Meet the new Ah Meng

Ishta, the new Ah Meng, getting a pat from Mr Kumaran Sesshe, the head keeper of great apes, who has been training it for the iconic role at the Singapore Zoo. As its first official duty, it will help to flag off the annual Safari Zoo Run today.
Ishta, the new Ah Meng, getting a pat from Mr Kumaran Sesshe, the head keeper of great apes, who has been training it for the iconic role at the Singapore Zoo. As its first official duty, it will help to flag off the annual Safari Zoo Run today.ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

Granddaughter Ishta picked to take on zoo icon's mantle and its name

The Singapore Zoo has a new ambassador, and its name is Ah Meng.

Eight years after the death of the iconic Sumatran orang utan, four-year-old Ishta was picked from its six living descendants to take on its grandmother's mantle, and its name.

Announcing the move at the zoo yesterday, Wildlife Reserves Singapore's (WRS) chief executive officer Mike Barclay said it took the zoo all this time to pick a new Ah Meng "out of respect" for the icon.

It was a long selection process, added head keeper of great apes Kumaran Sesshe. The other contenders for the role were Ah Meng's youngest son Satria, granddaughters Chomel and Endah, and great-grandsons Bino and Putra.

But granddaughter Ishta ultimately won because it shared its grandmother's traits, such as an even temperament and penchant for durians, said Mr Sesshe, 41.

The original Ah Meng, who became popular for its friendly demeanour during breakfast sessions with visitors and got to meet celebrities such as Michael Jackson during its tenure as animal ambassador, died on Feb 8, 2008, at the ripe old age of 48.

Ah Meng arrived at the zoo in 1971 after it was confiscated from a family that was keeping it illegally. Former keeper Alagappasamy Chellaiyah, 65, who cared for it from its arrival until it died, remembered his former companion fondly.

"She became a household name; people would say, 'I'm going to see Ah Meng', not 'I'm going to the zoo'.

"When she passed away, more than 4,000 people came to her funeral, which was amazing. I thought, who would want to come to an orang utan's funeral," he said, choking up.

Mr Chellaiyah, who now holds the position of zoology specialist, said keepers will use positive reinforcement to condition Ishta to respond to its new name.

"We will reinforce with treats; these are very intelligent animals, so it is just a matter of time before she realises that she is the new Ah Meng, the new diva."

Mr Barclay said keeping the name Ah Meng enables the zoo to tap people's recognition for it to strengthen messages of conservation. The Sumatran orang utan is a critically endangered species, with fewer than 7,000 left in the wild.

As its first official duty, the newly crowned Ah Meng will help to flag off the annual Safari Zoo Run today. The run was started in 2009 in memory of its grandmother.

Visitors to the zoo will be able to see it at the Jungle Breakfast with Wildlife sessions, as well as at selected photography sessions. It can also be seen swinging around the free-ranging orang utan habitat, alongside the zoo's 26 other orang utans, most of which are Bornean.

Former WRS chief executive Bernard Harrison, who spent 29 years with the zoo before resigning in 2002, said that retaining an orang utan as its icon was fitting.

"Ah Meng and I had a love-hate relationship; we agreed to be civil in front of the camera," he joked.

"However, there will never be another Ah Meng, the prima donna as she often was."

Marketing assistant Tanya Cheong, who has fond memories of visiting Ah Meng as a child, agreed.

The 28-year-old said: "I think it is great that one of her descendants is continuing her legacy, but Ah Meng was one of a kind."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 27, 2016, with the headline 'Meet the new Ah Meng'. Print Edition | Subscribe