A Tiger Safari

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On any overnight visit of mine to Subic Freeport Zone, I usually include a day trip to one of Subic’s many ecotourism attractions. The last time around, it was bonding with the whales and dolphins at Ocean Adventure. This time, it was a land-based encounter with the wild: an authentic “tiger safari” at the cleverly named Zoobic Safari. After an overnight stay at Subic Yacht Club with my son Jandy, we proceeded, after a Chowking lunch and duty-free shopping at the Freeport Exchange, for a short-haul drive to this sprawling 25-hectare theme park and zoo located deep in the old Naval Magazine at the Jungle/Forest Adventure zone.

Upon arrival, we were welcomed by general manager Ms. Delia de Jesus, who assigned to us the affable Mr. Noel Caneda as our guide on this two-hour, five-part tour. He explained to us the different species that can be found inside the park, extolling their virtues as well as their deadly qualities. At the reception area, we already got to see adult and baby tigers in large cages, all crossbred from Bengal and Siberian varieties in the Residence Inns’ tiger cub-breeding facility. A joint venture with the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority, the PhP80-million Zoobic Safari was opened to the public in November 2004 and is part of Residence Inn’s chain of zoo-cum-resort businesses. The animals here may not be all originally from the Philippines, but the place was nonetheless developed with a Filipino theme in mind.

Our first stop was the Petting Zoo, a path through a forest with different animals stationed on both sides of the walkway. Here we saw exotic animals such as deer, temperamental and territorial cassowary, bearcats, monkeys, mini horses, several rabbits, plus some farm animals including a number of goats, sheep, carabao, pigs and a pinkish albino cow, all frolicking about in their natural habitat. Jandy and I had a wonderful time petting and feeding dried leaves to a camel. A close encounter with an Asiatic black bear (or moon bear) named Nicholas, the only one in the zoo—and thus no doubt lonely—was a highlight. Other stops include the Serpentarium, the only one of its kind in the country. Housed in one of the former ammunition bunkers, it showcases a variety of reptiles, including a Malaysian water monitor, blood pythons, a Burmese albino, reticulated python, the Philippine monitor lizard, iguanas and turtles.  The star here was “Biggy,” a 15-ft. long, 10-year-old female Indian python.

The highlight of the tour was the Tiger Safari. Here, we boarded a customized “safari” jeepney colorfully painted in tiger-inspired golden stripes and enclosed with a one-inch open wire mesh which covered the windows and doors. It was driven by a professional Aeta who drove us, through a gate, to the well-kept Ilanin forest (although a number of big trees were uprooted by a typhoon) where four full-grown, 500 pound-plus tigers, with their trademark rust orange and black stripes, were roaming around. Most lazed about in a large pond, their deep-set, golden eyes staring back at us, probably wondering why we were “caged” inside our vehicle while they were roaming freely in the open. During the ride, one of the guides inside our vehicle dangled a dressed chicken from a small window. On instinct, one of the tigers ran over to the vehicle and grabbed the chicken, an encounter so close we really had a good look at his teeth. Another tiger jumped on the roof.

After the Tiger Safari, we all dropped off at the “Tigers Den,” where we got up close and personal, along a narrow aisle, with tigers inside their cages, barely two feet away from these awe-inspiring beasts christened with such cute names as Cynthia, Gimo, Jana, Krishna, Nasha, Nico, Sharon and George. The last named, a mammoth Alpha male and the oldest at 16 years, is the acknowledged leader of the pack and king of the harem, with all of the female tigers his for the taking. Noel explained that a tiger’s urine smell marks his territory.

Adjacent to the Tigers Den is the dusty Savannah Trail. This we traversed via an open red-and-blue Zoobic Safari train (with 20 to 30 seating capacity), watching 50 long-legged ostriches from Africa and Australia, as well as potbellied pigs, swift mountain goats, wild boar (from the USA, Vietnam and the Philippines) and 200 guinea fowl (from Papua New Guinea) glide past our vehicle. Next stop was the Animal MuZOOeum, housed in another former ammunition bunker. This interesting and educational tour features a rare collection of real stuffed animals and skeletons.

Our last stop was the Croco Loco section. Here, we trekked, via the Aeta Trail, to an Aeta Village where a group of Aetas performed, to the delight of the tourists, the dragonfly dance and a war dance, both accompanied by an Aeta guitarist. Of course, we also went to the 3,000-sq. m. Crocodile Farm, again seeing up close and personal, in their carefully designed natural habitat, 200 of these thick-skinned, long-bodied, carnivorous saltwater crocodiles from Palawan. In the future, Zoobic Safari has plans to expand with Elephant World, Honey Bee Farm, Alligator Land and the Rice Wine Brewery.

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