When you've done the touristy things and seek to find joy in more personal interactions, here's what you can do

As you butter your warm, multi-grain toast and cut bite-sized pieces of crisp, golden hash browns for an early morning Jungle Breakfast laid out in a picturesque corner of Singapore Zoo, there's company — a congress of swinging orangutans that settles down on the lofts nearby and lets you get an up-close and personal view — preening females, impish babies and an exasperated male! Then, a boa constrictor glides into view, before coiling itself on a branch; just the chance for you to feel its cool, smooth skin and get rid of any fear you might harbour.

A different breakfast

There's another kind of breakfast too — with avian friends at the Jurong Bird Park — The Early Bird Breakfast Show! This one's complete with a fortune-telling session with Merlin, the Yellow-Naped Amazon, and a sumptuous American spread. And, then there are the varied vibrant-plumed cockatoos that walk about with an air of dignity like they were to the manor born, talk to you, even sing, even as they crunch on sunflower seeds.

And, if you are the sort that comes alive after twilight, there are the night safari and the many short trails that let you into the wonders of the nocturnal world.

The Singapore Zoo, Jurong Bird Park and the Night Safari, all managed by Wildlife Reserves Singapore (WRS), are on the must-do lists of most frenzied travellers to Singapore, who seek to pack in as much as they can into a short trip to the City-State. But, in the midst of all this tourist rush is a clutch of programmes designed to get you closer to Nature. And, that's where the real charm lies.

Across all three properties, the buzz word is eco-consciousness. The conservation and pro-Nature messages are apparent at every step along the way. Only, most of the time, they are so beautifully weaved in, you can't wait to follow them. Even compulsive shutterbug-tourists prone to zipping out their high-pixel beauties time and again during the ‘wild' shows seem to settle down and allow their eyes to scan all they see to memory, or go flashless.

But, all this took time. Change had to come from within, says Fanny Lai, Group Chief Executive Officer, WRS. “The idea was to develop the parks into areas that focussed on conservation, education and recreation — edutainment,” she says.

And, that's what they do now. Jurong (opened in 1971 and carved out of a hill) is a 20.2-hectare haven for 4,600 birds from 380 species. Among the topographies recreated here are the grasslands of Africa and the rain forests of South America. Then, there's the nine-storey-high Lory Loft, where hundreds of colourful birds swoop down for a feed from a cup of nectar mix you hold.

On prior request and appointment, visitors also get the rare chance to see the Avian Hospital and Breeding and Research Centre. There are also customised educational programmes, day trips, overnight camps, behind-the-scenes tours and workshops to help people understand the avian world better.

At the Zoo, the animals roam freely in spaces enclosed by moats. There are no cages; so, there's an unrestricted view. The knee-high signages make it easier on children to take in the kid-friendly information.

And, there are feeding programmes too — where you can delight in having giraffes bend over double for a treat or a rhinoceros stop by for a morsel!

The Night Safari's (it opened in 1994, is spread across 40 hectares and is home to over 1,000 animals across 115 species) goals are similar too — to allow visitors a chance to see the lords of the night in their near-natural environs. Its iconic animal? Asian bull elephant Chawang, who trumpets about in his new habitat. One of the focus areas of the Safari is captive breeding of threatened species.

Change is constant at the WRS properties. Because, that's the way to keep the interest alive, says Biswajit Guha, Director, Zoology, WRS. The zoo believes in knowledge-sharing with other parks, but “we keep improvising, we keep experimenting, because that's the only way to stay ahead,” he adds.

An ode to river systems

Next up on the WRS radar is the River Safari, scheduled to open in 2012. This one's an ode to the major river systems of the world such as the Yangtze, the Ganges, the Congo, the Nile and the Amazon. The focus will be on the total experience — resident marine life, flora, fauna, and the like.

However, in all this quest for future glory, the past is not exactly left behind. Nearly three years after she passed away, Ah Meng, the lovable female Sumatran Orangutan who represented everything the Singapore Zoo stands for, lives on. There are restaurants named after her, the guides can't help recalling her antics and her bond with her human friend, Sam, and then, there's her life-sized statue close by her final resting place near the picturesque lake. Wherever she is, she'd approve, all right!

 (The writer was in Singapore at the invitation of Wildlife Reserves Singapore) 

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