Photo: Oliver Uberti

Two hundred years ago, Singapore was a fishing village on an island covered in mangroves and rain forest. “Google map it now,” said Shawal, our guide at the Singapore Zoo, “and half of it is concrete.”

He’s being kind. Experts believe more than 95% of the island’s natural habitat has disappeared since the British first established a port here in 1819. Believe it or not, this makes Singapore a great place to discuss animal conservation.

“What are the biggest threats to Singapore’s wildlife?” I asked.

Shawal didn’t hesitate. “Because our country is so small,” he said, “we need to protect against invasive species. One animal could change the whole ecosystem.”

From what I could tell after a week in this booming financial hub, the most invasive species in recent history has been humans. Decades of building freeways, railroads, skyscrapers, and hotels like the Marina Bay Sands with its 150-meter infinity pool (above)—have chopped the country’s forests into pieces. This is called habitat fragmentation. And it's Singapore's other big threat.

“We have lots of greenery,” says Shawal, “but sometimes the tops don’t touch, so animals can’t cross from tree to tree.” As a result, countless species have gone extinct. More than 200 are endangered. For example, the forests were once teaming with banded-leaf monkeys, a species found only in Singapore; now there are fewer than 50 and they’re all confined to one nature reserve surrounded by freeways.

The solution? Build a bridge. In October 2013, the National Parks Board and Land Transport Authority opened Southeast Asia’s first ecological corridor to connect the Singapore’s two largest nature reserves. This continuous forest canopy allows flying squirrels, monitor lizards, pangolins, mousedeer, snakes, and other animals to travel back and forth across the six-lane Bukit Timah Expressway in search of food, home, or a mate.

“Everything else in Singapore has an economic impact,” said Shawal. “They spent $17 million on a bridge with no economic impact just to allow animals to cross the freeway. I’m very proud of whoever suggested that.”

It’s a rare win for a country that isn’t in the habit of putting animals first. When I asked Shawal what he thought was the hardest part of operating a zoo in Singapore, he said, “keeping people happy and the animals happy. Usually if the animals are happy, the people are not.” For proof, he pointed us in the direction of the Giant Panda Forest.
“Pandas are quite shy animals,” he said. “If you want to see them, get there early. Many of our visitors don’t understand how animals work. They shout at them, whistle, and use flash photography.”

He wasn’t kidding. Brian and I arrived at the River Safari at 9:30 a.m. The place was already filling with smartphone-wielding tourists and school groups. We checked our map. The Giant Panda Forest exhibit was on the far side of the park. To get ahead of the crowds, we sped through the “Rivers of the World” exhibits—past American beavers in the Mississippi, gharials in the Ganges, giant salamanders in the Yangtze—and stepped through sliding glass doors into a climate-controlled world of bamboo.

A furry orange face was looking back at us.

Photo by Oliver Uberti

It was Pushka, a 5-year-old male red panda. He was pacing on a branch above us. Lucky for him, Andre the zookeeper had just entered the Giant Panda Forest with a bowl of carrots and apples in one hand. In the other, he held a metal rod with a bright pink tip called a “target.” Wherever Andre pointed it, Pushka followed. Andre then clicked a button on the handle to let Pushka know he was doing a good job and that food was coming. When I saw Pushka eat a carrot out of Andre’s hand and then look him in the eye as if to say, “More?” in my view, Andre had the coolest job in the world.

I had to ask, “How do you become a zookeeper working with red pandas?” Andre said he trained to be a vet in his home country, the Philippines. He started working at the River Safari earlier this year, first as a guide on the Amazon River Quest before transferring to the Giant Panda Forest in August. “I've really bonded with them,” he said, “especially the male. He clings to me.”

Pushka climbed a branch to a hollowed log. “That’s their pooping area,” he said. “Every night we have to go up with a ladder and clear all the feces out.” Still, he said, “It’s much better than working with people.”
Photo by Oliver Uberti

The doors opened and dozens of uniformed girls from the St. Nicholas Girls School poured into the exhibit. They rushed down the boardwalk to see the two giant pandas, Jia Jia and Kai Kai. The female, Jia Jia, is shy and gets startled easily by camera-wielding crowds. Andre and his colleagues regularly take urine samples to check the pandas’ hormone levels in their on-site “Endocrine Lab.” High cortisol means high stress. If the bears are too stressed, the keepers can open a door to give them a private place to retreat.

Stresses in the zoo pale in comparison to what pandas must face in the wild. All the animals in the Giant Panda Forest—red pandas, giant pandas, and golden pheasants—share two things in common: 1) they eat bamboo; and 2) this specialized diet puts them in constant risk of starvation.

Giant pandas need to eat 45 pounds of bamboo a day. That’s like 100 bowls of rice! To support this appetite in the wild, the World Wildlife Fund says a pair of breeding pandas needs at least 12 square miles of habitat. That kind of space is becoming harder to find in China, where bamboo forests are being felled to create farmland and harvested to make furniture and millions of disposable chopsticks.

To be honest, I had never made the connection between my Chinese takeout orders and the survival of these magnificent bears on the other side of the world.

Had you?

NEXT: Part II, Night Safari and the Singapore Zoo