Jurong Bird Park, Singapore's oldest wildlife park, turns 45

The park has grown into a world- class attraction for visitors, with impressive research, breeding and conservation facilities

On Sunday, Mr Raja Segran will mark a significant milestone in his life at Jurong Bird Park.

As Singapore's oldest wildlife park turns 45, he will also celebrate 40 years of work there since joining at the age of 17.

Mr Segran, 57, its general manager and Wildlife Reserves Singapore's director of animal presentations, says: "This isn't my second home, it's my first. I've watched it grow into a world-class attraction."

To mark the park's 45th anniversary, there will be a special edition of the High Flyers Show on Sunday. The show is a spectacle with free- flying birds swooping over the audience's heads as the presenter shares fun facts about them.

Pioneer show birds Big John, a sulfur crested cockatoo, and Rod Stewart, an Egyptian vulture, will make a special appearance while Amigo, a yellow-naped Amazon, will sing a birthday song in English, Mandarin and Malay.

On Sunday, Singapore residents will enjoy a 45 per cent discount off tickets, and F&B and retail specials.

The attraction was built on the vision of former deputy prime minister, the late Dr Goh Keng Swee, who saw value in having a bird park in Jurong as a green escape in an urbanising city.

Spanning 20.2ha in an industrial estate, the avian paradise has 19 exhibits and is home to 5,000 birds from more than 400 species, a far cry from the early years when there were 1,000 birds from 60 species, says Mr Segran. Visitorship has been stable over the past five years, at 800,000 annually.

He says the park has transformed from a place of entertainment to one that impresses on research, breeding and conservation.

Case in point is the evolution of the bird show that began in 1982. Mr Segran, who was in the first team of bird trainer-presenters, says the content in the 1980s had the birds performing kitschy tricks such as riding bicycles on high wire and playing basketball.

"We did everything and anything as it was all about grabbing the audience's attention," he adds.

In the mid- to late 1990s, the team realised they should not be making the birds do stunts that a human could do, he says. So they had the birds showcase their natural abilities instead, such as swooping above the audience's heads or engaging in cheeky banter with the presenter.

"Birds are very intelligent and we wanted to teach audiences to respect and marvel at them for the way they are," he says.

He says the bird park underwent the most changes during the 1990s. At least four new exhibits - including the Jungle Jewels Flight Aviary, one of the four large free-flight aviaries where visitors can get close to birds such as the yellow-hooded blackbird and sun conures - were introduced.

The park has an avian hospital, and its breeding and research centre was opened in 2012, giving visitors a behind-the-scenes look at the growth process of birds from incubation to weaning.

Ms Angelin Lim, one of the park's first interns in 2005 who returned to work full-time in 2010, is now the assistant curator of birds. She is heartened by the park's conservational and breeding efforts.

More than 200 species have been bred at the park since day one, including threatened species such as the Bali mynah and blue- throated macaw. Ms Lim, 30, says: "We consider ourselves specialists as it takes a different kind of training to become an aviculturist."

Despite being situated away from the cluster of wildlife parks - the Singapore Zoo, River Safari Singapore and the Night Safari - in Mandai, Mr Segran does not feel the bird haven is at a disadvantage.

Each of the Mandai parks attracts a larger annual visitorship of more than one million.

He says: "People think the other parks will outshine us with their new offerings and exhibits, but Singaporeans who come here do so when they are in school, then as parents and as grandparents. It's a completely different feeling here."

One of them is housewife Virginia Ng, 44, who recalls the bird park of yore: "When I was a kid, it was a treat to come to such places. I still remember the birds flying all around me and being tickled by the sprays from the waterfall at one of the exhibits."

Another visitor, childcare centre principal Nor Azura Mohammed Radhi, 32, says: "Unlike the zoo, the bird park is smaller so it's easier to cover it, especially with young kids. My daughter likes the colourful birds and being close to them."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 01, 2016, with the headline 'Jurong Bird Park turns 45'. Print Edition | Subscribe