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I’d hate to see Supertrees in Mandai: Bernard Harrison

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Bernard Harrison, former chief executive officer of Wildlife Reserves Singapore (WRS), says he is “concerned about the fundamental premise” of the plan to relocate Jurong Bird Park to the Mandai area, as revealed by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong last week.

The plan to move the bird park is part of a larger one to makeover the northern area where the 41-year old Mandai zoo also stands.

"The Bird Park is all by itself down in Jurong. Why not move it to where the zoo is?” Mr Lee said.

While Mr Harrison said he applauded the vision in moving Jurong Bird Park to the Mandai cluster of the WRS institutions, and that a major overhaul of the bird park is timely, he does not however think this will greatly increase its overall appeal, visitor figures and profitability.

“It is logical to create a cluster of wildlife attractions,” Mr Harrison said in a letter to the Straits Times, “and develop some eco-friendly resorts to allow tourists to take in all the attractions over two to three days. This clustering also streamlines the WRS management operations and will probably result in some savings on manpower and infrastructure.”

WRS is the holding company for the Singapore Zoological Gardens, Night Safari and Jurong Bird Park.

“The alternative is to leave the bird park in Jurong, upgrade it with $50 million and develop a new wildlife attraction on the available Mandai land,” Mr Harrison, who had been with the zoo for almost 30 years before stepping down in 2002, explained.

He said that as far as he knew the River Safari cost $150 million, of which “WRS had to borrow $50 million on a commercial, repayable loan”.

Mr Harrison had helped conceive and design the Night Safari - the first of its kind when launched in 1994.

“If this is the Government's funding policy,” he said, “I would put my money into a new wildlife attraction in Mandai.”

Mr Harrison, who now runs Bernard Harrison and Friends Ltd – a company which conceptualizes, plans and designs zoos, night safaris, botanic gardens and eco-tourism attractions around the world -said that there “are many new concepts that can be developed.”

For example, there could be an “Unzoo”.

“This simulates a walk into a national park, where animal encounters are orchestrated along the way,” he said. “By design, it is a totally back-to-nature experience and thus discourages architectural- and engineering-inspired infrastructural development.”

“I would hate to see Supertrees, a la Gardens by the Bay, in Mandai,” he said, referring to the artificial trees in downtown Marina Bay.

“My basic concern is: Is Singapore - and are Singaporeans - running out of creative ideas?” he asked.

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Here is Mr Harrison's letter to the Straits Times on 9 September:

WHILE I applaud the vision in moving Jurong Bird Park to the Mandai cluster of Wildlife Reserves Singapore (WRS) institutions ("New plans for Mandai will be 'sensitive to area' "; last Saturday), I am concerned about the fundamental premise of this planning strategy.

When I became chief executive of WRS in 2000, I started looking into ways to increase the bird park's annual local attendance, which made up only 20 per cent of its one million visitors.

From straw polls of friends, I established that the last time most people visited the park was when they were in Primary 6.

One fundamental issue with a bird park is that it holds fairly limited appeal to repeat visitors from Singapore. The tourism appeal, especially to the Asian market, which likes more bang for the buck (650 species of birds and highest man-made waterfall), is much greater. In contrast, a zoo has greater local appeal because of its greater variety of animals.

Thus, although a major overhaul of the bird park is timely, I do not think this will greatly increase its overall appeal, visitor figures and profitability.

From my experience as a zoo designer, an overhaul of the Jurong site would cost about $50 million, while moving it to Mandai would cost about $200 million.

So the question is: Why move?

It is logical to create a cluster of wildlife attractions, and develop some eco-friendly resorts to allow tourists to take in all the attractions over two to three days. This clustering also streamlines the WRS management operations and will probably result in some savings on manpower and infrastructure.

The alternative is to leave the bird park in Jurong, upgrade it with $50 million and develop a new wildlife attraction on the available Mandai land.

As far as I am aware, the River Safari cost $150 million, of which WRS had to borrow $50 million on a commercial, repayable loan. If this is the Government's funding policy, I would put my money into a new wildlife attraction in Mandai.

There are many new concepts that can be developed.

One is a project our company has been conceptually developing, which we call the Unzoo. This simulates a walk into a national park, where animal encounters are orchestrated along the way. By design, it is a totally back-to-nature experience and thus discourages architectural- and engineering-inspired infrastructural development.

I would hate to see Supertrees, a la Gardens by the Bay, in Mandai. My basic concern is: Is Singapore - and are Singaporeans - running out of creative ideas?

Bernard Harrison

Principal Partner, Creativity & Design

Bernard Harrison and Friends