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The Phenomenon of the Night Safari

Volume 3 Number 2 - October 2006
Bernard Harrison

Summary

Most tropical mammals are nocturnal, unlike most birds, which are primarily diurnal.  This fact has frustrated zoo directors and curators for years as many of their good-looking exhibit species like tigers and leopards spend their days asleep when the public are visiting.  At the Singapore Zoological Gardens, we conceived the concept of a night safari, where guests would be allowed into a park at night to view nocturnal animals under artificial lighting, when they are most active. It was themed on a visit to a national park, being set in a lush tropical rainforest. 

Design and construction took three years and the Night Safari, Singapore opened in 1994.  It was developed on 40 hectares of forested and undulating land.  It commenced with 1,000 specimens from 100 species of animals from Asia, Africa and South America.  Such animals as the Asian elephant and the greater one horned rhinoceros were given four hectare exhibits in which to roam. Spacious areas were developed for tigers, lions, Nile hippopotamus, striped and spotted hyaena, sloth bear, leopard, giant anteaters and herds of deer & antelope. 

The Night Safari Singapore succeeded our expectations completely. Whereas we had been expecting to receive 180,000 visitors in the first year, we actually received 760,000.   The highest visitor attendance in a year was 950,000.

Nocturnal houses

Most tropical mammals, with the exception of primates, are nocturnal, unlike most birds, which are primarily diurnal.  This fact has frustrated zoo directors and curators for years as many of their good-looking exhibit species like tigers and leopards spend their days asleep when the public are visiting.

Ernest Walker of the National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C. USA, first started experiments with reverse lighting in the early 1940’s. These experiments were imitated and improved at the Brookfield Zoo, Chicago, USA and at Chester Zoo, Great Britain.  Dr. Richard Clarke developed the first example of a nocturnal house at the Bristol Zoo Gardens, with reverse lighting in 1953. The phenomenon was soon reproduced in zoos all over the world.  

The concept of reverse lighting convinces the nocturnal animal to change its circadian rhythm to be active during the day because it believes it is actually night. To achieve this illusion the differential between day and night lighting must be convincing.  For instance in Singapore the lighting level at midday is 100,000 lux while a full moon is hardly 1 lux. 

Thus, the biggest snag with nocturnal houses is that they cannot display large mammals, because of the amount of covered and illuminated space one would have to provide them while trying to simulate daylight.

Why did we set up the Night Safari?

I was the Executive Director of the Singapore Zoological Gardens from 1980 to 2003. Singapore is an island republic one degree north of the equator where the difference between sunset times at the summer and winter solstice is barely 20 minutes. Thus, we are blessed with balmy evenings and although we receive 2,000mm of rain each year, most of it falls in the afternoon leaving the evening dry.

One day in 1988, I received a call from our landlord - the Public Utilities Department - asking me what we intended to do with the yet undeveloped 60 hectares of undulating and forested land we had on long-term lease. My Executive Chairman, Dr Ong Swee Law, fearing they may want to take it back, set up a series of lunch meetings with captains of industry to generate ideas as to its use. Golf courses, fruit plantations, recreational facilities, a large day safari were suggested. Finally, it was our Sri Lankan zoo consultant, Lyn de Alwis, conceived the concept of a night safari, where guests would be allowed into a park at night to view nocturnal animals under artificial lighting, when they are most active. It was themed on a visit to a national park, being set in a lush tropical rainforest which fringed a huge body of fresh water – the Upper Seletar Reservoir. 

It was a totally radical idea - a paradigm shift - the old paradigm was the zoos open from 9am to 5pm. This was a zoo which opened at 7.30pm (at dark) and closed at midnight.  Directors of temperate zoos may have thought about developing such a project, but in summer when it is warm in the evening it does not get dark until 10pm and in winter when it gets dark at 4.30pm, it is too cold for all but the hardiest animals to be out.

Financing

To make an idea fly (work) - timing is extremely important. It is not sufficient just to have a great idea. You also need to have other important people who like the idea, believe in it and are willing to finance it. The one single reason why so many great ideas around the world do not fly is insufficient financing. In the case of the Night Safari, Singapore we had the great idea, we believed in it, everyone who read the project proposal loved the idea and Singapore had just set up a S$1billion (US$0.6billion) fund for tourism development. Despite all this, it took the Singapore Government two years to approve the project funding which eventually amounted to S$65million. The reason for the rumination?  The idea was untried and untested. Singapore is a risk adverse place!

Actually, although all of us involved with the Night Safari’s conception believed in the idea, we had absolutely no idea how popular it would be. We estimated visitor attendance based on the Zoo's daytime figures of 1.2 to 1.5 million annually. Pannell Kerr Forster, marketing and financial specialists, whom we engaged to undertake a feasibility study concluded that we would receive 0.018million visitors in the first year, which would level off to 0.4million to 0.52million p.a..  Our political masters were more skeptical – some could not believe that Singaporeans would leave the comfort of their homes and televisions to visit a forest lit up at night!

The product

Design and construction took 3 years and the Night Safari, Singapore opened 1994.  It was developed on 40 hectares of forested and undulating land.  Initially it was called the Asian Night Safari, focusing on Asian species as a marketing and branding strategy. Later the scope was changed to the Night Safari, which opened up the range of species that could be displayed.  It commenced with 1,000 specimens from 100 species of animals from Asia, Africa and South America.  Such animals as the Asian elephant and the greater one horned rhinoceros were given four hectare exhibits in which to roam. Spacious areas were developed for tigers, lions, Nile hippopotamus, striped and spotted hyaena, sloth bear, leopard, giant anteaters and herds of deer & antelope.  It was radically different form a nocturnal house and our zoo colleagues from Europe and the USA especially were fascinated.

Many visitors come for dinner at the restaurants before or after the journey by tram around the 3.5km route through selected ‘national parks’ in Asia, Africa and South America. There is a live commentator onboard and one stop, the East Lodge, at which the guests can alight and walk the 30 minutes Leopard trail and return to catch the tram again.  The are other walking trails the guest can take, one dedicated to viewing a patch of five hectares of primary rain forest.  Through advanced booking, groups can take the Gourmet Express, modelled on the Orient Express, a full diner served on a modified tram, with waiter service and a chef on board.  

Lighting

Lighting was probably the single most debated and hotly argued topic.  We hired Simon Corder, an English theatre lighting designer who specialized in outdoor theatre - son et lumière.  He eventually convinced us that there should be two primary lighting principles and both were based on copying nature. The first was that light sources should come from above and shine down - as does the moon at night. Thus, this excluded debates about using up-lighting and search lighting, etc.  The only exception to this ruler was in the Forest Giants Trail, where we found it more appropriate to up-light tall primary rain forest trees.  The second lighting principle was that the colour temperature of the light should be the same as the moon (and sun) which is about 5000Kº. This is a rather flat white light.  Many people think of moonlight as being blue.

There was also debate on the distance at which animals can be viewed at night, whether there should be lots of light sources or fewer but larger light sources (such as football stadium lighting wash) and the intensity of the lights.  After trials, it was established that the depth of the exhibits should not be greater than 50m and 30m is ideal. It was also agreed that there would be many smaller light sources allowing more lightscaping flexibility and the creation of a sense of theatrical drama. They were mounted on climbable poles ranging from eight to 12m in height.  The second debate on light intensity was finally resolved: the lighting levels would be between 30 to 100 lux, sufficient to see the colour of the animals but still suitably subtle.

At earlier trials, we had established the benchmark of 30-60 lux for the general habitat wash lighting and 100 lux for hotspots where we wished to highlight such important areas as drinking holes, salt licks and favorite resting and feeding spots where we hoped the animals would frequent and be visible. Barriers such as walls, moats and fences were not illuminated thus overall - invisible. However, the areas closer to these invisible barriers are also in darkness, hence animals can easily remain invisible if they wish.

To demonstrate how subjective such aspects of lighting are I will quote you one example. My Executive Chairman, Dr Ong Swee Law often came up at night to review lighting trials on prototype exhibits. When we were developing the fishing cat exhibit, he would come up each evening and complain that the lights were not bright enough, accuse us of being arty-farty and not considering the man in the street who wants to see animals and not artistic productions!  We kept upping the lux level.  Then one evening he came up and asked us why we had made the lighting levels so high! We were amazed and told him that this was the intensity he had ordered a few nights back.  We found out later that he had just gone for a cataract operation and now had clear vision!

The success of the project

The Night Safari, Singapore exceeded our expectations completely. Whereas we had been expecting to receive 180,000 visitors in the first year, we actually received 760,000!  This took us completely by surprise and jammed our total operations. We just could not cope with this kind of crowd. On Saturday nights, we were getting 7,000 people. Our tram capacity was 3,500 seats a night and even this was an absolute figure based on opening from 7.30pm to midnight and running all trams non-stop.  The problem is that visitors all arrived between 7.30 to 9.00pm and wanted to get on a tram.   We quickly ordered more trams and speeded up our leisurely tram ride around the park to be able to do a journey in 45 minutes. We eventually developed a capacity to handle 6,000 visitors in one night.  The highest annual visitor attendance we have ever recorded is 950,000 which was in the third year of operation.

Market research

After several years of operations, we commissioned an extensive market research study to analyze our market size, potential and existing market segments. To our total surprise, the results differentiated the market into to two broad camps. The first was what we refer to as the Caucasians (USA, Europe, Australia & Japan) and the second –the Asians (China, Taiwan and so on).  When asked what they thought of the Night Safari in exit surveys, the Caucasians said they loved the mystical ambience, the closeness of the animals and felt that the lighting was subtle and magical. The Asian segment said they found the experience too dark, there were not enough animals to see and there were too many mosquitoes!  Initially I thought we were assessing two completely different products! 

Besides the Night Safari Singapore I have also been involved in planning the second Night Safari in Guang Zhou, China, the third in Chiang Mai, Thailand and the forth at Greater Noida, New Delhi, India.  So watch out there may be a Night Safari opening in a city close to you!

Résumé - Le phénomène des Safaris Nocturnes

La plupart des mammifères tropicaux sont nocturne, contrairement aux oiseaux qui sont principalement diurnes. Pendant des années, ceci a posé problème aux directeurs de zoos et conservateurs, puisque les espèces les plus spectaculaires, comme le tigre ou le léopard, passent leurs journées à dormir, pendant les heures de visites. Au jardin zoologique de Singapour, nous avons imaginé le concept de safari nocturne, où les visiteurs sont accueillis dans le parc la nuit pour voir les animaux nocturnes sous une lumière artificielle, alors qu’ils sont le plus actif. Le thème était une visite dans un parc national dans un décor de forêt tropicale luxuriante.

Conçu et réalisé en trois ans, le Safari Nocturne de Singapour a ouvert en 1994. Il a été développé sur 40 ha de terrain boisé et vallonné. Il a commencé avec 1000 spécimens de 100 espèces animales d’Asie, d’Afrique et d’Amérique du sud. Des animaux tels que l’éléphant d’Asie ou le rhinocéros indien ont été placés dans des enclos avec 4 ha pour se déplacer.

Le safari nocturne de Singapour a totalement répondu à nos attentes. Nous pensions accueillir 180 000 visiteurs la première année et nous en avons en fait reçu 820 000. Le record a été 950 000 visiteurs en une année.

Resumen - El fenómeno del Safari Nocturno

La mayoría de los mamíferos tropicales son nocturnos, a diferencia de la mayoría de los pájaros que son principalmente diurnos. Este hecho ha frustrado directores y curadores de zoológicos por muchos años debido a que sus hermosas especies en exhibición como los tigres y los leopardos se pasan el dia durmiendo cuando el público los visita. En el jardin zoológico de Singapur, nosotros concebimos el concepto de safari nocturno, donde los invitados serian permitidos a entrar en un parque en la noche para ver los animals nocturnos en iluminación artificial, cuando ellos estan mas activos. El tema fue en referencia a una visita al parque nacional, establecido en un bosque tropical lluvioso.

El diseño y construcción tomó 3 años y el Safari Nocturno abrió en 1994. Fue desarrollado en 40 hectareas de tierra forestada y ondulante. Comenzó con 1000 individuos de 100 especies de animals de Asia, Africa y America del Sur.  Animales como el elefante asiático y el mas grande de los rinocerontes con unicornados se colocaron en un ehxibidor de 4 hectareas para correr.   El safari nocturno sobrepasó completamente nuestras expectativas. Mientras que esperabamos recibir 180,000 visitantes en el primer año, recibimos 820,000. La asistencia de visitants en este año fué de 950,000.

 

Bernard Harrison
Principal Partner
Creativity & Design
Bernard Harrison and Friends
25 Bright Hill Crescent
Singapore 579686
Email: Bernard@bernardharrisonandfriends.com
Website: www.bernardharrisonandfriends.com