Blooloop spoke to Dr Cheng Wen-Haur, Deputy CEO and Chief Life Sciences Officer, Wildlife Reserves Singapore. He talks about what makes this organisation unique, the conservation and education programmes that it runs, and the challenges presented by COVID-19.
Animals have always been a passion for Dr Cheng. He first began working with Singapore Zoo in 1993 as a veterinarian, after training in Western Australia.
Then, he says, “I jumped at the opportunity to oversee the operations of the world’s first Night Safari in 1994. Following this, I was promoted to the executive director of Singapore Zoo and Night Safari in 2000.”
In 2004, he moved into the role of director of community engagement at Perth Zoo, where he stayed until 2009. A stint at a privately-owned and operated zoo in Guangzhou, China followed. Wen-Haur returned to Wildlife Reserves Singapore in 2013, initially working as the chief life sciences officer before taking on his current role in 2015.
“Now, I am responsible for overseeing general park operations of our four wildlife parks. This includes education and conservation, as well as the care and welfare of around 15,000 animals across approximately 1000 species.”
About Wildlife Reserves Singapore
Talking about what makes Wildlife Reserves Singapore special, Dr Cheng says:
“We are in Singapore, a highly urbanised and land-scarce city-state with few wild places left. Yet our parks are among the best wildlife attractions in the world. The founding leaders of Wildlife Reserves Singapore created the wildlife parks so that Singaporeans can have authentic and meaningful wildlife experiences.”
“This vision drove the emphasis on immersive and open concept philosophy. It made us an early adopter, and ultimately champion and innovator in wildlife park designs that allow guests to experience barrierless encounters with wildlife. Sometimes seemingly, sometimes literally.
“My favourite part of working in Wildlife Reserves Singapore is walking the parks and exploring the different habitats. I enjoy seeing how the animals are doing, catching up and chatting with field staff and saying hello to guests.
“This gives me the chance to listen to and offer suggestions to improve park experiences and improve our animal care.”
Almost 50 years of operation
Jurong Bird Park and Singapore Zoo have been in operation for nearly 50 years. The bird park was opened in 1971, followed by the zoo in 1973.
“By the ‘80s, both Singapore Zoological Gardens and Jurong Bird Park gained some international repute,” says Dr Cheng. “The former for being an Open Zoo with moated and island exhibits in a lush rainforest setting. And the latter for big walk-through aviaries with free-flying colourful tropical birds.”
“After just over 20 years of experimenting and pushing the limits of the open zoo concept design in the equatorial climate, Singapore Zoo brought forth Night Safari in 1994. At that time, the Night Safari would be the world’s first wildlife park designed to be experienced only after sunset. It allows people a peek into the nightlife of tropical animals.
“In 2000, our zoological parks were grouped as Wildlife Reserves Singapore. In 2009, we set up the WRS Conservation Fund (WRSCF) to formalise and strengthen WRS’ national conservation efforts. Then, by 2013, our fourth park, River Safari opened. This showcases life above and below freshwater ecosystems.”
Four unique attractions
The four attractions, Singapore Zoo, Jurong Bird Park, the Night Safari and the River Safari are all hugely popular, both with locals and visitors to Singapore. Speaking about why these attractions appeal to guests, Dr Cheng says:
“Wildlife Reserves Singapore offers a diverse range of wildlife experiences, across many different types of animals. We care for about 1000 species and around 15,000 animals. We also offer experiences of different habitat types, from land to air and water, as well as running both day and night operations.”
“Our exhibits are immersive and a visit to our parks feels more like a trip to the tropical rainforest. Except, we are much more accessible, and you are sure to encounter animals in our parks. We offer many interactive programs such as keeper talks, feeding sessions (controlled and supervised) and animal presentations.”
Reconnecting with nature at Wildlife Reserves Singapore
“I think deep down, people like animals and there is this need to connect to animals,” says Dr Cheng. “As the human race has become highly industrialised and urbanised, many of us are suffering from a loss of connection to the wild.”
“What we offer is the chance to reconnect with nature and interact with animals. Importantly, our guests can enjoy the wildlife experiences in our parks, with the knowledge that our animals’ welfare is never compromised. Very high standards of ethics are taken into consideration when curating these experiences.”
As well as caring for the welfare of the animals in its care, Wildlife Reserves Singapore also takes part in vital conservation work.
“Our conservation focus is on threatened species in Singapore and Southeast Asia,” says Dr Cheng. “Our national conservation fund supports, cultivates and provides career opportunities for young homegrown conservationists in projects that protect nationally threatened species, such as Raffles’ Banded Langur and Leopard Cat, and in some cases, also globally threatened species found in Singapore, for instance, the Singapore Fresh Water Crab and Sunda Pangolin.”
“We also work in a fruitful partnership with our national wildlife authority and local wildlife rescue NGO. Together, we treat, rehabilitate and release injured and displaced local wildlife.
“Southeast Asia is a biodiversity hot spot of global significance. But high human population density and rapid economic growth have resulted in a high degree of threats and severe loss of wildlife in the region. We are one of the better-resourced wildlife parks in the region. So, we have a key role to play in helping to save the many species that are under threat at our doorstep.”
“We provide financial, capacity building, professional and technical support to about 40 projects in Southeast Asia. We work in collaboration with and support local conservation NGOs in projects to save threatened species.
“These projects might involve direct protection of local wildlife. For example, hiring, training and equipping of local animal protection units or rangers. They might also involve providing economic and livelihood alternatives to local communities to safeguard animal habitats and wildlife, as well as education and outreach to build community knowledge and pride of their own wildlife heritage.”
“As much as possible we support the ‘assess-plan-act’ approach in our conservation works. As well as protecting species in their wild habitats, we also actively support and organise strategic and conservation planning workshops for different groups of animals. Both within Singapore and other countries in the region.
“To ensure that not only high profile and charismatic animals receive the attention they need, WRS is a founding member of the conservation partnership called ASAP (Asian Species Action Partnership). With this partnership, WRS has scientifically assessed threats towards freshwater fish, reptiles, and amphibians.
“These will be followed by conservation action planning and implementation of actions as recommended. Some of the higher-profile species we protect include pangolins, orangutans, Malayan tigers, Asian elephants, songbirds, hornbills, tortoises, and turtles.”
Education at Wildlife Reserves Singapore
Education is also a key priority for Wildlife Reserves Singapore, as Dr Cheng explains:
“Our education programmes range from school-based programmes to engage children from preschool, through primary and secondary schools to research collaborations with institutes of higher learning.”
“Many of our school programmes take place in our parks in an outdoor setting. Here, city children get to experience a day out in nature and the chance to observe and interact with wildlife. We also run outreach programmes and campaigns. For instance, we go to shopping malls to raise awareness and hope to shape more wildlife-friendly behaviours.
“Our education programmes, like our animal experiences, seek to build peoples’ affinity towards wildlife. They aim to form an emotional bond so that people care and want to do something about saving a species. The programmes also provide facts and guidance on how they can play a part in saving wildlife.”
Challenges of COVID-19
Like the majority of attractions around the world, the global pandemic has had an impact on Wildlife Reserves Singapore. Dr Cheng talks about the challenges it presented:
“The inexorable reduction of visitors to our parks, first due to safety concerns, followed by the stoppage of overseas tourists, culminated in the closure of our four wildlife parks. The closure was also part of the national effort to stop the spread of the disease. It has been an emotional experience for us all.”
“As a self-funding organisation, the lion’s share of our revenues comes from our visitors. We put in cost-saving exercises early. This included voluntary pay cuts by senior staff members and suspension of non-essential spending.
“Despite the financial difficulties, senior management collectively made the decision that we would work hard to protect jobs, ensure there is no compromise to the care of our animals, and significantly, to continue to support our national and regional conservation partners’ efforts in saving threatened species in the wild.”
“During Circuit Breaker [Singapore’s national lockdown], only essential services staff were allowed in the parks to care for our animals, and to ensure safety and integrity of infrastructure and environment. Safe work procedures necessitated social isolation. This also precluded the usual cross-team and cross-department works in the field that is part of Wildlife Reserves Singapore’s work culture.”
“However, despite these challenges, our staff have proven themselves to be resilient and adaptable. Plus, our parks and animals were well taken care of by the essential services staff. Many animals received new enrichment during the park closure period to keep up their physical and mental wellbeing.
“Staff members who could work from home adapted to this new mode of working quickly. Furthermore, cross-department collaborations went into overdrive to churn out new virtual programmes. These were a key way of replacing the physical visits that could not happen.”
Digital engagement at Wildlife Reserves Singapore
Many attractions around the world found themselves with a new challenge during the pandemic. Namely, how to keep people engaged while they were not able to enjoy a visit in person? Dr Cheng talks about how Wildlife Reserves Singapore took up this challenge, and why they felt it was important.
“Through our social media platforms, we provided a glimpse into ‘life behind closed doors’. This showed how our animals were faring and also how our essential services staff embraced safe work procedures while continuing to deliver world-class care for our animals.”
“For instance, wearing masks at all times, and adhering to heightened hygienic and cleanliness protocol when working closely with animals. This was to prevent potential cross-transmission of the virus from animal carers to animal.
“We saw great success with these stories on our channels. I think during Circuit Breaker (CB), where nearly the whole country was forced indoors and people had nowhere to go, combined with the natural curiosity of ‘what do the animals get up to’ when the parks were closed, not to mention the natural charisma and charm of our animals, (and their caregivers) contributed to why our online stories had proven so popular.”
Behind the scenes
“For example, we had a series of the African Penguins exploring different parts of the zoo. We also had ‘A day in the life of….’ and staff members taking over Instagram. We are glad that our online animal care stories struck a chord with the community. And we hope just for a few brief moments, they served to lighten the sombre mood during CB.”
“We were extremely grateful for the many kind words of encouragement and well wishes to our essential services staff for continuing to provide great care for our animals. That community support is priceless and means a lot to us.
“During CB, we also came up with fun and interactive virtual programmes to connect people with our animals. For instance, Hello From The Wild Side is a virtual live video dial-in program. Here, callers can have live interactions with some of our animals, with the assistance of our animal carers.”
Safe reopening at Wildlife Reserves Singapore
Singapore Zoo, Jurong Bird Park, the River Safari and the Night Safari are now open to visitors once more. Dr Cheng explains some of the strict health and safety procedures that are now in place. These aim to keep guests safe and prevent the virus from spreading:
“Wildlife Reserves Singapore is in Stage 1 of the safe reopening of our parks. So, we are capping park visitation to 25 per cent capacity. Visitors must pre-book online with specific time slots for entry.”
“There is also temperature screening and a SafeEntry contact tracing app log in [Singapore’s national digital check-in system] prior to entry. Activities that would result in crowds have been suspended or operated with much-reduced capacity. Examples include the suspension of keeper talks and the fact that animal presentations are down to 50 people per show.
“Prior to CB, we have achieved SG-Clean certification. This signifies that we maintain a high standard of sanitisation and disinfecting regime. We disinfect high touchpoint areas hourly. Trams and boats are disinfected every round. Special long-acting disinfecting coatings are also in use in high contact areas.”
Wildlife Reserves Singapore is continually looking at ways to introduce new wildlife experiences, says Dr Cheng. Whether that is through new infrastructure or refreshing exhibits.
“For example, we are introducing more multi-species exhibits. Not only to improve the guest experience but also to enhance animal welfare. As part of our masterplan, we are also working on creating more immersive exhibits to better deliver memorable wildlife encounters.”
“Looking into the future, plans are also underway to transform Mandai into an integrated wildlife and nature precinct. Our vision for the Mandai precinct is for it to be a place that connects guests with wildlife. Somewhere that inspires them to care for biodiversity and provides opportunities for participation in conservation activities.
“The Mandai Rejuvenation Project will see two new parks join our existing parks at Mandai. These are a Bird Park and Rainforest Park. We will also welcome an eco-friendly resort, as well as a nature-themed indoor attraction and green public spaces within this precinct.
“With the rejuvenation, this will offer more potential for our parks to be world-leading centres of animal conservation, education, and research.”
Looking to the future
“Wildlife Reserves Singapore and its parks have come a long way since their modest beginning in the early 70s,” says Dr Cheng in conclusion. “They have gone from being public amenities offering affordable and accessible quality wildlife experiences to Singaporeans, to popular international tourist attractions renowned for innovative zoo design concepts and experiences.”
“Along the way, our standard of animal care and welfare has kept pace with international best practices. We are proud to be playing a key role in conjunction with a wide range of collaborators to protect threatened species in Singapore and Southeast Asia.
“COVID-19 has dealt a severe body blow to us. However, we also see opportunities in fast-tracking and developing new means and channels to engage a wider audience via digital means that transcend physical and geographical boundaries.
“The pace of progress of some developments will slow down. But the overall long-term vision of being and growing as a world-leading zoological institution remains.”
All images kind courtesy of Wildlife Reserves Singapore