Memories of Ah Meng, Inuka and Other Singapore’s Favourite Animal Stars

Many Singaporeans visited the Singapore Zoo to catch the last glimpse of their favourite Inuka, after learning about the news of its declining health. The world’s only tropical polar bear was eventually put down on 25 April 2018 by the zoo on humane and welfare grounds.

The fourth polar bear to be kept at the Singapore Zoo after Nanook, Sheba (its parents) and Anana, Inuka lived till 27 years old, equivalent to the age of seventies in human terms. The average life expectancy of polar bears is between 15 and 18 years in the wild and 25 years in captivity.

Born just a day after Christmas in 1990, Inuka was part of the childhood memories for many students in the nineties during their school excursions to the zoo. Many would remember watching the adorable polar bear cub playing with her mother Sheba, which was also a 14-month-old cub when she came from Germany in 1978.

Sheba, in the her early thirties, suffered from illness that resulted in the loss of strength in her limbs, and weeks before her eventual death, the polar bear could no longer take in food. In November 2012, Sheba was put to death at an age of 35, and her body was preserved as a specimen.

With the death of Sheba and Inuka (as well as Nanook and Anana in 1995 and 1999 respectively), the Singapore Zoo has announced it will not bring in any polar bears in future.

Ah Meng

The Singapore Zoo today has one of the largest display collections of Sumatran and Bornean orangutans in the world. The reddish brown primates remain as one of the zoo’s attractions and visitors’ favourite animals since the establishment of the orangutan enclosure in the early seventies.

But one stood out among the rest. Ah Meng, a Sumatran orangutan, was the poster girl representing Singapore’s tourism and conservation efforts between the eighties and nineties, when numerous foreign dignitaries, movie stars and famous sports celebrities visited the zoo to catch a glimpse of her.

The orangutan was born in Indonesia in 1960. She was smuggled to Singapore and was kept as a pet until she was discovered and confiscated in the early seventies (there were other disputed sources about her background). Displaying high levels of intelligence and friendliness, Ah Meng soon became the crowd favourite, and had her own events such as “Breakfast with an Orangutan” first organised in 1982 by the zoo.

The mild-tempered orangutan had her tantrum-throwing moments. In the filming of a tourism promotion video in 1982, Ah Meng climbed up a tree and refused to come down. It stayed there for 3 days before falling down from the tree and breaking its arm. Then in 1992, it attacked a female French student, believed to be caused by a fit of jealousy.

In 1992, Ah Meng became the first and only non-human recipient to receive the “Special Tourism Ambassador” award from the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board (STPB). Thousands of zoo visitors had their photos taken with her, including notable personalities including Prince Philip, Elizabeth Taylor, Michael Jackson and Bjorn Borg.

Locally, Ah Meng had been a household name and Singapore’s favourite animal for almost two decades. One of the reasons for its fame was perhaps its localised name, a common and easy-to-remember name that resonated with those who had grown up in the eras of the eighties and nineties.

Ah Meng died naturally on 8 February 2008. The durian-loving ape had lived to a ripe old age of 48, equivalent to a 95-year-old human being. As many as 4,000 people visited the zoo’s Garden with a View to bid their farewells. Its legendary status as the zoo’s mascot lives on with her own bronze statue, a restaurant named after her, and one of her granddaughters handpicked by the zoo to represent and continue her legacy.

Singapore Zoo

The Singapore Zoo was officially opened on 27 June 1973 under the name of Singapore Zoological Gardens. Occupying an area of 28 hectares near the edges of Upper Seletar Reservoir, it was also fondly known as the Mandai Zoo.

The idea of Singapore having its zoological garden, built within the greenery at the country’s central water catchment areas, was first mooted in 1968 by Public Utilities Board (PUB) chairman Dr Ong Swee Law.

The zoo, designed with a unique open concept where the animals could roam freely in their spacious enclosures, became part of the government’s plan to develop Singapore’s tourism sector together with other new attractions such as Sentosa and Jurong Bird Park in the early seventies. Prior to the establishment of the Singapore Zoological Gardens, there were small-scaled private zoos owned by individuals located at Punggol, Pasir Panjang, Serangoon and other parts of Singapore.


Omar the white Bengal tiger was another famous resident at the Singapore Zoo. A subspecies of Bengal tiger, white tigers are extremely rare, with only one in 10,000 born without the orange pigments in their skins.

Omar arrived from Indonesia in 2001 together with its sisters Jippie and Winnie as tiger cubs. An animal exchange program between the two countries, the three white tigers were the Singapore Zoo’s latest attractions and also its celebrations to mark the Year of the Tiger. Omar and its siblings, however, were not the first white tigers in Singapore; the zoo had presented in 1998 two white tigers loaned from the United States’ Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden.

A tragedy occurred in 2008 when a 32-year-old zoo cleaner leaped into the tiger enclosure. He was later mauled to death by the tigers.

Jippie and Winnie died in 2012 and 2014 respectively. Omar survived until June 2017, when he was put to death after suffering from melanoma and arthritis for several months. The Singapore Zoo currently has two white tigers named Pasha and Keysa, imported from Indonesia in 2015.

Other Animals

Other animal celebrities at Singapore Zoo include Astove the tortoise. The 300kg Aldabra giant tortoise, which came from Seychelles in 1989, is currently the oldest animal at the zoo at age 80. Previously, there was also Tommy, a giant Galapagos tortoise given as a gift by the Honolulu Zoo.

Congo the hippopotamus, Anusha the elephant and Matilda the wallaby were some of the early animal residents at the Singapore Zoological Gardens in the seventies. Others included several big cats, such as the tiger siblings named Adeline, Supee and Mathu, and a pair of jaguars acquired from the United States called Cleveland and Ohio.

In early 1974, Congo the hippo made a daring escape and hid in the thick vegetation of the Upper Seletar Reservoir for almost 50 days before it was lured back to captivity by the zoo staff using bananas and sweet potatoes.

Throughout the zoo’s history, numerous animals managed to break free. A year before Congo’s escape, a black panther and several sun bears escaped. The police was alerted as the panther posed a threat to the public, and a massive manhunt was carried out. The black panther eventually died during the process of its recapture.

In the early 2000s, a chimpanzee named Ramba, Medan the orangutan and a jaguar ran off from the zoo. Ramba unfortunately drowned, whereas the jaguar was caught. Medan hung around the top of the trees, a repeat of what her mother Ah Meng did in 1982, before coming down the trees, tempted by the fruits offered by its zookeepers.

During its opening in 1973, the Singapore Zoological Gardens had about 300 animals of 70 species. By 1990, the collection grew to 1,600 animals of 160 species. Today, the Singapore Zoo (rebranded in the mid-2000s) displays more than 2,800 animals of 900 species, and enjoys an average of 1.7 million visitorship each year.

Published: 22 May 2018

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2 Responses to Memories of Ah Meng, Inuka and Other Singapore’s Favourite Animal Stars

  1. It seems just yesterday that I was squealing beside the polar bear enclosure as a kid. Time does fly and it’s sad what it inevitably brings.

  2. Lion cub born at Singapore Zoo, first in the country conceived through assisted reproduction

    26 January 2021
    Channel NewsAsia

    The Singapore Zoo welcomed its first lion cub conceived through assisted reproduction on Oct 23 last year, Wildlife Reserves Singapore (WRS) said on Tuesday (Jan 26).

    The male cub is “Singapore’s very own Simba”, said WRS, referring to the iconic Disney animated film Lion King. Like in the movie, the cub was named Simba, which means “lion” in Swahili.

    Simba was conceived after keepers and veterinarians collected semen from his father, Mufasa, a geriatric lion, using the process of electro-ejaculation. Mufasa was “not revived following the procedure”, said WRS, adding that “his deteriorating health was a key factor”.

    The semen was then used to artificially inseminate Simba’s mother Kayla, described by WRS as “an ideal candidate” because she was a “proven breeder”.

    WRS said that African lions in the wild have an average lifespan of 10 years to 14 years.

    “Mufasa lived to the ripe old age of 20 but did not sire any cubs in his lifetime because of his aggressive behavior, which did not bring about successful pairings with any female.

    “Yet his genes would be of high value in contributing to the genetic diversity and sustainability of African lion populations in zoological institutions,” said WRS, adding that African lions are listed as “vulnerable” under the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.

    Simba’s first month was eventful, WRS said, with the cub requiring supplementary nutrition via bottle feeding after keepers found that he had difficulty suckling.

    “Observations suggested that Kayla was possibly suffering from inflammation of her mammary glands,” WRS said.

    The intervention was only made after careful deliberation, said WRS.

    “It was a delicate decision because animals can reject their young following temporary separation,” said Kughan Krishnan, the head keeper of carnivores at the Singapore Zoo.

    “Thankfully, Kayla was accepting of the intervention which reflects the trust relationship built up over time between the lioness and her animal care team, that helped to achieve the positive outcome.”

    Now three months old, Simba is making good progress.

    “Simba is growing up to be a healthy and inquisitive little lion,” WRS said.

    “He has started to enjoy small amounts of raw meat together with his milk and spends most of his day playing with enrichment devices prepared by his keepers to nurture his development. His current favourite is a rattan ball which he likes to tussle with.

    “As his features start to develop, it is evident that Mufasa lives in him as they share the same beautiful eyes.”

    Simba and Kayla are currently housed in an off-exhibit area at the zoo, a measure which will allow the lions to bond privately, and the cub will gradually be introduced to the rest of his family, which includes a half-sister and an aunt.

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