Wild Curiosities: The Animals of Singapore

• Dispatch #10 •
The colorful animal world of Singapore cures nature deficit disorder.

Among my more vivid memories of Singapore, aside from the great food and diverse cultures, is the wildlife. The Singapore Night Safari, Jurong Bird Park, the Singapore Zoo, and the more recent Singapore River Safari are great places to see species that still exist. For sure, they are touristy places and heinously crowded at times, but they provide a biodiversity that is refreshing when you live in a concrete jungle.

Singapore Night Safari: The Illuminated Wild

The Singapore Night Safari has the advantage of the cool evenings, making a visit a more comfortable one compared to the hot daytime walks of the other wildlife parks. It was magical seeing the animals at night, with the lamps engineered to simulate moonlight.

A pride of lions at the Singapore Night Safari
A pride of lions at the Singapore Night Safari

It was also the Singapore Night Safari that gave me my first glimpse of what I almost thought was a mythical animal: the Malayan tapir. It was so strange-looking especially at night, with its body bisected into black and white, that at first glance one is forgiven to think it was a painted cow, or a bull with an apron.

(In the Singapore Zoo, you can find another one, though it would usually hide in the shade. A sign told of a Malay legend of why the tapir looks the way it does. The tale goes that the tapir used to be black in color with a horn in the middle of his forehead. He was vain and a bully, and so one day some rodents drugged him, cut off his horn, filed down his sharp teeth, and painted parts of his body white to mark him as a criminal. When the tapir woke up, he felt ashamed of his appearance and went into hiding and turned vegetarian. Or perhaps that’s why it was really hard to get a good photo of it. It was a really hot day, and I don’t blame it for wanting to be in the shade. This was the best I could do:

A shy (or overheated) Malayan tapir
A shy (or overheated) Malayan tapir

Jurong Bird Park: The Winged, The Feathered, and The Mysterious

How can we tell if animals are happy? I wondered as I stared at a group of penguins. They are clearly out of their natural climate, and yet here they were, swimming. I’m always uneasy at seeing Arctic animals being in the tropics. I walked away quickly.

Penguins in Jurong Bird Park
Penguins in Jurong Bird Park

Outside was a rainbow of feathers. There were macaws, flamingos, toucans, hornbills, starlings, and many others. There were birds that I didn’t realize were evolutionarily possible, but nature is the best experimentalist. The cassowary looks as though it could be half-dinosaur, I think as I stare at this curiously beautiful bird. It is, in fact, descended from them, as are the ostrich, the emu, and the rhea. The cassowary’s helmet, called a casque, made it look formidable, though I learned that it was remarkably light. I learned that there is such a thing as a lesser bird of paradise, and the scarlet ibises have that color because of the carotene in their diet.

The birds of Singapore. (L-R: cassowary, lesser bird of paradise, scarlet ibises)
The birds of Singapore. (L-R: cassowary, lesser bird of paradise, scarlet ibises)

The shoebill is perhaps the sternest bird I have ever come across. It is also the quietest; I almost walked past it and was alarmed when I felt its presence a few feet away. It is native to Africa; this particular one was from Sudan. You will lose a staring contest with this bird. Nothing seems to faze it. It was then that I felt awe at looking at this species, which is non-migratory and vulnerable, and therefore impossible for me to see unless it was here. And perhaps this is one of the best things about nature parks. Children from this side of the world might never encounter one if not for these.

This shoebill wins all staring contests.
This shoebill wins all staring contests.

Singapore Zoo: Childhood Favorites

I spent one Christmas Eve in the Singapore Zoo, which was an excellent way to spend a holiday.

I will never get tired of seeing big cats, especially this beautiful white Siberian tiger. From a safe distance, of course. The lion looked bored as he stared at the people, and we were able to watch him get fed with a huge raw steak. The cheetah looked ready to leap.

A white tiger roams its habitat.
A white tiger roams its habitat.
A lion relaxes before feeding time.
A lion relaxes before feeding time.
A cheetah looking restless
A cheetah looking restless

Another seemingly fantastical (yet very real and fearsome) creature is the Komodo dragon, the stuff of legends and James Bond movies.

A Komodo dragon
A Komodo dragon

This tortoise was probably almost 100 years old, and here it is, munching on greens.

A very old tortoise eats some greens.
A very old tortoise eats some greens.

I saw a baby wolverine sleeping and wondered if comic book fans have seen what one of their heroes was named after.

A sleeping wolverine
A sleeping wolverine

Few things are as amusing as watching a group of meerkats, although I’m told that they could get aggressive and would make terrible pets. Their synchronized movements made me think they were about to burst into song at any moment.

A mob of meerkats
A mob of meerkats

To remind me of humans’ close cousins, I only had to walk to the primate habitats. An orangutan played with a sack and rolled in it, a chimpanzee was fiddling around with a stick, and a mandrill, colobus monkeys, and proboscis monkeys were there for my human observation.

An orangutan rolls in a sack
An orangutan rolls in a sack
A chimpanzee uses a stick
A chimpanzee uses a stick
L: proboscis monkeys, R: colobus monkeys
L: proboscis monkeys, R: colobus monkeys

And finally, a honey bear! Also known as the Malayan sun bear, it is the smallest bear in the world.

A honey bear, aka a Malayan sun bear
A honey bear, aka a Malayan sun bear

Holidays are best spent outdoors.

Singapore River Safari: A Gem in the Seletar

The youngest among the wildlife parks, the Singapore River Safari is my favorite among them. By now, the Upper Seletar Reservoir is one I’ve gotten to know very well. I can’t complain; it’s so clear and peaceful.

The Upper Seletar Reservoir
The Upper Seletar Reservoir

A river-themed nature park is uncommon, and so I braved the terrible crowds and made a day of it. There was much more to see here, and it was interesting to think of the big rivers of the world, such as the Nile River, the Amazon, the Mississippi River, and the Yangtze River in one place.

I and several other park visitors cautiously walked through an enclosed canopy filled with squirrel monkeys. And suddenly, as though hearing a signal, they all rushed towards one singular direction. Their source of interest? A plastic bag with food that a tourist dropped. And here I got irritated at my own species.

A squirrel monkey
A squirrel monkey

One of the highlights is seeing a river otter. At least he has a secure place to swim here. It was a joyful sight to see it darting through the water.

A very fast river otter!
A very fast river otter!

Hands down, my favorite part would be the Amazon Flooded Forest, which simulates the water wonderland that the Amazon turns into during rainy season. It was very calming watching the manatees swim from one end to the other, sometimes on their backs.

Manatees at the Amazon Flooded Forest exhibition
Manatees at the Amazon Flooded Forest exhibition

It was a long wait for the panda habitat, but it was worth it. I have never seen red pandas up close, and there they were.

A red panda climbs down a tree
A red panda climbs down a tree

Kai-kai and Jia-jia, the celebrated pandas brought to Singapore on loan from China, were also there. It was the quietest spot in the park.

A panda eats shoots and leaves
A panda eats shoots and leaves

Zoos, Curiosity, and Exploration

I have mixed feelings about zoos. I particularly remember one forlorn polar bear in a cramped pseudo-Arctic enclosure I saw growing up. He looked so sad and pathetic, life leaking out of him as fast as the tourists took his photos, that I immediately hated seeing animals in enclosed spaces. However, there are zoos where the animals look healthy and are roaming free, well-fed and safe from being hunted. I really like this type of zoo redesign, where the people are caged instead of the animals. In some ways, one can argue that they are safer in these types of environments than in the wild, where poachers lie in wait or climate change robs them of their habitats.

And while I will always be against exploitative places like Sea World, I do appreciate nature parks like these where animals are allowed to run, fly, and crawl free. In a world where words like “acorn” and “buttercup” are removed from children’s dictionaries, we risk having what writer Richard Louv calls Nature Deficit Disorder. For human beings to be curious, it’s helpful to have places that allow us to safely and conscientiously be explorers.

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