In this last piece of a two-part series AFKInsider’s Lyn Eyb reports from Dubbo in central western NSW on how Australians are getting up close and personal with African animals thanks to safari-style tourism initiatives at its leading conservation zoos.
It used to be that Australians needed to travel to Africa to see zebra, giraffe and rhino on the savannah, spot hippos in waterholes, or lions prowling through grasslands. Not anymore.
African safari-style experiences are proving popular at some of Australia’s leading tourist attractions, including Taronga Western Plains Zoo on the outskirts of Dubbo, a regional hub more than 400 kilometers west of Sydney.
The zoo, one of Australia’s leading conservation organizations, added 10 new African-inspired luxury lodges to its ‘Zoofari’ hospitality program in March as part of a $2 million upgrade.
The Zoofari Lodge program – first launched in 1995 – now has capacity to host 9000 overnight guests each year.
“Zoofari Lodge was the first zoo-based accommodation experience opened in Australia and has since continued to evolve and develop, leading the field of zoo and nature-based overnight experiences in Australia,” Taronga’s Director, Cameron Kerr, told AFKInsider.
“The new accommodation showcases a slice of Africa right here in central New South Wales, providing a unique and amazing experience that contributes to tourism as well as supporting conservation.”
The new architecturally-designed luxury safari lodges feature African-inspired decor with king-size beds and free-standing baths. Each lodge has a private deck that sits on the edge of the zoo’s ‘African Savannah’, where giraffe, zebra and eland roam.
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The redevelopment of the safari program follows the opening last year of ‘Billabong Camp’, a tent-based overnight stay program centred around the zoo’s Australian enclosures.
Kerr told AFKInsider these improvements to visitor accommodation would go a long way to helping the zoo achieve a regional tourism objective of doubling the area’s overnight visitor spend by 2020.
More than 200,000 people already visit the zoo each year – an extraordinary achievement considering its relatively isolated regional location. The market is very much a local one, with only 1% of visitors coming from overseas; international tourists prefer the easier access of the zoo’s more famous sister, Taronga Zoo Sydney.
The Taronga Conservation Society, which oversees both the Western Plains and Sydney zoos, made $81 million dollars in the 2012-13 financial year, just over $32 million of that money generated through ticket sales and another $9 million from trading and franchise revenue. The Taronga Foundation, the Society’s fundraising arm, contributed a further $9 million.
Animal tourism and conservation in Australia is big business, but Taronga isn’t the only zoo bringing a flavour of Africa Down Under.
On the outskirts of Melbourne, Werribee Open Range Zoo has been operating ‘Slumber Safaris’ since 2002. These host around 3000 overnight guests each year, with the season extended over the last 11 years to cater for the growing demand.
“The Slumber Safari is a very special experience at Werribee Open Range Zoo and provides a unique opportunity for visitors to engage with wildlife,” says the zoo’s communication manager, Kimberley Polkinghorne.
“It’s important for attracting visitors and the funds that we raise are very important in supporting the zoo’s conservation programs. The lodges and dining hut are themed on an African ‘glamping’ experience, so luxuries like electric blankets are included.”
To cater for the Australian market, modern facilities such as ensuite bathrooms and electricity are also provided.
Meals are African-inspired, and animal encounters during the stay are centered on the zoo’s African populations and conservation efforts. Evenings are spent sitting around a camp fire.
For guests not staying over, it’s still possible to have experiences ‘out of Africa’ at Werribee. There are truck-based safari tours of the open plan zoo, behind-the-scenes visits to the lions’ den, and even an African-themed indoor play center for smaller visitors.
As with Taronga Zoo, Werribee’s key objectives are conservation, education and research. The zoo supports a number of Africa-based programs, including the Melako Community Conservancy, a 330,000 hectare project in northern Kenya aimed protecting endangered species such as the Grevy’s Zebra and Beisa Oryx, while at the same time supporting community development initiatives.
In the Congo Basin, the zoo is working with the Union of Associations for Gorilla Conservation and Community Development (UGADEC) to create 10 community reserves covering around 1.2 million hectares to form a habitat corridor between the Kahuzi-Biega and Maiko national parks). The reserves will cover 90% of the current area used by the Eastern Lowland Gorilla and provide crucial protection to help safeguard its survival.
And as with Taronga, it’s tourism that’s providing the means – and the money – to achieve these ambitions.