Beauty of the beasts

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 May, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 May, 2006, 12:00am

The Singapore Zoo is arguably this city's best-known tourist attraction, and has gathered many awards. Although it is showing its age now, its open concept - where most animals are kept in landscaped enclosures separated from the noisy hoards of visitors by moats - is often lauded as one of the best in the world. Each year, the zoo attracts 1.3 million visitors, while its sister, the Night Safari, attracts 900,000.

The Night Safari doesn't live up to my recollections of night life on the Kenyan savannah. But if you are unable to experience the real thing, Singapore's option is worth a trip. The Night Safari is a completely separate zoo. I'd lived here for four years before finding that out, even though I'd taken my children to the other zoo - which is next door to the Night Safari - several times over the years.

Keeping the Singapore Zoo fresh and exciting for the returning Singaporean public is a constant struggle for management, which is trying hard to reposition it from a 'viewing' to a 'learning' zoo. In recent months, it has introduced greater educational and interactive elements throughout its facilities, while bringing in new exhibits. Last year, it brought in giraffes, babirusas (Sulawesi pigs) and Asian small-clawed otters. This year, it has created a free-range area for 24 orang-utans to roam (the zoo has the world's largest colony of captive orang-utans).

It is trying to entice families and children with activities such as meet-the-zookeeper sessions, an 'explorer camp' (where you can sleep inside the zoo) and ceramics workshop for making animal figures. There will be a 'zoolympix' event next month, in which children will pit their skills against the 'athletes' of the animal kingdom and learn about the amazing speed, strength and endurance animals possess.

Of course, being Singapore, the event is meant not just to be fun for children - but also an opportunity for study. More competitive parents will no doubt start looking for extracurricular enrichment classes to prepare their youngsters for these new activities. Last week, the zoo produced a booklet for primary pupils on Chinese idioms related to animals - anything to help teach Putonghua. Nothing picks up my five-year-old's attention more quickly than wild animals.

But this educational element isn't aimed just at the young. 'Putonghua is very useful for reaching a community of people who - in many people's eyes - are consumers of endangered wildlife,' said Fanny Lai, executive director of the zoo. 'By having such Putonghua programmes, we can better appeal to the community to stop illegal trading and eating of exotic animals - as well as educate them on the importance of wildlife conservation.' An urgent explanation of the importance of shark conservation comes to mind.