Tucked away in Singapore’s concrete jungle is a patch of real jungle, home to one of the island’s national treasures, the Night Safari. Here, Vijaya Kumar Pillai shares with us the exciting journey that resulted in the development and construction of the world’s first night safari.

Vijaya Kumar Pillai, 66, director of Special Projects and Development at Wildlife Reserves Singapore, was there when the Night Safari existed only as a wild dream in a few people’s imaginations.

It was the 1980s, and 60 acres of forest lay untouched in the wilds of Mandai. The late Dr. Ong Swee Law, then-Chairman of the Singapore Zoo, gathered a team to brainstorm how best the land could be put to use. It was fertile ground for ideas; the possibilities seemed endless, ranging from a golf course to a fruit orchard, to eco-lodges and tented hotels. In the end, the idea for a Night Safari was mooted by the late Lyn de Alwis, the former director of the Sri Lanka National Zoo and the Department of Wildlife.

Inspired by elephant-back tours in Nepal, de Alwis suggested the extravagant idea of an Asian Night Safari. He envisioned a park which catered to a moneyed niche, where high-paying visitors would be able to observe animals in a national park while riding on elephants.

Then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong arriving at the Night Safari to officiate its opening on 26 May 1995. Ministry of Information and the Arts Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore.

That initial idea never materialised. When the team did the math, they realised that each visitor would have to fork out $350 to visit the park, a sum which would exclude the average Singaporean from visiting the park. Coupled with the practicalities of maintaining such a park – from the 120 elephants that would need to be kept, to how the dung piles would be managed – the team decided a different approach was needed.

After extensive discussion, the team decided to build the Night Safari around three principles: accessibility, the inclusion of animals not native to Asia, and using an open-concept design for the park.

First, the team felt that while the park needed to an experience like no other, visiting it should not be prohibitively expensive. “[Dr Ong] said, ‘Let’s make this affordable for the average Singaporean and tourist. It should not just be for high paying, rich, wealthy individuals.’ And so that whole elephant thing got canned,” Vijaya recounted.

In addition, Dr Ong wanted the night safari to include animals other than native Asian species. He felt that if someone wanted to see a giraffe or lion, in addition to tigers and elephants, they should be able to.

“Every kid who goes to the zoo wants to see these animals. So [Dr Ong] said, ‘Why limit it? Let’s open it up to the world. Just have it as the Night Safari.’ And that’s how the Night Safari was born,” Vijaya said.

Finally, the decided on an ‘open concept’ approach to the park, where the animals would be left to roam in special enclosures rather than kept in confined spaces, creating the illusion that they were roaming freely in the wild. Dr Ong and his team preferred this as it meant that visitors could observe large animals up close. By contrast, in conventional zoos, nocturnal animals are usually kept and displayed in nocturnal houses, where the confined space would make it difficult for visitors to interact with larger animals like elephants.

Visitors observing Malayan Tapirs on the opening evening of the Night Safari, 26 May 1994. Ministry of Information and the Arts Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore.

The team presented these initial concepts in 1988, although it took several months of meetings with the government before the project was finally approved two years later. Working closely with the main architect, the team set out to finish the safari’s detailed design and construction within three years.

Intent on preserving as much of the existing forest as possible, Vijaya and his team cleared out pathways in the terrain so that the engineers could easily bypass the trees when working on the construction of the park. Keeping the forest mostly intact was one of their greatest achievements, as the preservation of the integrity of the natural habitat was at the heart of the landscape and enclosure design. Even the park’s lighting was designed to shine top-down so as to simulate moonlight shining through the trees – barring the exception of the Forest Giants Trails (a walking trail) in the west loop, where the lighting was angled from ground-up to highlight the giant trees.

An official posing with an elephant and its trainer at the Night Safari during a visit of African leaders, who were in Singapore en route to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Auckland, New Zealand on 7 November 1995. Ministry of Information and the Arts Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore.

The safari’s lighting consultant, Simon Corder, was a theatre lighting designer based in the UK, who specialised in lighting outdoor plays and productions. His expertise was critical in helping the team devise a suitable lighting design for the park – no easy feat, as it needed to accommodate both the nocturnal nature of the animals and their sensitivity to light.

For almost a year, the team ran an experimental exhibit where they tried different types of lighting, varying its intensity and colour to gauge the behavioural response of the animals. For instance, if the light was too bright, the slow loris would go to sleep almost immediately due to its nocturnal instincts.

Lighting also served to selectively illuminate only what was intended for visitors to see and hide what was not. Creating the illusion of a free-ranging safari was central to the design of the enclosure barriers, which were constructed to be as inconspicuous as possible yet effective enough to prevent the animals from escaping. The clever lighting rendered the barriers almost invisible. From their trams, visitors had an unobstructed view of the animals, providing an immersive experience of the safari.

Guests at the official opening of the Night Safari on 26 May 1994. Image courtesy of the National Archives of Singapore

The illusion also kept the staff hidden from sight. “Once you go [into the safari], you are not supposed to see the staff, so all the feeding, everything is done at the back. Visitors are not supposed to see them so the keepers are always invisible,” Vijaya said.

True to its wild roots, the Night Safari has no ornamental plants, and is instead home to 20,000 saplings from the National Parks that are indigenous to the forest. Furthermore, unlike the zoo, the Night Safari is not manicured. Hedges in front of the roads are not cut straight, and are maintained to give the impression of overgrowth.

“[At the] Night safari, we try and keep it as wild as possible. [At the zoo, if] a branch is hanging around when the tram passes by, it will be trimmed so that nothing touches the tram. But [at the Night Safari] we want the visitors to feel the rustling of the leaves and all that, so that you are certain you are actually going through the wild,” Vijaya explained.

The concept of a Night Safari is viable only in the tropics, where daylight hours are fixed and temperatures remain relatively constant year-round; it would not be possible in temperate climates with long summer days and cold winters. Thus, instead of opening from 9am to 6pm like most zoos, the Night Safari opens its doors from 7pm to midnight. Being the first of its kind, the Night Safari was extremely challenging to execute, and even with their team of consultants and experts, Vijaya revealed that they were literally feeling their way in the dark through trial and error.

Initial projections estimated that the park would draw about 180,000 to 450,000 or 500,000 visitors a year. It was with these figures in mind that the attraction was designed, with only one tram stop and narrow walking trails at the time. As such, when the Night Safari finally opened its doors on the night of 26 May 1994, Vijaya and his team were not expecting the bumper crop of visitors which turned up.

Media hype had been building prior to the safari’s opening, with exclusive invitations to host travel agents, tour guides, taxi drivers and relevant stakeholders – one night for each group. The project team slogged day and night in the months leading up to the opening, often working until midnight to ensure that the enclosures were functional, the contractors had finished their final touches on the facilities, and the animals were conditioned to human presence, as well as conducting trials between the animals and staff to reduce the risk of the creatures being spooked by large crowds.

Vijaya (in the foreground) with the guest-of-honour, then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong and his wife, observing the leopards at the official opening of the Night Safari on 26 May 1994. Ministry of Information and the Arts Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore.

Despite all these efforts, the opening night was chaotic. With then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong attending as the guest-of-honour, the Night Safari drew many more visitors than anticipated. The park was besieged with overwhelming queues, the trails packed with crowds, and the animals were unaccustomed to a crowd of such mammoth proportions. The staff’s biggest challenge that night was crowd control, as visitors were shouting at and shoving one another in an attempt to get off the tram.

Despite the many challenges, Vijaya felt that the opening night had been a success. The Night Safari was an immediate media sensation, and visitors had had a great time at the attraction.

Throughout his years working at both the zoo and Night Safari, Vijaya has built up a treasure trove of experiences with both the staff and animals – in particular, elephants. His affinity for elephants stemmed from the bond he shared with Anusha, the very first elephant he got close to as a zookeeper. His eyes lit up when he described her. “[Anusha’s] perfectly fine. She’s such a lovable elephant… You stand there and look at her. Look at her eyes. You just fall in love with her,” he gushed.

Vijaya Kumar Pillai standing on one of Anusha’s legs at the Singapore Zoo in 1976. Image reproduced from Sharp, I. (1994). The first 21 years : the Singapore Zoological Gardens story (p. 43). Singapore: Singapore Zoological Gardens. (Call no.: RSING 590.7445957 SHA)

Given this, it comes as no surprise to hear that Vijaya’s favourite moment during his time at the Night Safari was the birth of its first baby elephant in 2007. Named Sri Utama, Sanskrit for “first lady”, the elephant suffered a leg fracture when she was born. While everyone advised him to put Sri Utama down, Vijaya could not bring himself to go through with it. And perhaps in the spirit of improvisation – which had been so integral to the Night Safari from conception to its present glory – Vijaya worked with the veterinary department to make a metal splint for her leg.

“[Sri Utama] was up and running; we did hydrotherapy, brought her into the pool, exercised her leg. It was amazing,” he recounted.

Tragically, Sri Utama never made it past 18 months, succumbing to a suspected case of elephant herpes. And Vijaya, with his calm patience – a quality he learnt from working with animals – learnt to accept the wild unpredictability of nature with grace. He asked if we had seen their recent baby elephant – still a baby to him even though she is nearly two years old.

“Really, really cute. She’s an 800-kilo baby, born here. You should go and see her. She’s at the Night Safari,” he said with a smile, an impish glint in his eye.

Written by: LY Kang

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