Communing with the creatures of the night in Singapore

—by Beverly Shaver, El Cerrito, CA

Almost every visitor to Asia at one time or another passes through Singapore, be it on a shore excursion from a cruise ship or while changing planes. We did not plan to linger as we arrived there on our way home following a 2-week, September ’04 ramble through eastern Malaysia, given the few antiquities and the super-modern urban environment there. We likely would have spent the night before our departure in our hotel room had it not been for the concierge.

That lively gentleman, Mr. Sultaya, spotted an appliqued bearcat on my flight jacket and inquired whether we were wildlife fanciers. Had we heard about Singapore’s unique “night safari”? Singapore isn’t exactly famous for wildlife, so of course we were dubious. Did we realize, he asked, that over 90% of the world’s animals are nocturnal and that the very best time to see them and their natural behavior is at night?

This intriguing introduction led to one of the most absorbing and remarkable experiences of our lifetime of travel: a walk (and ride) on the wild side through a 40-hectare pocket of steamy tropical wilderness inhabited by over a hundred exotic species of wildlife.

A unique experience

Welcoming us and the other visitors to the Singapore Zoological Gardens, a 30-minute ride by van from our hotel (Garden Hotel, Balmoral Rd.; phone 62353344 or fax 62359730), host Wendy Liu Ong reminded us that “when the sun goes down, the wild world does not go to sleep. The night shift takes over.”

Opened in 1994, the Night Safari park was designed to allow, under carefully controlled conditions, public viewing of nocturnal creatures, from fierce predators to timid forest dwellers, living in their authentic natural habitat under subtle “moon-glow” lighting.

We must understand, declared Ms. Ong, that this was neither a theme park nor a zoo experience. It was a unique opportunity to encounter the animals, many of them endangered species, engaging in their active night lives — prowling, hunting, feeding, mating, playing — quite unaware of being observed.

Ride or walk?

There were several options: one could take the 45-minute tram ride with guided commentary through the park’s east and west loops; one could explore three different marked walking trails, each taking about 15 minutes, or the intrepid visitor could do both.

Tram first, we decided, wedging ourselves into a space alongside two Germans wearing massive binoculars hanging against their chests. The several cars quickly filled and resounded with a babble of languages as the tram nosed slowly out of the neon-lit entrance plaza.

Almost at once there was a mind-bending sense of penetrating a mystical sphere, an awareness of forms and shapes and sounds in the shadowy half light. The night had a thousand eyes — as well as paws and claws.

Take care

There were caveats to this rare privilege, Ms. Ong told us softly over the public address system as the tram crept silently along. We were not to leave our seats or extend arms outside the tram. And the most important prohibition of all — no loud noises and no photo flashes, lest we give the animals a Maalox moment.

A church-like silence settled over the cars as necks craned and eyes strained. Then someone asked nervously if the animals could attack us if provoked.

“There are hidden barriers,” Ms. Ong whispered soothingly.

Asia to Africa

We were passing through the arid terrain of the “Himalayan Foothills,” and there among the rocky outcroppings were two large goat-like creatures, both with long white beards and spectacular spiral horns, grazing placidly.

“Those are elderly markhors, a seriously endangered species,” said Ms. Ong. “The name is Persian for ‘snake eater’ and Himalayan natives believe that eating markhor meat will make them immune to snake venom.”

A family of sarus cranes in the Indian Subcontinent habitat had the tram pausing, and breaths were held as two large, sleek birds with necks like raised periscopes, tail feathers gracefully trailing, sedately escorted a diminutive pink-beaked chick through scrubby brush. These, we learned, are the largest of all cranes. The pairs are inseparable for life and chicks are cared for by both parents.

Our German seatmates peered through their binoculars and pronounced the bird an anatomical impossibility with its large body balanced on two spindly legs.

In the dry heat and savanna grasslands of Equatorial Africa we made the acquaintance of the 450-pound scimitar-horned oryx, its outsized horns like satellite antennae. This great beast, we learned, is remarkably well adapted to its arid habitat, existing on very little water obtained from moisture in vegetation and dew. Its meat reputedly compares favorably with top-quality beef, which has led to its being hunted almost to extinction.

Rules enforced

It was here, in darkest Africa, that our bemused state was suddenly shattered by repeated explosions of light. Spotted hyenas and Cape buffalo stood starkly illuminated momentarily, startled and confused. A white-bellied ball of quivering fur shot out of the shadows in a tail-spinning leap.

There were anxious murmurs throughout the tram, and Ms. Ong spoke sternly, harshly. Had we not understood? Absolutely no photos with flashes were permitted! The damage to the animals’ psyches, it was implied, was incalculable.

Shortly thereafter the tram halted at station No. 2 to board a gaggle of walkers and, in a melodramatic coda, the miscreant photo flashers were led away by two security guards.

“Wow, you can get a life sentence for littering in this country!” someone exclaimed to nervous laughter.

A heartwarming sight

The final stages of this awesome “trek on wheels” took us through the Asian Riverine Forest and the South American Pampas. The stars in the former habitat were a 5-ton female Asian elephant and her 200-pound infant.

These elephants, it was explained, are calmer than their African peers and can be tamed. There were sympathetic comments as we heard that these spectacular beasts are known to catch colds and to suffer from depression. Their diminished numbers put them in great danger of extinction.

A walk on the wild side

Later, after having bid the Germans good-bye, we strolled the gently lit walkways and found ourselves suddenly aware of a cheerful cacophony of animal sounds piercing the stillness of the night. There were mysterious rustlings, the shriek of a threatened frog, the swoosh of swooping bats and the grunts and snorts of large, rutting beasts. Lemurs in treetop nests called across to each other like tenement ladies on their fire escapes.

The sense of immersion in another world deepened with the pungent odors of each habitat — moist foliage, redolent animal hides, dung, dead leaves, rotting wood and the perfume of jungle and desert blossoms.

There were encounters on the trails, occasionally close enough to count whiskers. Suddenly, as we paused beside a sweep of pampas, a long, dark snout materialized immediately behind us.

It was the ridiculous-looking giant anteater — a white-knuckle moment as we gazed at the large powerful claws used to tear open termite mounds. But then we saw the furry hump of a young one on its mother’s back. The adult looked at us reproachfully as if to say, “How menacing can a mother tending her baby be?”

This encounter with the singular and unyielding bond between mother and offspring was a potent reminder of human kinship with other species.

The little things

We were captivated on an upper loop of The Leopard Trail by a pair of furry little creatures seemingly escaped from a cartoon. Sole survivors of an ancient lineage, tarsiers are spectral animals the size of rats with odd little pug-like muzzles and saucer eyes. They hopped about like tiny kangaroos, catching insects with suction cup-like digits and stuffing them into their mouths.

We spent an inordinate amount of time in Equatorial Africa fascinated by lines of leaf fragments moving slowly along the trail like a maharaja’s entourage of burden-laden porters. These were the gleanings of ants, who lug as much as they can carry to underground holes where they grow a fungus that is their main food supply.

We watched as these intrepid underground gardeners selected some leaves, rejected others. Clearly, their delicate chemical receptors could detect substances in some leaves that would not be good for their gardens.

Our legs wearied long before our curiosity and enthrallment faded. This had been a jaw-dropping exposure to the infinite variety of ways nature endows its creatures with ingenious devices which enable survival.

Plan your safari

The Singapore Zoological Gardens are located at 80 Mandai Lake Road, near the city’s northern limit and close to the causeway leading to Johor, Malaysia. There are good public bus and Mass Rapid Transit train connections to the gate.

The zoo, which offers many attractions for families including a “Childrens’ World,” animal shows, animal feeding, rides and photo opportunities, is open daily 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission is S$14 (near US$8.50) for adults and S$7 (US$4.25) for children 3-12.

The Night Safari operates 7:30 p.m. to midnight daily. Admission charges are S$18 (US$11) adults and S$9 (US$5.50) for kids. The tram ride costs S$6 (US$3.60) adults and S$3 (US$2) kids. It is advisable to make reservations for the safari. Phone 62693411, fax 3672974 or visit