then tired. (And revived at the shops, buying tees and toys.) The third time, our park visits were designed almost entirely around the expectations of my animal-obsessed five-year-old son (to whom I owe a debt for somewhat lessening my deep ignorance I now know not only of but also the special characteristic of creatures such as ring-tailed lemurs, cotton-top tamarins, alligator gars, Malayan tapirs, and so on). He liked the parks a lot, then tired (and hit the shops)&mdashbut I was interested to watch my now-11-year-old daughter explore the park, eager, knowledgeable and curious.
These parks bear repeat visits because there&rsquos only so much the eye can take in and the mind register in one encounter. I noticed the wealth of educational material in the form of posters, signboards, animal facts and the like&mdashdesigned variously for just-beginning-to-read children (short fun facts in large attractive type) older children (posters with more information on, say, particular animals who call these parks home&mdashmany of the stars have names, like Inuka, the polar bear who just turned 25) and reading stations with genus-specific information for everyone else.
What this privileged press visit, in the company of WRS staff, did for me though was to experience at closer quarters the kind of commitment, even conservationist zeal, the staff bring to their jobs. We met a range of officials, from Raja Segran, General Manager of the Jurong Bird Park to Roopali Raghavan, Manager, Conservation and Research to Elden Gabayayo, Assistant Manager at the Wildlife Nutrition Centre to Natt Haniff of the Corporate Communications team, whose special burden us journos were.
Each of their histories and involvement with WRS makes for a story but Segran&rsquos is of particular pride he &ldquohung about&rdquo the Bird Park as a teenager, skipping school and other minor stuff, to work his way up to his current exalted position.
WRS is certainly a commercial operation&mdashit became entirely autonomous and stopped receiving state funding in 2006. Too commercial, I think disloyally, when I consider the steepish prices of everything from tickets to tram rides to shows to guides to merchandise. But then we&rsquore taken to the Animal Nutrition Centre and see just how much food animals in captivity need to be fed&mdashand the pains taken to procure the appropriate food. (Gabayayo tells us that the eucalyptus leaves for the koalas, for instance, are flown in from Australia.) On one day, Haniffa was delayed because she was at a meeting with a disability outfit. (WRS routinely hosts groups of disabled persons, and works with hospitals to offer visits as part of patient rehabilitation.) Raghavan, with a decade&rsquos worth of wildlife conservation work in India, was posed a challenging question on the subject of moving to working with animals in captivity but retorts with a cordial &ldquoif the choice is between species going extinct and keeping them going by breeding in captivity, no question, the latter.&rdquo She left us to rejoin a conference on conservation of endemic species being held on the Zoo premises. (Also on the premises a Wildlife Healthcare and Research Centre, which in 2014, bred over 100 animals, many of them threatened or critically endangered.)
Segran, the voluble &lsquoBirdman&rsquo, is an apposite mascot for the WRS ethos. Over animatedly long chats about the challenges involved in attracting today&rsquos generation, the ambitious plan to relocate the Jurong Bird Park to form a contiguous wildlife zone along with the other three in the Mandai area (this process will take about five years), he repeatedly emphasises the time required to do any kind of justice to the displays. With 39 years at the Bird Park, he has devoted virtually a lifetime to WRS. But he startles even me with a throwaway &ldquoIf anybody enters the park after 5pm or so, we don&rsquot charge. They&rsquore not going to get anything [the park closes at 6pm], so we don&rsquot take anything.&rdquo Every once in a while, a commercial concern driven by conservationist commitment shows that it can be pretty cool too.