Asia Inc July 94

TRAVEL: Singapore's Night Safari

July 1994

Moonlight Safari
This Singapore attraction provides an unforgettable look at the nocturnal lives of some of the world's most spectacular animals

THE last rays of the setting sun spread a golden sheen over the Seletar reservoir. Across the water, giraffes amble from tree to tree, munching leaves. As we eat fishcakes and mee goreng (Malay-style fried noodles) washed down with chilled orange juice, the cries of hyenas, the whine of jackals and the trumpeting calls of African elephants pierce the twilight calm. The only other sounds are the ceaseless drone of crickets and the almost-silent whir of the tram. It is the tram that transports us back to the city from the Night Safari -- spread over 40 hectares of lush secondary rain forest in the Mandai area of northern Singapore. The Night Safari, which opened to the public in May, admittedly falls short of the romance of a real African expedition. But it takes the unpredictability and guesswork out of animal-spotting. No longer dependent on the whims of nature , visitors are almost guaranteed to see animals of every description. What's more, Singapore's Night Safari, the first zoo of its kind in the world, allows you to see not only African animals, but the barasingha (swamp deer) from the grasslands of India and Nepal; the sambar, a large North American deer; the great Indian rhinoceros; grazing mountain goats and bharal (blue-colored sheep) from the Himalayan foothills; the Southeast Asian seladang (wild ox); and the banteng, also known as Bali Cattle, a species of wild Southeast Asian cow whose large white spot on its brown rump prompts our guide, Grace, to remark: "They look like they're wearing diapers." That wouldn't be surprising. The safari is so well sanitized -- like the rest of Singapore -- that there are virtually none of the ripe, organic smells one might expect in the wild. There are 1,000 animals and 110 species in all, of which at least 43 are endangered. Bernard Harrison, the zoo's executive director, is proud that 18 of the endangered species have produced offspring. "We are delighted and extremely encouraged by the births," he says, "since it shows that our management techniques are correct and the animals are adapting to their new homes." Considerable care has been taken to create habitats that look authentic. Only 12 percent of the native trees were cut to create the game preserve, and by 1996 some 900 new jungle trees will have been planted. Along with the majestic sight of Singapore's rain forest, the landscape is dotted with rare trees such as the aquilaria and the jelutong, also known as the chewing gum tree, from which gum can be extracted for commercial use (and no, despite its name, the tree is not banned in Singapore). The Night Safari isn't simply an after-dark zoo with floodlights. The animals and their habitats are illuminated by concealed lights that cast a gentle bluish glow almost convincing enough to make you believe you are strolling through the jungle on a moonlit night (albeit within jogging distance of a Burger King restaurant). The project is unique not just for its novelty: nocturnal animals have different habits, and the only time to see many in action is at night. Some animals are a bit like some humans -- they like to lounge around during the day when the sun is hot, then get on with their business again as the sun sets. When the lights dim, they begin to hunt for prey, to graze, mate, and feel cool enough to check each other out. "Most tropical animals, almost 90 percent, are nocturnal," says Ong Swee Law, executive chairman of the Singapore Zoological Gardens. "They behave differently than in a zoo, and in complete safety and comfort the visitors can watch the unfolding nocturnal drama." Singapore is particularly well-suited for a night safari, he adds, since its sunset times are consistent year-round and evenings are pleasantly cool. Modern zoos usually don't allow viewers that opportunity, since all but a few close in the evening. The Singapore Night Safari offers a delightful exception. It also speaks volumes about the republic's forward-thinking planners that they chose to set aside such a prime plot of land for a night safari, when yet another golf course or condominium project would have yielded quicker returns. Instead, the zoo invested some $ 38 million to create this visual feast, one-third of which was spent on landscaping. It recruited experts like Lyn de Alwis, the eminent Sri Lankan zoologist and former director of the National Zoological Gardens in Colombo, and spent nearly a decade in planning. The effort shows: The Night Safari is an almost mystical experience. And in Singapore, where the most commonly known jungle is made of glass and concrete, where the national bird is the crane, and where wild life means everything that's banned or brings a fine, the Night Safari adds a new dimension to the urban vocabulary. It transports the island back to its tropical roots. That's cause enough for celebration.