Night Safari, Singapore Zoo
Written by Brian Johnston
If you’re looking for a zoo experience with a difference, Singapore’s Night Safari provides unusual nocturnal creatures and the primaeval thrill of the darkness, says Brian Johnston.
Just a short walk from the famed Singapore Zoo sits the 14-hectare Night Safari. The family-friendly Night Safari offers a whole new way to view our wildlife world by offering night-time tours and close encounters with animals active when most of us are asleep.
A zoo at night is a slightly unnerving but exciting place. Its enclosures are dim, are harder harder to spot, and strange rustles and grunts come out of the darkness. Visitors giggle and jump. Perhaps this is how we felt as cavemen, huddled in the dark as wild creatures lurked outside. But the Night Safari provides an enjoyable frisson, safe in the knowledge that the darkness is organised and wildlife enclosed. It’s a fascinating experience, bringing you face to face with animals you’ll never see in ordinary, daytime zoos – or, if you do, they might be just bundles of sleeping fur.
Night Safari is essentially a zoo of nocturnal animals: that part of the animal kingdom that scurries about at night unnoticed by humans. It’s divided into seven geographic zones, and perhaps the most popular walk is along Southeast Asia’s Leopard Trail, where you might spot Sri Lankan leopards, tree-climbing clouded leopards, and various other cats in naturalistic forest settings (though happily behind glass). The world’s largest bats slurp their way through tropical fruit overhead, and giant flying squirrels pilot themselves between branches by extending winglike skin flaps along their flanks. By the time you reach the trail’s end, you get moonlit views of the grazing zebras and giraffes of equatorial Africa.
Beyond the recognisable zoo animals, Night Safari is notable for creatures many of us mightn’t have heard about, let alone seen. The Himalayan zone features bharals or blue sheep, and mountain goats called markhors with splendid, corkscrew horns. Sarus cranes, the world’s tallest flying birds, wander free. The African savannah showcases bongos, large antelopes with a beautiful chestnut-coloured, white-striped coat and spiralling horns that might have been stolen from unicorns. The Indo-Malayan region has free-roaming tapirs, whose black-and-white markings are the perfect night camouflage: they may appear beside you with a soft snuffle. Other unusual creatures in this region are red river hogs (striking wild pigs with red hair and white back stripes), wild dogs known as dholes, and wild cattle called gaurs that weigh up to a ton, have outsized Viking horns, and are remarkable for their jumping ability.
Night Safari’s newest zone is themed on Australia’s outback and highland forests. Its Wallaby Trail takes you past nocturnal animals such as possums and their relatives the sugar gliders. It’s a rare opportunity to see how active these impossibly cute, tree-roaming animals are as they use prehensile tails to move from branch to branch in search of sweet sap and insects.
Various kinds of wallaby roam free, but fortunately snakes, river toads, scorpions, and other creepy-crawlies are securely housed – though in a dimly-lit artificial cave that will thrill the kids. Local wild bats have taken up residence in this cave, adding to the spooky effect.
Children will love trying to spot animals in the semi-darkness and guessing the origins of various night noises. They might recognise the laughing of hyenas, chirping of insects, and wolf howls, but will surely be challenged by the loud sucking noises produced by sloth bears as they attempt to extract insects from earth mounds.
The sloth bear of the Indian subcontinent is only one of many endangered and rare species spotted in Night Safari. You’ll also see Asian rhinoceroses, of which perhaps only 2,500 remain in the wild; Malayan tigers, whose wild population might number just 500; and the Parma wallaby, once thought to be extinct in Australia. The zoo has been successful in breeding India’s smallish, nocturnal Gir lion, of which only 300 remain in the wild. One of the latest additions to Night Safari is Asiatic black bears, forest-dwelling bears with a distinctive white patch on their chests, now also endangered due to habitat destruction and hunting.
Among various ways to enjoy the Night Safari experience is a guided tram tour that takes you through the seven zones in 40 minutes, providing a good overview with commentary. You can then walk around at your own pace and explore as you wish. Tours include a Safari Adventurer by buggy and on foot, accompanied by a guide who provides behind-the-scenes information about the zoo, its animals, and wildlife conservation; you can add on an Asian buffet meal and close encounter with elephants on a premium package.
The zoo also offers a moveable dinner on a tram that takes you through the Night Safari’s various habitats. The ‘dining adventure’ unfolds over a five-course, candlelit meal and has a fitting conclusion at the Creatures of the Night Show. This 20-minute showcase of the behaviour and learned skills of animals such as otters, civets, and racoons is a popular finale for any visitor, so make sure you take a seat early and get a premium spot. There’ll be few other occasions when you’ll want to get this close to a spotted hyena or a python.
Singapore Zoo displays over 300 species of animals, about a fifth of which are threatened in the wild, such as white rhinos, tigers, Malayan tapirs, proboscis monkeys, and golden lion tamarins. It notably has the world’s largest colony of captive orang-utans and was the first tropical zoo to successfully breed polar bears. Kids will appreciate its many interactive experiences, including animal shows and the zoo’s famous ‘Jungle Breakfast’ with a family of free-ranging orang-utans. Rainforest Kidzworld has pony rides, a wet play area with water slides, farmyard animals, and an Animal Friends Show in which domestic animals (including mice, dogs, and cats) perform impressive tricks.
Singapore has two other fine animal attractions. Jurong Bird Park features 600 species with a particular emphasis on Southeast Asian birds, housed among beautifully landscaped gardens. Its top attractions are the world’s largest walk-through aviary, a penguin parade, and regular shows featuring birds of prey. Alternatively, Underwater World on Sentosa Island has a dolphin lagoon and see-through, underwater tunnels from which to spot sea dragons, pufferfish, stingrays, sharks, and other extraordinary marine creatures. birdpark.com.sg, underwaterworld.com.sg
Distance: 6,196 km
Flight Time: 7 hours, 35 minutes
Frequency: 2 flights a day