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John Lui
Wednesday, Jun 4, 2014

Singapore

Jumbos turned him around

The Straits Times | John Lui | Wednesday, Jun 4, 2014

Mr Kumar Pillai, director of zoology at Wildlife Reserves Singapore, with one of the elephants at the Singapore Zoo on 16 May 2014. He was so attached to the elephants that he turned down a promotion because it would take him away from close physical contact with the elephants he cared for so much.

It was the late 1980s and the team formed to create the Night Safari was eager to start building. A market research company came with bad news: Its surveys showed that on a good night, the proposed park would draw 600 attendees. That estimate, if accurate, would mean the attraction could not hope to break even financially. The project seemed doomed even before it had started.

Mr Vijaya Kumar Pillai, 62, known to his friends as Kumar, was a member of that early team. He laughs when he remembers the report's dismal figures. The Singapore public had no idea what a nocturnal zoo could be like - the Night Safari would be the world's first - and did not seem interested, the research showed.

"We thought, that can't be possible. It doesn't make sense. We decided that the marketing team was wrong," he says.

The Night Safari group stuck to its original plan to build a park capable of hosting 1,200 visitors a night, twice the report's projections. It was a figure based on personal experience. He was there in 1973 when the Singapore Zoo opened. It was mobbed.

"The queue of cars went all the way up to Mandai Road," he says.

The Night Safari team predicted that in a good year, the new park would see 500,000 admissions.

"That first year," says Mr Pillai, "we had 750,000 admissions".

When the Night Safari opened almost exactly 20 years ago on May 26, 1994, a throng showed up and it has never really let up since.

Instead of poor take-up, the newly built venue's problem was one of crowd control, of expanding capacity as well as diverting and channelling visitors into less crowded zones. Over time, its nine trams became 24 and its 250-seat amphitheatre became a 600-seater, then an 800-seater.

Today, demand still nips at the heels of capacity. All four shows at the amphitheatre normally have full houses. Attendance at the Night Safari last year was 1.1 million, while its sister attraction, the Singapore Zoo, drew 1.7 million visitors.

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