Endangered animals get new lease of life in Singapore

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The Independent Online

Sporting spiked hair and silver earrings, Samuel Tay hardly looks like a typical midwife.

The 25-year-old zookeeper beams with quiet pride as he watches over his "babies" - row upon row of snakes bred for Singapore's popular zoo.

"These are my kids. Why do I need kids when I have so many already?" he told AFP, gesturing to tanks where newborn reptiles, including some from highly endangered species, receive tender loving care.

From jaguars and chimpanzees to Komodo dragons and manatees, heavily urbanised Singapore is gaining a reputation as a successful nursery for some of the world's rarest animals.

With a breeding programme for 315 species, around one in six of which are threatened, the Singapore Zoo is seeing a steady stream of locally born additions to its collection, currently numbering more than 2,500 animals.

Tay, a zoologist by training, is one of Singapore's frontline warriors in the battle against animal extinction, and visitors from around the world help fund the campaign.

The Singapore Zoo and its attached Night Safari, dedicated to nocturnal animals, each welcomes more than a million visitors a year.

Last year, 142 animals were born in the zoo, 32 of which were threatened species, officials said.

Experts from Wildlife Reserves Singapore (WRS), the operator of the city-state's zoo, night safari and bird park, do not rely on Mother Nature for results.

"We are very pragmatic, in the sense that if we need to make things happen, we will go all out to make things happen," said the group's assistant director of zoology Biswajit Guha.

The latest star of the programme is a baby Komodo dragon hatched in December - the first born in an Asian zoo outside the giant lizard's native Indonesia.

The hatchling was the culmination of three years of effort by zookeepers watching over every step of its parents' courtship and mating to make sure everything went as planned, said Tay.

"It's always supervised contact, we never leave them alone together," he said.

This interventionist approach is extended to other creatures at Singapore's wildlife attractions, including the Jurong Bird Park, another major tourist draw.

"We don't take a wait-and-see approach. We will give it a certain amount of time for the animals to decide for themselves if they do want to mate, but if things don't go right, then we usually come in," Guha said.

Aside from making enclosures look and feel like native habitats, cutting-edge technology and scientific methods are deployed to make sure animals mate with the best possible partners at the most opportune time.

They include matching viable females with genetically superior males using semen analysis and monitoring the females' fertility cycles through regular ultrasound tests - something that not all zoos can afford to do.

"Diagnostic facilities are not cheap," noted senior veterinarian Abraham Mathew. "You need the manpower and you need the expertise to do this. All zoos actually want to do this type of work, but whether they can do it or not would depend on their management," he said.

A mobile ultrasound machine used by the zoo costs around 20,000 Singapore dollars (14,200 US) and includes an expensive probe that allows veterinarians to accurately check female animals' fertility out in the field.

Such resources have helped make the city state a breeding hub for threatened animals, said Guha.

Zoo staff hope a pair of pandas to be loaned by China will produce offspring in the coming years.

"For us, captive populations form an insurance population, so it is our objective to make sure that there are sustainable numbers in captivity," Guha said.

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