Think about a wildlife sanctuary — many would typically picture lush forests and pasture landscapes for animals to graze in their natural habitat. These imageries are close to accurate in countries like South Africa, India, Bhutan and many more, but not quite as rosy for a tiny island like Singapore.
Stepping into ACRES (Animal Concerns Research & Education Society) Wildlife Rescue Centre Singapore, the premise features a kampung-esque façade spanning half a hectare (one hectare being the size of a regular sports field). In no time, my tour around the centre — housing mostly only reptiles and amphibians — was completed.
In a country as small and dense as Singapore, there are hardly any spaces left for our fast-growing population, much less a land big enough dedicated to protect our wildlife species. But spatial restriction is not the only reason ACRES has yet to reach its full potential as a sanctuary for more wildlife animals.
The ACRES Wildlife Rescue Centre, home to the rescue animals as well as Anbu, Deputy Chief Executive who has been living there since 2008.
In 2001, founder of ACRES, Louis Ng acquired a two-hectare piece of land (approximately 13 Olympic-sized swimming pools) with large open-air enclosures for animals — after having successfully campaigned against animal cruelty at the Singapore Zoo. Ng and his team's kind endeavour were met with a cruel challenge when their contractors unrightfully disposed toxic waste all over their land. ACRES took almost a decade to restore a portion of the land that is the centre now, through a tedious process of decontaminating.
Despite the domino of challenges that stemmed from the unfortunate incident, ACRES' managed to restore what was left with much aplomb.
Set along the further west of Singapore, where high-rise buildings were no longer in sight and the main roads were blocked by layers of greenery, the sanctuary divided its perimeter into sections that comprise of open-air animal living quarters, animal treatment facilities, quarantine room, education centre, volunteer house and staff living quarters.
Other than a special rehabilitation room to house surgical equipment, the rest of the centre is free of air-conditioning. Use of other industrial or electronic appliances are also kept to the bare minimum. What you get is a space with healthy living quarters built with the welfare of the native animals as its primary consideration. What started out as a dream sanctuary for rescued animals has now transformed into a centre focused in rehabilitation and repatriation.
As Anbarasi Boopal (Anbu for short), Deputy Chief Executive of ACRES walked me around the open-air enclosures, I was introduced to a myriad of exotic Indian Star Tortoises basking in their natural state. These tortoises, as the other reptiles and birds at ACRES, were mostly smuggled into Singapore to be sold illegally as pets. While some were later abandoned or abused by their owners, others were found injured or sick from their transport to Singapore — possibly from being stuffed in suitcases.
"That's Lola, she can be a little shy while some of them can be very greedy during feeding time." Anbu shares, referring to each one by their names, "Look at Bobby, he loves to sun-bathe". Most people would perceive tortoises as animals who don't require much care (myself included, is guilty), but watching the interaction between the staff and animals at ACRES, I was given a whole new perspective. Anbu explained that all of them, including their resident green iguana, have their own special personality with occasional quirks to keep the team on their toes.
While I was convinced that animals like tortoises, iguanas and snakes are important contribution to biodiversity and deserve equal care, a question still rang resonant in my mind — why did ACRES choose to take in amphibians and reptiles instead of mammals, given that its logo is an illustration of a blue monkey?
"[The number of] rescued reptiles and amphibians were the highest as compared to the rest of the animals," Anbu revealed as she lets in on how demands for these species are extremely high in illegal exotic pet trade even though it is less spoken of. Given that space constraint is currently still an issue coupled with the fact that these exotic animals are not suitable for the climate in Singapore, Anbu further emphasised the importance of repatriation at ACRES.
A bird rehabilitation aviary where rescued birds are treated to full recovery before letting into the wild. ACRES continues to leave scraps of food around their premise to acclimatise released birds before they can source for their own food independently.
"We cannot adopt them out like other animal shelters. But our objective is to repatriate them back into the wild where they were smuggled from. That kind of reverses the whole process of poaching, smuggling, keeping and selling." Last year, ACRES managed to repatriate 51 Indian Star Tortoises back to the wild in India. And this, as Anbu explains, exhibits the ongoing spirit of ACRES since "Blue" (the name of the monkey in its logo), their first repatriation.
Blue was born in Cape Town, South Africa and was smuggled to Singapore as a baby to be kept as a pet. It wasn't long before the expected happened. Blue grew too big too quickly and his owner thought him to be aggressive and started chaining him up in a cage. When ACRES rescued him, his fate was sealed in euthanasia. But the team's undying spirit saved Blue's life and he eventually found home at a sanctuary in Zambia, East Africa.
"When he was finally sent back, he was put in another enclosure with a female monkey and they started grooming each other, which was fantastic because most animals from illegal wildlife trade might not even recognize their own kind. He did really well," Anbu said, "Blue stands out as our symbol of hope and second chance for these animals, which is why he became our logo".
Of course, Blue has already died naturally in the wild, but his story is told through the freedom of his descendants swinging along somewhere in Zambia.
Building an ideal sanctuary to house all kinds of animals is still the ultimate end goal for ACRES as they continue to work tirelessly to decontaminate the remaining parts of their land (currently populated with overgrown vegetation). Meanwhile, ACRES has been effectively conducting educational programmes, as well as running their 24/7 rescue hotline — whether its a friendly dolphin or a massive crocodile, ACRES rescue with equal finesse.
The wildlife sanctuary at ACRES might not boast a paradise for flora and fauna, but it is, without a doubt, run by a dedicated team who does not just skim the surface but has turned their love for animals into a way of life. "All of our staff and people who volunteer with us eventually turn to more plant-based diet," Anbu said, "we dont make it a rule here, but it is just something we want to change from learning about animal cruelty".
To volunteer or make a donation, visit ACRES Singapore.
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