Birds and beasts enjoy home away from home

By Jim Eagles

Typical Aussies. Offer them a drink and they'll climb all over you. One even stood on my head, although he found it hard to get a grip on the smooth surface.

This is the Lory Loft, the $7 million newest attraction at Singapore's Jurong Bird Park, already the second-biggest bird park in the world (apparently the biggest is in Germany).

It is nine stories high, covers 3000sq m, has a giant suspension bridge down the middle, and houses more than 1000 lorikeets.

To help the little Aussies feel at home there is also a bushman's hut complete with blackened tea billy, eucalyptus trees, acacias and a bottle tree ... plus the chance to bludge free drinks.

For a donation of a couple of bucks, visitors get a special container of nectar. Hold it up in the air to signal the bar is open and lorikeets will flock in from all over.

"What we have tried to do here is recreate something of tropical northern Australia," says senior manager Raja Segran. "We want to give people who will never go there a taste of what it is like."

With lorikeets swarming all over me like flies as they suck the bar dry, I can only agree that they have succeeded brilliantly.

Singapore, which has the same population as New Zealand in 0.2 per cent of the land area (616sq km against our 269,057sq km), isn't necessarily where you would expect to come to look at wildlife.

But the island is remarkably green, has some beautiful reserves, an excellent zoo, a marvellous Night Safari zoo, a wonderful underwater world, a fascinating butterfly and insect house - and this amazing bird park.

The park, 34 years old, covers 20ha and has 9000 birds from 600 species, most of them held in giant open-air enclosures like the Lory Loft.

For instance, the Waterfall Aviary, said to be the world's largest walk-in aviary, features paths threading through an African rainforest created with more than 10,000 exotic plants, the world's tallest man-made waterfall and artificially created jungle mist.

Walk in there and see colourful birds like turacos and bee-eaters flying about and you start to look around nervously for leopards.

Other exhibits include a Southeast Asian Aviary with 200 species of birds; Jungle Jewels, where brilliant little hummingbirds and honeycreepers feed on the nectar in a recreated South American rainforest; Penguin Parade; and World of Darkness, an amazing nocturnal bird house where you can see owls and night herons in action.

And there are special exhibitions of flamboyant birds of paradise, extraordinary crowned pigeons, deadly birds of prey, and a lake with 1001 flamingos, whose glowing pink colour has to be preserved by putting an additive in their food because the crabs which provide the necessary chemicals in the wild aren't available.

As far as I can make out only one New Zealand bird is in the park - a kea that can be found in the parrot section.

"We used to have a pair of kiwi," says Raja, "and we even successfully hatched one, but then something went wrong and they died. We would like to have more but that would depend on your Government giving them to us."

However, another New Zealand connection is there in the form of 40 smuggled eggs confiscated by our Customs service and given to Jurong to hatch. "Some of them turned out to be quite rare birds, such as macaws, which we now have on display."

Like Jurong Bird Park, the Singapore Zoo also tries to put animals into a realistic settings so visitors who will never go to, say, Ethiopia, can get a feel for what it is like.

For example, the hamadryas baboons live in a mock-up of the Great Rift Valley, complete with replica villages of two of the region's tribes, recordings of village sounds and even a mock-up of the 3.2 million-year-old fossilised remains of Lucy, an ancient human ancestor, whose discovery was one of the great archaeological finds.

The baboons share this part of the zoo with their neighbours from the region, nubian ibex, banded mongoose, rock hyrax and black-backed jackals. The elephants are found in a replica logging camp on the banks of a river, where they regularly put on displays of log-handling.

And to demonstrate the incredible biodiversity of the tropical rainforest, a huge, misty walk-through area is filled with butterflies and beetles, chameleons and snakes, sloths and tree kangaroos, mouse-deer and lemurs.

But probably the zoo's greatest claim to fame is that it has the largest collection of primates in the world.

We met one of the orang-utans over breakfast, an experience I thought would be rather like breakfast with my brothers many years ago.

But the young fellow was very well-behaved, delicately peeling bananas and scooping out watermelon with a piece of wood.

It was pouring with rain the day we went through the zoo and when we later saw the orang-utans in their enclosure one of the females was fastidiously - and futilely - wiping herself dry with a large piece of cloth.

Probably the most fascinating of the primates is the proboscis monkey from Borneo, with its amazing long nose. Apparently, the bigger the nose a male has the greater its sex appeal.

Unfortunately, the proboscis is regarded by some humans as a delicacy so the monkeys are becoming increasingly rare.

The zoo is also home to chimpanzees. They are often regarded as the most humanoid of the apes and they demonstrated this by keeping out of the rain, and who could blame them?

The dominant male is a particularly smart chap who recently took advantage of a power cut, which shut down the enclosure's electric fence, to make a bid for freedom.

The white tigers didn't seem to mind the rain because one of the females took the opportunity to go for a swim. But the lions looked very grumpy, except for the dominant male, who demonstrated his superiority by sitting in splendid solitary dryness in the only cave.

If you want to see predators in action, however, the place to go is the Night Safari zoo next door. This opens at dusk, when the regular zoo closes, and visitors can wander darkened tracks or take a tram trip to watch nocturnal creatures.

Several people had said to me beforehand, "If you're going to Singapore you must do the Night Safari," and I now understand why.

It starts with the Creatures of the Night Show, where you get to see wolves, owls, hyenas and big cats - plus litter-lout raccoons and rubbish-recycling otters.

The guy next to me, who turned out to be part of the act, nearly gave me a heart attack when he produced a giant python which he insisted on draping around himself. Scary stuff.

It is also a little unnerving seeing animals that are usually very sleepy in broad daylight suddenly appearing extremely alert, rather hungry, and very close.

Jackals, malaysian tigers, asian lions, more wolves and hyenas, clouded leopards, tapirs, giant ant eaters, fruit-bats, flying squirrels, horned buffaloes and rhinos are likely to loom suddenly out of the darkness as you make your way around.

I'm not surprised that most of the children I saw had their eyes out on stilts. It was almost a relief to get back to the bright lights of the restaurant in one piece.

Maybe even scarier is the Butterfly Park and Insect Kingdom on Sentosa Island, which has 2500 different species of creepy crawlie on display.

The butterflies aren't scary, of course, and they looked a bit battered from the previous day's rain when we called.

But getting up close and personal with a banana beetle the size of, well, a banana, tarantulas as big as your fist, huge spiky horned beetles and all manner of deadly looking scorpions - there's a guy there who lets them walk all over him ... mad - is enough to get the skin crawling.

Just down the road is Underwater World Singapore which has a fantastic display of huge sharks and giant rays, beautiful tropical-reef fish and stately seahorses, poisonous jellyfish and deadly piranha.

But the displays that most amazed us - because we hadn't seen anything like them before - were the endangered dugong, almost certainly the origin of the mermaid legends, the weird sea-dragons, looking just like bits of floating seaweed, and the amazing cuttlefish.

Singapore also has a magnificent botanic gardens with a particularly beautiful collection of orchids and some excellent nature trails.

The best place to see what is left of the local wildlife is probably the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, where you are bound to see long-tailed macaques - they will probably try to nick your camera - lizards, bats ... and the biggest ants in the world.

They do nothing by halves in Singapore.

* Jim Eagles checked out Singapore's animals with the help of House of Travel, Air New Zealand and RMG Tours.

Singapore money

The currency is the Singapore dollar. $1 will buy you about SG$1.14. Credit cards are widely accepted and ATMs are readily available.

Getting there

House Of Travel has four-night packages to Singapore from $1669 each, share-twin. The package includes return economy airfares on Singapore Airlines to Singapore from Auckland, four nights at the Albert Court Hotel, return airport transfers, a half-day city tour, a two-hour Cheng Ho Imperial Cruise and a day-tour to Jurong Bird Park.

House of Travel can be contacted on 0800 838 747 or visit their website (link below).

Further information

Links for Jurong Bird Park, Singapore Zoo, The Butterfly and Insect Kingdom, nderwater World Singapore, Singapore's nature trails, Singapore Botanic Gardens and other national parks can be seen below.

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