Each time the tortoise sticks his head out of his shell and takes a tentative step, the curious monkey pokes him with a leathery finger. The tortoise pulls his head back in. The monkey rocks the shell, then sits back and waits for the next move.
The little drama is playing out right at our feet, on a bridge in the Singapore Zoo. The monkey is a macaque, according to the information board. ‘Avoid threatening eye contact with macaques,’ it adds, so the tortoise seems to be doing the right thing.
It’s one of the delights of Singapore’s three major wildlife attractions that we can get very close to the animals. In the zoo a family of orang-utans free-ranges over our path and swings its way up a high ropes course. Out at the Jurong BirdPark screeching lorikeets gather to suck nectar from containers held by shrieking kids, and at the Night Safari the dark shape looming on the road in front of our tram turns out to be a Malayan tapir.
Like many people I have my doubts about zoos. Yes, they play useful roles in research, breeding and education programs, and I understand that some animals enjoy a less stressful life in captivity. The gazelles’ enclosure may not be the wide savannah, but there’s plenty of hay and it’s a cheetah-free zone.
However I feel uncomfortable watching a leopard pace back and forth on a five-metre trail, and I don’t like seeing polar bears in the tropics, even though the signs emphasise that they have air-conditioned quarters. Maybe when global warming kicks in polar bears will live under palm trees, but meanwhile I prefer to see fauna in a more convincing approximation of natural habitat.
For the most part, Singapore does that extremely well. The Zoo, Night Safari and Jurong Bird Park have the great advantages of being new (all established since the 1970s), well funded, well planned and above all, tropical. The lush foliage that lines the winding paths ensures that we’re often screened from other visitors. Palms and tree ferns form a dense canopy under which bright ginger plants and orchids bloom. The gardens alone are worth the admission price.
The animals have the run of relatively large areas with few obvious fences. Moats and cattle grids rather than bars separate the enclosures.
Our favourite zoo exhibit is the one housing dozens of Hamadryas baboons. They’re a long way from North Africa, but they look very much at home on their cliff, with a waterfall, caves to shelter in and rocks to frolic on. A scuffle breaks out as a young upstart challenges the big fella. The boss cuffs him away, and he scoots off to find a lower caste baboon to give him an ego-boosting grooming. We wouldn’t see more natural behaviour on a crag in Ethiopia.
Every half hour the zoo stages a different animal show. We don’t much enjoy watching animals demonstrate their ‘intelligence’ by obeying instructions from cheesy game-show hosts. If the animals were really smart they’d grab the bucket and force the keeper to beg for snacks. However the shows are naturally popular with the kiddies and the elephants and seals look as if they enjoy their work.
Next to the zoo, the Night Safari kicks off at sunset, and it’s very much a show too. As we board the tiger-striped tram, flaming torches, staff in khaki shorts and piped African drum music suggest we’re off on a dangerous expedition where someone could be taken by an anaconda at any moment.
The commentary is very ‘wow, this is just sooo amazing!’ though at night elephants, giraffes and rhinos stand round much as they do during the day, only in worse light. ‘And please ladies and gentlemen, no flash photography – we’ll sell you the photos later.’
This being commercially-minded Singapore, the wildlife parks must have an enterprising sponsorship department selling naming rights. Plaques by the displays tell us the penguins are sponsored by Penguin Books, the crocodiles by Crocs shoes, and the sugar gliders by, you’ll never guess…Coca Cola.
The stars of the Night Safari are the smaller animals we see when leave the tram and walk – giant squirrels and civets (something like pointy-faced otters), natives of South-East Asia, which zip around the trees.
We also love the fruit bats. We’ve seen plenty in Sydney, but never come so close to them as in the Mangrove Walk, where they flap and crawl a metre from our faces, chewing on dangling banana bunches.
Our favourite attraction of the three is the Jurong BirdPark. It’s a half hour ride west of central Singapore, home to 9000 birds, brilliantly displayed. Unavoidably there are more corny shows. We go to a lecture on hornbill behaviour (‘The hornbill can eject its faeces a distance of two metres so stand well back ha ha ha!’). We see a talking parrot demonstration, and watch Pikasso (sic) the suphur-crested cockatoo paint pictures.
But there are also lovely gardens, huge aviaries and great wetland areas. We particularly like the flocks of flamingos and spoonbills and the Maribu and shoebill storks. I’ve decided the shoebill is my current favourite bird – it looks so improbably ugly and disapproving.
A clump of grass trees and a boab tell us we were entering Australia. In the café you can buy pies and chips, but we give them a miss and step into the Lory Loft, an enormous walk-through aviary with viewing platforms above the treetops. Flocks of bright green and red lorikeets flash up out of the foliage to perch on visitors’ heads and shoulders. Everyone’s having fun, especially the birds.
Many of the birds seem to be in open enclosures, with nothing to stop them flying off and heading for the wilds of Madagascar. Maybe from time to time an adventurous free-range flamingo does fly out of the park to explore Singapore. The escapee then no doubt comes back and tells the flock, ‘I’ve seen the world, guys, and it’s all apartments and shopping malls. The best part is right here.’ We tend to agree.
A combined pass to Jurong BirdPark, Singapore Zoo and the Night Safari costs Singapore $45 per adult. The pass is good for one month, so the attractions can be visited on separate days.
Jurong BirdPark entry is S$18 (A$15) for adults, children half price.
Singapore Zoo entry is S$21.50 (children S$11) including hop on/hop off train around the zoo.
The Night Safari including tram ride costs S$32 (children $16).
There are various bus tours to visit each park separately, including transport from the city centre and park entry. Tours cost between S$35-$45 per person, but for two or more people it can be cheaper to share a taxi. Rides from the city centre to Jurong or the Zoo take about half an hour and cost S$15-24 depending on traffic.
First published, Sun-Herald, Sydney