Who will be the next Ah Meng of Singapore Zoo?

Who will be the next Ah Meng of Singapore Zoo?
Alagappasamy Chellaiyah (left) and Kumaran Sesshe with five of Ah Meng's six descendants who are in the running to be her successor at the Singapore Zoo. They are (from third left) granddaughters Endah and Ishta, and great-grandson Putra. Behind them are Ah Meng's great-grandson Bino and granddaughter Chomel. Ah Meng's youngest son Satria is not pictured. The two apes on the extreme left are unrelated to the family.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

Six Sumatran orang utans are vying to be the new face of the Singapore Zoo.

The winner will take the name Ah Meng - the name of the original grand dame who died eight years ago - and make its debut this week.

The title will be taken on by one of Ah Meng's six living descendants at the zoo - youngest son Satria, granddaughters Chomel, Ishta and Endah, and great-grandsons Bino and Putra.

The decision to keep the name Ah Meng was made because it has become synonymous with orang utans for many Singaporeans, according to Mr Mike Barclay, chief executive of Wildlife Reserves Singapore.

"Not only was she (Ah Meng) an icon of the zoo, she was the ambassador for her kind, as well as for other threatened animal species in South-east Asia," he told The Sunday Times.

"She helped to build bridges with our guests and inspired people to care for orang utans, and take steps to help conserve biodiversity in our region. We hope our new Ah Meng can do the same."

The zoology team is confident that with proper conditioning, the new animal ambassador will accept the name change.

The public will be able to meet the chosen successor at this year's Safari Zoo Run on Feb 27 and 28. The event, which takes runners through the Night Safari and Singapore Zoo, was conceived in 2009 in memory of Ah Meng, who died of old age, around 48, in 2008.

Each of the six orang utans in the running has its quirks.

Satria, Ah Meng's 19-year-old son, hates vegetables and has a gentle disposition.

"He's very tolerant. Even when the young ones come and play with him, and touch his cheek pads he doesn't show anger. He's not a bully either," said Mr Kumaran Sesshe, 41, head keeper of the zoology team which looks after orang utans. "He must have got that from his mother."

Chomel, 19, has an unusual liking for the rain and a loving, motherly nature. Ishta and Endah, aged four and three respectively, are playful. Ah Meng's long-time keeper Alagappasamy Chellaiyah, 65, said Ishta bears a striking resemblance to a younger Ah Meng.

Five-year-old Bino and five-month-old Putra are Chomel's sons. "Blur" Bino has a clumsy and independent personality and loves playing with leaves, while Putra is still nursing and has started nibbling keepers' fingers with its two front teeth.

The zookeeping team has been observing Ah Meng's descendants to see which of one exhibits the icon's special and beloved traits.

Ah Meng is remembered as being sociable towards humans and other orang utans, and being clean - it would refuse to enter the exhibits if other animals before had soiled it.

Ah Meng was also a loving mother and more protective of its adopted child than of its offspring.

And Ah Meng had a big personality. "The new one has to be a diva like the great Ah Meng," said Mr Sesshe.

But the new ambassador will not be as up close and personal with visitors as in the past, as the zoo is moving towards encouraging more natural behaviour among the apes.

"We will still bring him or her down for breakfast, and allow people to go near for photographs, but they cannot touch or hug the animal," said Mr Chellaiyah, who now holds the position of zoology specialist.

He said that modern day concerns about illnesses spreading from apes to humans and vice versa also supported this change.

The team is confident that with their training-behaviour work with the orang utans, visitors will still see lots of interaction between the keepers and the chosen successor.

"I'm sure the new Ah Meng will be very popular," he said.

CONTENDERS TO REPLACE AH MENG

Satria, 19: Ah Meng's youngest son - hates vegetables; has a gentle disposition.

Chomel, 19: One of Ah Meng's granddaughters - has an unusual liking for rain and a loving, motherly nature.

Bino, five: One of Ah Meng's great-grandsons - "blur" and clumsy; but with an independent personality.

Ishta, four: Playful granddaughter of Ah Meng and best friends with Bino; looks a lot like grandmother. Fostered by Chomel after mum Sayang died. Endah, three: Another of Ah Meng's granddaughters and sister of Ishta; has a penchant for longans.

Putra, five months: Ah Meng's second great-grandson whose name means "prince". Still nursing and teething as its two front teeth have just emerged.

About Ah Meng

Even though eight years have passed since Ah Meng died, the zoo icon has not been forgotten.

"When we do feedings, sometimes, people still come shouting her name," said its former keeper Alagappasamy "Sam" Chellaiyah, 65.

Now a zoology specialist, Mr Chellaiyah was one of Ah Meng's main carers. The primate was moved to Singapore Zoo in November 1971 after being confiscated from a family which kept it as a pet.

It was a year before Ah Meng could meet strangers. Its first visit was to executive chairman Ong Swee Law. They got on so well that the late Dr Ong wanted to take it to board meetings.

It shot into the limelight when the zoo set up its Breakfast With Ah Meng series in 1982, letting visitors share a meal and take photos with the ape.

Ah Meng became especially popular when it became a mother as it was very friendly and let visitors touch it and its babies. "Even if someone pulled out her hair by accident, she would not show anger, she would just look at me as if to say 'Sam, what's going on?'" said Mr Chellaiyah.

As the poster girl for the wildlife reserve, Ah Meng featured in almost 30 travel films, met royalty - Britain's Prince Philip - and celebrities such as Michael Jackson and Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin. It was the first non-human to receive a "Special Tourism Ambassador" award in 1992.

Ah Meng died on Feb 8, 2008 of old age. It was about 48 years old. "I was stunned by the number of people who came with flowers to the funeral," said Mr Chellaiyah. "When I hear people call her name now, I feel a bit emotional. It was the right decision to have someone take over the name."

joseow@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on Feb 21, 2016.
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