Behavioural enrichment devices to keep the orangutans intellectually engaged.
Breakfast date with primates.
Singapore Zoo is the first zoo to feature a free ranging area for the orangutans.

YOU desperately need a break. The news out there seems grim. Donald Trump is President, unprecedented refugee crisis, wars and terrorism plague the globe. We could all use some cute animal antics to divert our attention.

The lion nation’s zoo agrees. How about visiting some iconic tea-sipping Simians with larger-than-life personalities for some monkeying around?

Welcome to Singapore Zoo. Resident to over 2,800 animals representing over 300 species, of which 26 per cent are threatened, you can now put away misconceptions of seeing miserable wildlife cowering behind bars of small cages and stuffy enclosures. Covering 26 hectares, its lush landscapes are thoughtfully designed to emulate the natural habitats of the animals it houses. And as far as zoos go, its enclosures are reputedly one of the most comfortable, globally.

My trepidations about captive animals aside, I can’t seem to best the inner child in me who’s clamouring for a visit to one of the world’s best zoos so I can come face to face with wildlife that I’ve only made a passing acquaintance with on documentaries played out on my television screen and National Geographic magazines.

And when you’ve got a breakfast date with some amazing primates as part of your agenda, you’d probably have trouble curbing your enthusiasm like I did.

After all, that’s really one of the functions of a great zoo — offering visitors the opportunity to view and learn about wildlife using an interactive approach with underlying conservation principles to educate while entertaining them.

A BREAKFAST DATE

And entertain it does. After all, one doesn’t get to have breakfast with primates all the time. I’d have preferred my original assumption of what having breakfast with orangutans entailed — entering into their leafy domain, exchanging food in a solemn manner and culminating in a mutual grooming session where they get to rummage through my hair looking for ticks and I do the same. In essence, a happy primate bonding session between two new friends showing some inter-species love.

And, no, it doesn’t happen that way, as I settle for a hearty buffet breakfast at the breezy Ah Meng (named after the late star orangutan of Singapore Zoo) restaurant while waiting for a family of orangey-tufted primates to swing on to the nearby perch.

They soon arrive. Our simian friends swing by, to the delight of the waiting breakfasting crowd, and settle themselves on a platform behind a low barrier. A commotion breaks out as expected amongst diners as cameras (and mobile phones) are whipped out and the excited twitter rises to fever pitch as people jostle for a better view of the amazing sight presented right before them — a company of orangutans perched up close and chewing on their snacks nonchalantly.

The animals aren’t fazed and are probably wondering what the fuss is all about. They’re only interested in what’s being fed to them — constantly gesturing to their keepers for more food with human-like hands outstretched, showing opposable thumbs. It’s easy to see why Charles Darwin believed we share a common evolutionary ancestor (They share a whopping 96.4 per cent of our genes!).

As we pose for photographs with our primate company, we’re tempted to touch the docile creatures. I long for a handshake at the very least, but we’re told in no uncertain terms that touching them isn’t allowed. For our safety, presumably. After all, wildlife is still very much wildlife.

GETTING TO KNOW THE MAN OF THE FOREST

Nevertheless, there’s really no substitute for a face-to-face encounter with a live orangutan up close and personal.

It’s akin to a living classroom where we’re introduced to the amazing species, both the Sumatran and Bornean orangutans. Their numbers are dwindling rapidly in the wild due to habitat loss, poaching and illegal pet trade.

The “slash and burn” forest clearance in Indonesia that occurs almost on a regular basis, for instance, almost without fail, unavoidably morphs into out-of-control forest fires, which result in the deaths and displacement of thousands of these gentle creatures, already endangered in the wild.

According to a report by World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF), there are only an estimated 54,000 Bornean orangutans left, while the Sumatran orangutans now number around a dismal 6,600. Both species are classified as “Critically Endangered”.

The name orangutan means “man of the forest” in the Malay language and are often known as “gardeners of the forest”, playing a vital role in seed dispersal and maintaining the health of the forest ecosystem. The Bornean and Sumatran species differ very little from each other in appearance and behaviour. While both species have shaggy reddish fur, the Sumatran orangutans have longer facial hair.

It’s heartening to note that Singapore Zoo has one of the most successful breeding programmes for the orangutan. About fifty orangutans have been bred to date, and some have been sent to zoos across the globe including Malaysia, Japan, Australia and New Zealand as part of a worldwide exchange programme to facilitate the breeding of these highly endangered apes.

THE LEGACY OF AH MENG

A life-sized bronze statue of an orangutan by the tranquil surroundings beside the Mandai Lake smiles at us benignly. “This marks the area where Ah Meng is buried,” says Natt Haniff in a hushed, almost reverential voice.

She’s our host and Corporate Communications Manager of Wildlife Reserves Singapore which manages the Zoo along with the other nature-based sites which include Jurong Bird Park, Night Safari and the River Safari.

I’m curious about Ah Meng, Singapore’s best known redhead and Sumatran orangutan who was the zoo’s brightest star until she passed away in 2008.

Ah Meng was rescued from Indonesia. She had been smuggled into Singapore and kept as a pet for 11 years. Her rescuer, a veterinarian, left her under the care of the zoo and as history would have it, Ah Meng grew to be one of the biggest conservation icons in the country for over three decades.

One of her career highlights included being the first non-human recipient of the Singapore Tourism Promotion Board’s “Special Tourism Ambassador” where she received a certificate and a sack of bananas! She was truly a star, brushing shoulders with royalty (Prince Philip) and other human stars including Michael Jackson and Elizabeth Taylor.

I’m regaled with amusing anecdotes about Ah Meng and her strong attachment to her favourite keeper, Sam. “They used to go for walks together every day,” recalls Natt. “However Ah Meng was a trifle possessive about Sam. She was quite the jealous girlfriend, she never liked women getting close to him!” says our affable host with a chuckle. “She’d give women that ‘look’ when any of them spoke to Sam. Once when Sam had a lady guest, he asked her to sit next to Ah Meng for a picture since she was so famous. The lady suddenly jumped up while Sam was taking a photo. He asked why and she exclaimed: ‘Your orangutan just pinched me!’”

“Ah Meng died on Feb 8, 2008. A year after she died, we had a commemorative run in her honour called the Safari Zoo Run covering both the zoo and the Night Safari,” continues Natt. “Last Saturday we had the ninth edition of the Safari Zoo Run. Some 7,500 people ran around through the zoo and the Night Safari. A lot of them had participated in the first year and they never stopped participating every year after that.”

FUTURE HOPE

Contrary to zoo detractors and naysayers of captive bred wildlife, the wildlife at Singapore Zoo, including the orangutan, are taken care of extremely well. “We have wildlife nutritionists at hand to look into their dietary needs. Our animals are fed quality food, which is nutritionally equivalent to their original diet in the wild,” says Haniman Boniran, assistant curator under the education arm of the Wildlife Reserves Singapore.

“The orangutans, for example, are fed a variety of fruits and vegetables as well as leaves.”

I catch sight of packets of Dilmah Tea (which I drink by the way) and am surprised to find out that tea is a treat given to these creatures. “They used to enjoy Ribena before, but we switched to tea because the orangutans are prone to diabetes!” shares Haniman with a smile. I find myself having a lot in common with my ape friends as both Ribena and tea are my drinks of choice.

Singapore Zoo is the first zoo to feature a free ranging area for the orangutans. Two free-ranging areas that simulate the natural rainforest environment were created for visitors to view these arboreal creatures. The habitat is also equipped with behavioural enrichment devises to ensure that these smart apes remain intellectually and physically engaged every day.

With such investment poured into the care and upkeep of wildlife, along with the Zoo’s commitment to conservation and education, it’s clear that this wildlife oasis replete with these amazing primates is looked upon as a modern day ark — the final refuge against a rising tide of extinction.

211 reads