Appeared in the March 2016 issue as “Creatures Great And Small”.
Her skin is covered in smooth scales that gleam in the sun. She’s cool and silken to the touch, but I can feel strong muscles under her skin. Two years old and almost two feet long, Nala is a ball python currently coiled in the palms of my hands. I’m enthralled—I never imagined holding a snake would feel like this.
My previous encounters with snakes, at zoos, featured a glass partition between us. I’m in a zoo now as well, but this one is unlike others I’ve visited. At the Singapore Zoo, which is skirted by a large lake in the city-state’s Mandai region, I spent the morning having breakfast in the company of a family of orangutans. They ate on a wooden platform a few feet from our table. Two-year-old Joko, the youngest of the group, reminded me of the antics of my pre-teen cousin when he was that age. Orangutans are this zoo’s flagship species, and they roam freely in their habitat here. Walking around, I spot some in the trees. Some are descendants of Ah Meng, the park’s most famous orangutan, rescued from a private home where she was being kept illegally. She eventually became a tourism icon for Singapore until she died in 2008.
I’ve come to the Singapore Zoo with apprehensions—seeing animals in captivity is not a concept I’m comfortable with. At zoos I’ve visited in the past, the animals have languished in small cages with almost no greenery. Here, watching the orangutans lounging in tree-top hammocks and a red-ruffed lemur scurrying down the length of his log-shaped platform, I feel my reservations recede.
Nala’s keeper, who’s been keeping a close watch on how I handle the snake, slips in a hand to gather her up. Reluctantly letting go, I follow Natt Haniff, our vivacious guide, into the zoo’s Rainforest Zone. Looking down from an elevated walkway under a canopy of tropical trees, I spot a nimble, brown mouse deer. A little distance away, on the other side, is an enormous gharial. I didn’t know they could grow this large.
In the Wild Africa Zone, two giraffes named Growie and Roni amble along gracefully. Behind them, three zebras munch on grass. None of them are in cages. Singapore Zoo is designed with an “open enclosure” concept. This means animals are separated from visitors and other animals by natural or naturally designed boundaries like moats and hedges. Painful memories of agitated lions pacing in tiny cages fade away when I watch a lioness nuzzling her mate as they rest on a grassy hillock.
The 64-acre park has an impressive green cover. With most of Singapore’s natural forests lost to urban development, the zoo and the surrounding nature reserve are among the few green spots left in city state. While many of the trees are native, others have been introduced to create familiar habitats for the animals.
Soon it’s feeding time, and the giraffes saunter closer to the viewing station. I step out on a platform, almost at eye level with them, and hold out a sweet potato from a bucket provided for visitors. Growie winds his long purple-black tongue around it and pulls it from my hand. His head alone is as big as half of me. I enjoy getting close to the giraffes, but I also wonder whether this proximity disturbs the animals. I’m told that they’re not tame, and can get agitated or attack if a stranger ventures too close to them. But they seem to be used to human presence, especially their keepers, and are not distressed by it.
This familiarity with humans is most apparent in the Fragile Forest exhibit—a high-roofed enclosed area with tropical trees and plants, and comfortable balmy air. A walkway runs through the middle. Natt warns us not to look up with our mouths open in case one of the bats decides to relieve itself. As if to prove her point, a bat instantly finds a spot on a guest’s nose. Much laughter and a swipe of tissue later, we continue on. Crowned pigeons cross the walkway and a sloth makes its leisurely way up a branch. But it’s the ring-tailed lemurs that are most intriguing, even snobbish and indifferent. One grooms itself beside the walkway, tail splayed, another stares at us with wide beady eyes from its perch.
Over lunch, I get an opportunity to voice some of my concerns about zoos to Roopali Raghavan, who’s part of the park’s Conservation & Research department and looks after animal welfare. She assures me great care is taken to reduce the stress on the resident animals, and small changes are regularly introduced into their enclosures to keep them engaged. Why have zoos at all, I want to know. She explains that they serve an important purpose, enabling conservationists to study the animals closely so they can better protect populations in the wild. Zoos often house “assurance colonies”: modern-day Noah’s arks that ensure there is a healthy population of endangered animals that can be reintroduced to the wild in case the original population dwindles.
The conversation reveals another important fact: The wild is not always the best place for animals, especially in Southeast Asia where trade in exotic animals is rampant. Green spots in the world are also reducing steadily, increasing animal-human conflict. As I crane my neck out of the boat during the Amazon River Quest boat ride at the River Safari sometime later, I see a tapir snooze under a tree. I realise that this magnificent animal—one that I’ve gazed at on television time and again—is safe here. It is tangible evidence of the richness of life that needs protection.
The next evening I’m back to experience the Night Safari, adjacent to the zoo. Our buggy winds through open enclosures that house striped hyena, oryx, and red river hogs. Bathed in a dull glow that mimics moonlight, I watch a sloth bear get up on its hind legs inside its enclosure to inspect us. We hop off to explore the walking trails, spotting slow loris, elusive golden cats, hog badgers, and porcupines in glass-panelled and open enclosures.
I feel engulfed by a sense of wonder, at having encountered animals I didn’t even know existed on our planet. At Jurong Bird Park, colourful and noisy lories perched on my arms tickled my ears and made me laugh. I’ve discovered the animals as personalities: Kai Kai the panda who suddenly falls asleep and the loud slurping noises the rhinos Shova and Bora make when eating muskmelon are all very endearing. I know that Eva the manatee has seven children and two grandchildren, Amigo the yellow-naped Amazon parrot can hold a (very shrill) tune, and Woody the orangutan does not like to share food.
Not all my apprehensions about zoos are completely gone, but my dream of seeing an alternative, happier version of them has been fulfilled. Having experienced so much joy at meeting these creatures, I can only imagine the interest that would be sparked in a child upon seeing these animals in close proximity, in settings similar to their natural habitats. Maybe that’s why we need zoos—as a first step in fostering amazement and curiosity about the natural world. So long as zoos can take care of animals and birds, keep them safe, and engage the minds of the next generation to think actively about conserving Earth’s diversity.
Appeared in the March 2016 issue as “Creatures Great And Small”.
SINGAPORE ZOO provides a bus service from select locations in Singapore (round trip adults SGD10/₹488, children SGD5/₹244). The zoo’s website (www.zoo.com.sg) has detailed instructions on how to reach it using other public transport. Hours 8.30 a.m.-6 p.m. daily (last entry 5.30 p.m.). Entry fee Adults SGD32/₹1,560, children 3-12 years SGD21/₹1,024. Discounts of up to 30 per cent possible on advance online purchases. Those with young children may like to purchase tickets for the hop-on hop-off guided tram tour (adults SGD5/₹244; children SGD3/₹146). Need to Know The zoo website also has discounted Park Hopper tickets offering combinations depending on the other Wildlife Reserves Singapore parks you want to visit. They are valid for seven days. Bring The weather is unpredictable; carry an umbrella or raincoat. Eat There are food outlets located throughout the zoo.
NIGHT SAFARI is adjacent to the zoo. Hours 7.15 p.m.- midnight (last entry 11.15 p.m.). Entry fee Adults SGD42/₹2,048, children SGD28/₹1,365. Discounts on advance online purchases (www.nightsafari.com.sg).
RIVER SAFARI is in the same area as the Zoo and Night Safari. It has a biodome with pandas, and boat safaris(adults SGD5/₹244, children SGD3/₹146). Hours 10 a.m.- 7 p.m. (last entry 6.30 p.m.). Entry fee Adults SGD28/ ₹1,367, children SGD18/₹880. (www.riversafari.com.sg).
JURONG BIRD PARK is in the Juron region, a 30-minute drive from the zoo at Mandai. Hours 8.30 a.m- 6 p.m. (last entry 5.30 p.m.; feeding sessions are at different times throughout the day, Lory Loft feeding open all day). Entry fee Adults SGD28/₹1,371, children SGD18/₹881.
Rumela Basu is former Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. Her favourite kind of travel involves food, literature, dance and forests. She travels not just to discover new destinations but also aspects of herself.