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Entertainment, Food & Beverage

The seed that grew into a wildlife park

River Safari designer inspired in 1996 to develop concept based on the Amazon
The Straits Times - February 3, 2013
By: Ng Kai Ling
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The seed that grew into a wildlife park WRS exhibit design director Cham Tud Yinn got his inspiration for the Amazon boat ride at the soon-to-be-opened River Safari in Mandai while cruising down a river in Malaysia's Taman Negara (above). He also visited aquariums and rivers around the world f

The $160 million River Safari, which will open by next month, was the result of a light-bulb moment experienced in 1996 by Mr Cham Tud Yinn.

At the time, he was senior manager of maintenance at Wildlife Reserves Singapore (WRS) but had volunteered to branch out to exhibit design as there was no dedicated designer.

Flipping through that month's edition of BBC Wildlife magazine, he caught a glimpse of what life is like underwater when the Amazon river basin floods during the rainy months of November to June each year.

Mr Cham, now the director of exhibit design at WRS, had been racking his brains to come up with an aquarium concept in Mandai. The magazine feature gave him his first idea.

"That was the seed," said Mr Cham, who had been tasked with designing a full-scale aquarium attraction.

"The very first idea I had was the Amazon flooded forest."

In the 17 years since then, Mr Cham's first brainwave has grown into the upcoming 12ha River Safari - a river-themed park that will take visitors to replicas of rivers all over the world and into the simulated depths of the Amazon.

The park, sited between the Singapore Zoo and the Night Safari, received its temporary occupation permit (TOP) last December.

Other than the Giant Panda Forest, other highlights are a 15-minute riverboat ride through the dense "Amazon forest" and a 22m by 4m freshwater tank modelled on the flooded Amazon river bank.

About half of the park is dedicated to the Amazon.

Mr Cham, 45, said that between 1996 and 2001, he and his colleagues were trying to come up with a freshwater aquarium that would be different from the Underwater World at Sentosa.

With the Amazon as their basis, they suggested various ideas with working titles such as Wild Amazon. But the WRS board was not interested.

"The perception was that freshwater animals were not as colourful and interesting as those in the ocean," said Mr Cham, a mechanical engineering graduate.

The project was put on hold until 2003, when the idea of a freshwater aquarium was brought up again by management. This time, Mr Cham was well prepared.

In 2006, he got the go-ahead to develop the idea into a full-fledged wildlife park, and construction started in 2010.

Today, much of the River Safari was inspired by Mr Cham's travels to well-known aquariums and rivers around the world for research.

At Mandai, he realised how much the reservoir and its shores resembled places like the Amazon River and the Okavango River in south-west Africa.

To immerse visitors in that environment, he designed a boardwalk that cuts across the reservoir, offering views of the calm waters surrounded by lush greenery.

He also modelled the boat ride after his cruise down a river in Taman Negara in Malaysia.

"We could hear animals that were on the river banks but we could not see them. I was thinking if we could hear and see them, that would be the best experience," he said.

So he designed the ride such that animals such as tapirs, jaguars, the giant anteater and capybaras - the largest rodents in the world - could be seen along the edges of the water.

Then there is the park's largest tank, a miniature version of life 9m underwater when the Amazon river floods.

Here, arapaima - one of the world's largest freshwater fish - and manatees will swim among artificial trees built into the giant tank.

From now until the yet-to-be-announced opening day, tanks will be filled and animals will be moved into their new homes.

With the completion of the project in sight, Mr Cham said with pride: "This is the biggest and most complex project we've ever done. Once it opens, we will start thinking about how to refresh the exhibits in future."

kailing@sph.com.sg

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