Singapore Zoo

Singapore Infopedia


The Singapore Zoo (formerly known as the Singapore Zoological Gardens) was opened in 1973 with a modest collection of about 300 animals from some 70 species.1 Situated on the promontory of the Seletar Reservoir, the zoo adopts an “open concept” in which the animals are housed in open enclosures landscaped to resemble their natural habitats.2 The zoo currently receives over 1.7 million visitors each year, and is now home to over 2,800 animals representing more than 300 species, of which 26 percent are threatened.3 The zoo has scored a number of successes in the breeding of critically endangered species and has, over time, established itself as one of the best rainforest zoos in the world.4

The first zoo in Singapore was established within the grounds of the Singapore Botanic Gardens in 1875 at the suggestion of then Governor Sir Henry Ord. The zoo, however, closed in 1905 due to a shortage of funds for its upkeep as well as high animal mortality rates.5 Between the 1920s and 1960s, several zoos by private individuals were established. These include the Punggol Zoo started by William Lawrence Soma Basapa in 1928 and the Singapore Miniature Zoo in Pasir Panjang founded by Tong Seng Mun in 1957.6

In 1968, Ong Swee Law, then chairman of the Public Utilities Board, decided to open up more of the large protected water catchment areas on the island for public use. Ong mooted the idea of a zoo as he felt that there were insufficient venues for family outings at the time. He also observed that even domesticated animals had become a novelty for some Singaporeans.7 A steering committee led by Ong was formed in the same year to study the idea of establishing a zoo to meet the recreational, social and educational needs of Singaporeans.8

In late 1969, the government authorised the formation of a public limited company, Singapore Zoological Gardens, to establish and operate a zoo. Ong was appointed the chairman of the company.9 The government also contributed S$9 million towards the zoo’s development cost and set aside 260 acres (1.05 sq km) of land for the project.10

In November 1970, Lyn de Alwis, who was then the director of the Dehiwala Zoo in Sri Lanka, was appointed as consultant on a one-year term to plan, design and develop the Singapore zoo project.11 Ong was impressed by de Alwis when the two had met earlier at the Dehiwala Zoo.12 A. G. Alphonso, then director of the Singapore Botanic Gardens, was also engaged as landscape advisor for the zoo project.13

Official opening
The Singapore Zoo was officially opened by then Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence Goh Keng Swee on 27 June 1973.14 Situated on 70 acres (0.3 sq km) of land extending into the Seletar Reservoir, the zoo adopted some of the most advanced zoo designs of the 1970s. For example, the zoo was developed in a garden setting and the “open zoo” design was adopted. Instead of cages, most of the animals were displayed in open enclosures that were landscaped to resemble their natural habitats. Barriers such as moats and walls were used to contain the animals.15

The zoo had an initial collection of about 300 animals housed in some 50 enclosures. While the emphasis was on animals from the Southeast Asian region, there were also animals sourced from other parts of the world.16

The Singapore Zoo quickly gained popularity and welcomed its one-millionth visitor on 13 November 1974 – less than two years after it opened to the public.17

The zoo constantly strives to improve its programmes and facilities. One of the innovative programmes initiated by the zoo in May 1982 was the highly popular Breakfast with an Orang Utan.18 On 9 November 1985, the zoo opened its first amphitheatre for holding animal performances.  The popular animal shows staged by the zoo, such as the sea lion, elephant, orang utan and snake shows, have evolved into professional and entertaining programmes that are highly educational in nature.19 In November 1998, the zoo’s first walk-through exhibit, Fragile Forest, was opened to the public.20 One of the world's largest ecosystem enclosures, the exhibit is a re-creation of the rainforest and features animal species such as lemurs, sloths, flying foxes and butterflies.21

A series of major revamps took place after 2000. These included the creation of a free-ranging orang utan habitat in April 2006 for visitors to get up close and personal with the orang utans,22 and the construction of the new Splash Amphitheatre in 2007, with a new Splash Safari Show unveiled on 26 May. July 2007 saw the opening of a new Sumatran orang utan exhibit, as well as the completion of a new and much larger sun bear exhibit.23 Rainforest Kidzworld, which occupies the area of the former Children’s World Animal Land, opened on 14 November 2008.24 The S$8-million Frozen Tundra – new home of Inuka the polar bear – was unveiled on 29 May 2013. It was designed to resemble the arctic habitat.25

Bernard Harrison, then executive director of the Singapore Zoo from 1981 to 2002, played an instrumental role in many of the zoo’s key developments. Drawing from the experience of numerous zoos around the world, Harrison initiated more open-zoo exhibits and conceived new display themes such as the Fragile Forest and the Great Rift Valley of Ethiopia.26

Following the successful development of the Singapore Zoo, the Night Safari was established in its vicinity in 1994. It is the world’s first night zoo that allows visitors to observe nocturnal animals in a natural habitat.27 The Singapore Zoo, along with the Night Safari and the Jurong Bird Park, is managed by Wildlife Reserves Singapore (WRS), a holding company that was formed on 1 August 2000.28 Harrison was appointed as WRS’ chief executive officer in addition to his role as executive director of the Singapore Zoo. He left the company in September 2002.29 The River Safari, a river-themed wildlife park featuring Singapore’s first pair of giant pandas, was added to the company’s fold when it officially opened in February 2014.30

Animal attractions and theme-based zones
The animal population and the number of animal species at the Singapore Zoo have increased significantly over the years. When the zoo first opened in 1973, it had about 300 animals from some 70 species.31 By the mid-1980s, its animal population had grown to about 1,700 with representatives of around 170 species.32 Currently, the zoo features over 2,800 animals representing more than 300 species.33

Key animals found in the zoo include Asian elephants, white tigers, free-ranging orang utans, chimpanzees, proboscis monkeys, pygmy hippos, otters, Malayan tapirs, sun bears, crocodiles and naked mole rats.34 The main attractions of the zoo are its 11 theme-based zones. Each zone features the unique interactions and relationships among the different plant and animal species with their environment. The 11 zones are: Frozen Tundra, Wild Africa, Fragile Forest, Australian Outback, Great Rift Valley of Ethiopia, Treetops Trail, Gibbon Island, Primate Kingdom, Reptile Garden, Critters Longhouse, as well as the Tropical Crops & Orchid Garden.35

The most famous resident in the history of the Singapore Zoo is Ah Meng, the female Sumatran orang utan.36 Star of the zoo’s Breakfast with an Orang Utan programme, Ah Meng became famous worldwide and was featured in numerous travel programmes, documentaries and print articles. In her lifetime, she had met celebrities – Elizabeth Taylor and Michael Jackson – and even royalty – Britain’s Prince Philip. In 1992, Ah Meng became the first and only non-human recipient of the then Singapore Tourism Promotion Board's Special Tourism Ambassador Award. Ah Meng died on 8 February 2008 at the age of 48.37 The annual Safari Zoo Run, first held on 7 February 2009, is a tribute to the memory of Ah Meng.38 A 1.5-tonne bronze sculpture of Ah Meng is erected at the zoo’s Garden with a View.39

Wildlife conservation and research
The Singapore Zoo has achieved numerous breakthroughs in its captive breeding programmes in the last 40 years. The birth of its first baby orang utan took place on 20 January 1975, a rare event for orang utans in captivity at the time.40 The first known eland birth in Southeast Asia also occurred in the same year.41 On 26 December 1990, the zoo witnessed the birth of Inuka, the first polar bear cub born in the tropics.42 On 15 November 2009, the first Komodo dragon was successfully hatched in the zoo after many unsuccessful attempts to breed the endangered reptile. The hatchling was the first in Asia outside of the reptile’s natural habitat – Indonesia.43 In addition, the zoo has been successful in breeding a number of critically endangered species, including the river terrapin, Sumatran orang utan and cotton-top tamarin.44

In 2012, the zoo bred more than 140 animals, many of which are endangered or threatened species.45 Currently, 26 percent of the zoo’s animal species are threatened. Over the years, the zoo has established itself as a leading zoological facility for the captive management and breeding of endangered Asian primates.46

Another significant milestone achieved by the zoo was the opening of the S$3.6-million Wildlife Healthcare and Research Centre on 13 March 2006. The centre has a viewing gallery for visitors to observe the animal surgery and treatment areas as well as interactive displays to educate visitors on the work of zoo vets.47

Education and outreach
During the 1970s, the Singapore Zoo introduced a number of initiatives to engage the public in its development and upkeep. Launched on 29 June 1974, the Friends of the Zoo programme offered memberships to corporations, families and students on a donation basis. The funds received were used for improving and expanding the zoo. In return, members were given privileges such as free zoo visit passes.48 The Animal Adoption Scheme, introduced in 1976, enabled both individuals and organisations to contribute towards the upkeep of the zoo’s animals. The American Express International Banking Corporation became the zoo’s first “foster parent” in the same year by adopting the giraffe enclosure and contributing S$10,000 a year to the upkeep of three giraffes.49

Over time, the zoo has expanded its education and outreach programmes. As part of its current efforts to transform itself into a learning zoo, a wide range of educational programmes for young children, students as well as families were introduced. These programmes include day and night camps, workshops and behind-the-scenes tours.50 The Kidzranger Tour, for example, is a hands-on educational programme that gives children the opportunity to become zookeepers and gain access to restricted areas in the Rainforest Kidzworld.51

In addition, several volunteer programmes have been introduced with the aim of spreading the conservation message. The docent programme, which started in 1997, recruits primarily adult volunteers to help educate visitors on wildlife conservation.52 Conservation Ambassadors and Wildlife Buddies, on the other hand, are students and youths who are trained as guides and mentors to encourage nature conservation among their peers and other visitors.53

A world-class zoo and premier tourist attraction
Besides serving as a recreational venue and learning zoo for Singaporeans, the Singapore Zoo has, at the same time, become a popular tourist attraction, receiving more than 1.7 million visitors each year.54

With its continuous pursuit of excellence, the zoo has received numerous awards and accolades over the last four decades, thus establishing itself as one of the finest rainforest zoos in the world.55

80 Mandai Lake Road

Singapore 729826

Unofficial name
Mandai Zoo

1968: Conception of a zoo in Singapore by Ong Swee Law.
27 Jun 1973: Official opening of the Singapore Zoo.
29 Jun 1974: Launch of the Friends of the Zoo programme.
13 Nov 1974: Number of visitors to the zoo hit the one million mark.
20 Jan 1975: Birth of the zoo’s first baby orang utan.
1976: Introduction of the Animal Adoption Scheme.
May 1982: Commencement of the Breakfast with an Orang Utan programme.
9 Nov 1985: Opening of the zoo’s first amphitheatre.
26 Dec 1990: Birth of Inuka, the first polar bear cub born in the tropics.
Nov 1998: Opening of Fragile Forest, the zoo’s first walk-through exhibit.
1 Aug 2000: Establishment of Wildlife Reserves Singapore, holding company of the Singapore Zoo, Jurong Bird Park and Night Safari.
13 Mar 2006: Official opening of Wildlife Healthcare and Research Centre.
8 Feb 2008: Death of zoo icon Ah Meng.
15 Nov 2009: Successful hatching of the first Komodo dragon.
29 May 2013: Opening of arctic exhibit Frozen Tundra.
27 Jun 2013: Celebration of the zoo’s 40th birthday.56

Awards and accolades
The Singapore Zoo has received numerous local and international awards and accolades since the 1980s, and they include the following:57

1985: Singapore Tourism Promotion Board (STPB) First Tourism Awards for Best Managed Tourist Attraction.
1991: STPB Sixth Tourism Awards for Best Leisure Attraction of the Year.
1992: STPB Seventh Tourism Awards for Best Leisure Attraction of the Year.
1992: STPB Seventh Tourism Awards – Special Award to Ah Meng in recognition and appreciation for her contributions towards tourism in Singapore.
1993: STPB Eighth Tourism Awards for Leisure Attraction of the Year.
1995: Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) Awards for Best Theme Attraction.
1995: Travel Trade Gazette Asia/Pacific – Travel Awards for Best Theme Attraction (Asia-Pacific Region).
1998: Singapore Tourism Board (STB) 13th Tourism Awards for Leisure Attraction of the Year.
1999: Where Singapore Magazine’s Inaugural Concierge Choice Awards for Best Place to Take the Kids.
1999: Meetings & Conventions Asia Pacific Gold Awards for Best Theme Venue.
1999: Incentive & Meetings Asia (IMA) Awards for Best Theme Attraction.
2000: Where Singapore Magazine’s Concierge Choice Awards for Best Place to Take the Kids.
2001: STB 16th Tourism Awards for Leisure Attraction of the Year.
2001: Singapore Totalisator Board’s Excellence for Singapore Award – Singapore success story, internationally acclaimed open-zoo design and excellent in-situ conservation achievement.
2002: ASEAN Tourism Association’s ASEANTA Awards for Excellence for Best New Attraction in ASEAN (Hamadryas Baboons – The Great Rift Valley of Ethiopia).
2002: STB 17th Tourism Awards for Leisure Attraction of the Year.
2003: Superbrand Award for being one of Singapore’s 100 strongest brands.
2005: STB 20th Tourism Awards for Best Leisure Attraction Experience of the Year.
2006: STB 21st Tourism Awards for Top 10 Best Family Experiences (Jungle Breakfast at Singapore Zoo).
2007: Forbes for One of the World’s Best Zoos.
2007: for Top 5 Most Popular Family Experiences (Jungle Breakfast at Singapore Zoo).
2007: 40 Jewels in ASEAN’s Crown for Best Breakfast with Ah Meng, the orang utan.
2008: Michelin 3-star rating.
2008: STB 22nd Tourism Awards for Best Leisure Attraction Experience of the Year.
2011: Asian Attractions Awards for Most Popular Attraction – Wildlife Park.

Cheryl Sim

1. Singapore Zoological Gardens, Singapore Zoological Gardens: Official Guidebook (Singapore: Zoological Gardens, 1973), 5 (Call no. RSING 590.7445957 SIN); Melissa Lin, “S'pore Zoo Celebrates 40th Birthday,” Straits Times, 27 June 2013, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
2. Singapore Zoological Gardens, Singapore Zoological Gardens, 5; “About Singapore Zoo,” Wildlife Reserves Singapore Group, accessed, 2013; Leslie Fong, “Animals at Zoological Gardens Will Not Be Caged,” Straits Times, 28 April 1971, 17. (From NewspaperSG)
3. Wildlife Reserves Singapore Group, “About.”
4. Wildlife Reserves Singapore, Conserving Biodiversity (Singapore: Wildlife Reserves, n.d.), 11–13; “About the Parks: Singapore Zoo-World’s Best Rainforest Zoo, Wildlife Reserves Singapore Group, accessed 2013.
5. “The Decline and Fall of S'pore's Zoo,” Singapore Free Press, 23 July 1958, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
6. Melody Zaccheus, “Rare Photos Give Glimpse into 1950s Miniature Zoo,” Straits Times, 4 June 2014, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
7. “The Men Behind the Project,” Straits Times, 29 January 1973, 14 (From NewspaperSG); Singapore Zoological Gardens, Official Opening by Dr. Goh Keng Swee, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defence Wednesday 27th June 1973: Souvenir Programme (Singapore: Zoological Gardens, 1973), 6, 8. (Call no. RSING 590.7445957 SIN)
8. Singapore Zoological Gardens, The Singapore Zoological Gardens: A Tropical Garden for Animals (Singapore: Zoological Gardens, 1986), 11 (Call no. RSING 590.7445957 SIN); Singapore Zoological Gardens, Souvenir Programme, 8.
9. Singapore Zoological Gardens, Souvenir Programme, 8; Foreign Govts Agree to Help the Zoo,” Straits Times, 22 June 1971, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
10. Singapore Zoological Gardens, Souvenir Programme, 7; IIsa Sharp, The First 21 Years: The Singapore Zoological Gardens Story (Singapore: Singapore Zoological Gardens, 1994), 12. (Call no. RSING 590.7445957 SHA)
11. “The Men Behind the Project”; Singapore Zoological Gardens, Singapore Zoological Gardens, 5.
12. “De Alwis – Man Who Planned the Mandai Zoo,” Straits Times, 8 July 1973, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
13. Singapore Zoological Gardens, Singapore Zoological Gardens, 8; Sharp, First 21 Years, 20.
14. Singapore Zoological Gardens, Souvenir Programme.
15. Singapore Zoological Gardens, Singapore Zoological Gardens, 5; Sharp, First 21 Years, 44; Fong, “Animals at Zoological Gardens.”
16. Singapore Zoological Gardens, Singapore Zoological Gardens, 5–6.
17. “Mr. Million’s Lucky Day,” Zoo-m 3 (1975), 3. (Call no. RSING 590.7445957 Z)
18. “Manners Impeccable Enough for the Breakfast Table,” Straits Times, 25 March 1982, 1 (From NewspaperSG); Wildlife Reserves Singapore Group, Yearbook 2007/2008 (Singapore: Wildlife Reserves Singapore Group, 2008), 16–17.
19. Singapore Zoological Gardens, The Animal Show: Singapore Zoological Gardens (Singapore: Zoological Gardens, 1985), 5–6 (Call no. RSING 590.7445957 ANI); “Why Tourist Spots Should Ape the Zoo,” Straits Times, 10 November 1985, 14. (From NewspaperSG)
20. May Lok, Biswajit Guha and Anthony Ganesh, eds., A Field Guide to Singapore Zoo (Singapore: Singapore Zoo, 200-), 1 (Call no. RSING 590.735957 FIE); Joanne Lee, “Zoo Unveils the Fragile Forest,” Straits Times, 8 November 1998, 32. (From NewspaperSG)
21. Lee, “Zoo Unveils the Fragile Forest”; “Fragile Forest,” Wildlife Reserves Singapore Group, accessed 2013.
22. Wildlife Reserves Singapore Group, “About the Parks”; Radha Basu, “Home Away from Home – a Wooded Retreat for Orang Utans,” Straits Times, 24 April 2006, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
23. Wildlife Reserves Singapore Group, Yearbook 2007/2008, 6–7.
24. Wildlife Reserves Singapore Group, Yearbook 2008/2009, 2–3.
25. “Inuka Has a Cool New Home,” Straits Times, 30 May 2013, 1 (From NewspaperSG); Wildlife Reserves Singapore Group, “Opening of Frozen Tundra,” Youtube, 30 May 2013.
26. Sharp, First 21 Years, 84; Kirpal Singh, Naked Ape, Naked Boss: Bernard Harrison: The Man Behind the Singapore Zoo & the World's First Night Safari (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish, 2014), 91, 107 (Call no. RSING 590.735957092 SIN); Tommy Wee, “Leaving the Throne for the Unknown,” Straits Times, 7 July 2002, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
27. Lin Xinyi, “Night Safari: From Trailblazer to Tourism Icon,” Straits Times, 31 May 2007, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
28. “Page 33 Advertisements Column 1,” Straits Times, 15 December 2000, 33 (From NewspaperSG); “About,” Wildlife Reserves Singapore Group, accessed 2013.
29. Krist Boo, “Zoo Man Turns in His Keys,” Straits Times, 3 July 2002, 3. (From NewspaperSG); Singh, Naked Ape, Naked Boss, 107.
30. “Singapore Needs to Enhance Tourist Attractions: PM Lee,” Channel NewsAsia, 28 February 2014. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)
31. Singapore Zoological Gardens, Singapore Zoological Gardens, 5; Lin, “S'pore Zoo Celebrates 40th Birthday.”
32. . Singapore Zoological Gardens, Tropical Garden for Animals, 49.
33. Wildlife Reserves Singapore Group, “About.” 
34. Wildlife Reserves Singapore Group, “About.”
35. Lok, Guha and Ganesh, Field Guide to Singapore Zoo, 50–51; Wildlife Reserves Singapore Group, “About.” 
36. “The Life and Times of the Zoo's Most Famous Resident,” Straits Times, 9 February 2008, 31. (From NewspaperSG)
37. Wildlife Reserves Singapore Group, Yearbook 2007/2008, 16–17; Adam Lusher, “Ah Meng, World's Most Famous Orangutan, Dies,” Telegraph, 9 February 2008.
38. Wildlife Reserves Singapore Group, Yearbook 2008/2009, 13–14.
39. Wildlife Reserves Singapore Group, Yearbook 2007/2008, 16–17.
40. “A Baby Orang-Utan Is Born,” Zoo-m 4 (1975), 7. (Call no. RSING 590.7445957 Z)
41. “New at the Zoo for You,” Zoo-m 5 (1975), 20. (Call no. RSING 590.7445957 Z)
42. “Zoo’s Little Polar Bear,” Straits Times, 11 May 1991, 31; “Two Tapirs Join List of Rare Animals Born at S’pore Zoo,” Straits Times, 21 May 1991, 26. (From NewspaperSG)
43. Wildlife Reserves Singapore Group, Yearbook 2009/2010 (Singapore: Wildlife Reserves Singapore, 2010), 21.
44. Wildlife Reserves Singapore, Conserving Biodiversity, 11–13.
45. Wildlife Reserves Singapore Group, “About the Parks.”
46. Wildlife Reserves Singapore Group, “About”; Wildlife Reserves Singapore, Conserving Biodiversity, 11–13.
47. Wildlife Reserves Singapore Group, Yearbook 2005/2006 (Singapore: Wildlife Reserves Singapore Group), 12; Wildlife Reserves Singapore Group, “About the Parks.”
48. “Now You Can Be a True ‘Friend’,” Zoo-m 1 (June 1974), 1 (Call no. RSING 590.7445957 Z); “10,000 Expected to Attend Zoo's First Anniversary,” Straits Times, 17 June 1974, 18. (From NewspaperSG)
49. “Our Animal Adoption Scheme,” Zoo-m 11 (1978), 24. (Call no. RSING 590.7445957 Z)
50. Wildlife Reserves Singapore Group, “About the Parks”; Wildlife Reserves Singapore Group, “About.”
51. “Wildlife Tours,” Wildlife Reserves Singapore, accessed 2013.
52. Kezia Toh, “Lead and Learn,” Straits Times, 29 March 2013, 2–3 (From NewspaperSG); “Be a Docent,” Wildlife Reserves Singapore Group, accessed 2013.
53. “Conservation Ambassadors,” Wildlife Reserves Singapore, accessed 2013.
54. Wildlife Reserves Singapore Group, “About the Parks.”
55. Wildlife Reserves Singapore Group, “About the Parks.”
56. Alfred Chua, “Singapore Zoo Hopes to Expand Current Site,” Today, 28 June 2013, 26. (From NewspaperSG)
57. “Awards and Accolades,” Wildlife Reserves Singapore Group, accessed 2013.

The information in this article is valid as of 22 July 2014 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

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