Straits Times: Pandas to get home away from home

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Photo: Straits Times

THE habitat of the giant pandas' home in China has been meticulously replicated in their $8.6 million enclosure here.

When visitors enter the enclosure at the upcoming River Safari, it will be like stepping into the hilly forests of Sichuan, home to the endangered species.

The designers of the enclosure faced a dual challenge. Kai Kai and Jia Jia, who will arrive next Thursday, must be comfortable in tropical Singapore but they also have to be highly visible to visitors.

Mr Cham Tud Yinn, Wildlife Reserves Singapore's (WRS) director of exhibit design and Mr Melvin Tan, the director of horticulture, took on the challenge.

They visited various panda exhibits, including those at Zoo Atlanta in the United States and Ocean Park in Hong Kong.

"We tried to do better than theirs... it should be as natural looking as possible, as close to the natural environment as possible," said Mr Cham.

They designed a 1,500 sq m enclosed building with a chilled-water cooling system to reduce the temperature to between 18 deg C and 22 deg C.

A special glass roof, with bamboo-leaf motifs, lets in natural light while keeping the temperature low. Walls are also insulated to keep out the heat.

Much thought went into the enclosure's 45-degree slopes.

"When I first saw the slopes, I went 'My God'," said Mr Tan, referring to the difficulty of putting in plants on such terrain. He dealt with that issue by creating small terraces on the slopes.

Grassy areas are positioned so that visitors on the boardwalk can see the pandas at eye level just a few metres away.

Tropical plants such as camellia and rabbit foot fern were planted in March so they could adapt to the temperate climate.

"It's not just seeing the pandas, we want people to be in this cold, forest-like environment," said Mr Cham.

Even though visitors can get quite close to the animals, a WRS spokesman said they would not be close enough to transmit illnesses.

WRS chairman Claire Chiang said in an interview yesterday that the pandas, here on a 10-year loan, would enable scientists to study their behaviour.

She added: "The environment was created for pairing, dating, courting and mating. It's like preparing for a love affair."

Ms Chiang, who visited the Ya'an panda base in Sichuan five times, said the panda exhibit would open in early December.

The rest of the $160 million River Safari project will be opened after that in phases, she added.

She said it would be ready by the end of the year but instead of sticking to the November opening date as announced, it would open in the first quarter of next year to give the team ample time to make sure everything is perfect.

Scheduling the opening of the river-themed park for 2013 would also tie in with the United Nations International Year of Water Cooperation, she added.

Source: Straits Times