Singapore Zoo to get makeover: 5 fun facts about the zoo and how it has transformed

Singapore Zoo will be transformed into a “bigger, better zoo” as part of a massive makeover for the Mandai area, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong revealed on Thursday. The zoo, which now sits on a 26ha plot about the size of 23 football fields, will be overhauled and could expand to take up available land next to it.

Jurong Bird Park could also migrate to Mandai, said Mr Lee, adding that the plans should start coming together soon and could be rolled out by as early as 2020.

As the zoo, which turns 41 this year, gears up for the major facelift, we look back at its transformation through five fun facts and pictures from The Straits Times archives:

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1. It’s the No. 1 zoo in Asia

The idea of setting up a Singapore Zoo in the catchment forests around the Upper Seletar Reservoir was conceived in 1968 by then Public Utilities Board chairman Ong Swee Law. He envisioned a modern haven for animals kept in open-type enclosures amid landscaped gardens resembling their natural habitat.

The zoo officially opened on June 27, 1973, with a collection of just 272 animals from 72 species. Over the last four decades, it grew into a wildlife haven with more than 2,800 specimens representing over 300 species, some of which are threatened, such as the orang utan, manatee and malayan tapir.

The zoo, which attracts 1.7 million visitors annually, was recently ranked No. 1 in Asia by TripAdvisor in its Travellers’ Choice Awards 2014. It was ranked fifth overall in the world.

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2. Guess which is the oldest animal at the zoo? 

Astove the tortoise, which turns 76 this year. The Aldabra giant tortoise from Seychelles has been at the zoo since August 1989. Aldabras are one of the largest species of tortoises in the world and can live to between 150 and 200 years old.

Astove, which has blue eyes, measures more than 1m long and weighs almost 300kg. A vegetarian, eating different types of grass, sweet potato, carrots, tomato and cucumber, it is tame and friendly with visitors.

3. Animals on the run

The zoo had to deal with several episodes of animals escaping in its formative years.In fact, four months before its opening in June 1973, two sun bears escaped, followed by a black panther which disappeared a few days later. A massive hunt, including the army and police, ensued for the large cat.

On the second day of the panther’s escape, officers shot at a black animal in the forest. But it turned out to be one of the escaped sun bears. In the end the panther suffocated to death in an attempt to scare it into nets using fire.

On Jan 14 1974, Congo the hippopotamus escaped and stayed in Upper Seletar Reservoir for 52 days. Zookeepers finally lured it into a crate with bananas and sweet potato. An antelope also wandered off in the same year.

Following the spate of animal escapes, zookeepers were sent for special training overseas. In the years that followed, such incidents became less common but there were a few more scares.

In 2004, Ramba the chimpanzee drowned in the Upper Seletar Reservoir after it escaped from its enclosure.

In 2005, Medan, a female Borneo orang utan and the daughter of Ah Meng, was walking back to her enclosure after a routine photography session when she broke away from the zookeeper and bolted up a tree. She eventually came down on her own, enticed by bananas and oranges offered by keepers.

In the same year, a jaguar escaped briefly through a small hole used by its handlers to throw meat into the enclosure. The animal was later recaptured after it was sedated.

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4. Meet the stars of the zoo

Over the years, the zoo has “groomed” quite a few “stars” including: 

Ah Meng, the orang utanAh Meng undoubtedly was the biggest star of the zoo, appearing in more than 30 travel films. The well-loved primate dined with everyone, from school children to royalty, in the famous “Breakfast with Ah Meng” programme launched in 1982.

There were conflicting claims about her background. The official version is that Ah Meng was born in Sumatra, and came to the zoo in 1971. She was taken from a couple who kept her illegally as a pet. But Australian oil rig worker Paul Carter, in his memoir, claimed that Ah Meng spent 15 years tending bar on an oil barge that plied the waters of South-east Asia. He said it was only when the ship was sold to new owners in the 1970s that the crew was forced to give Ah Meng up to the zoo.

When the orang utan died in 2008 at the age of 48 - or around 95 in human years - more than 4,000 people attended her memorial service. She was buried in the Singapore Zoo - the first zoo resident to be accorded such an honour.

Sheba, the polar bear, and her son InukaThe beloved polar bear was brought in from Cologne Zoo in Germany in 1978 when she was 14 months old. A mate, Nanook, was brought in from Canada’s Winnipeg Zoo. Sheba gave birth to a son – Inuka – on Dec 26, 1990, the world’s first polar bear to be born in the tropics.

Sheba suffered a debilitating condition which involved the loss of strength in its hind limbs. Her condition worsened gradually and in the final stages she could not eat. She was finally put down at the age of 35 in 2012. Her body was preserved by a taxidermist.

Like his mother, Inuka is a favourite among zoo visitors. He was once named by the zoo as a possible replacement for the then ageing Ah Meng as its mascot. Back in 2006, there was talk about sending Inuka to a temperate zoo. But it was decided eventually that he should remain in Singapore.

Inuka, who turns 24 this year, moved into a new $8 million enclosure, Frozen Tundra, in 2013. The 2,700 sq m exhibit - about the size of 2½ basketball courts - was modelled on the natural environment of the Arctic, with a large pool, waterfall and an ice cave.

The white tigersThree rare white tigers - Winnie, Omar and Jippie - were brought to Singapore from Indonesia in 2001 as part of an animal exchange programme and to mark the Year of the Tiger.

White tigers, a sub-species of the Bengal tiger, are extremely rare. Also known as Panthera tigris tigris, they are born without the pigment that usually makes the fur orange. Only one out of every 10,000 Bengal tigers are born this way. 

Terminally ill, Jippie was put down in March 2012, and Winnie on Aug 12, 2014. Omar is the only surviving white tiger at the zoo.

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5. There were plans to rename the zoo 

To mark its 30th anniversary in 2003, the zoo announced it would spend $500,000 on a branding exercise that would include a new name, among other things.

But the move sparked a public outcry with many slamming the name change as a waste of money. Zoo officials tried to explain then that the word “zoo” had negative connotations, as most were miserable places for animals. The renaming exercise was eventually put on hold.

It was reported then that 1,000 possible names had been narrowed to a shortlist of three - with “Wild Places” being one of them - before plans were scrapped.