Orana Wildlife Park

This year, 2014, Orana Wildlife Park – a place very dear to my heart – turns 38 years old. New Zealand’s only Open Range Wildlife Park, an icon of Christchurch and much loved by New Zealanders all over.

The dream began as far back as 1970. Neville Jemmett approached the Christchurch City Council about building a zoo on the recently completed land fill at Bexley. Whatever the response Neville received from the council may have not mattered as once the local’s got wind of the idea (via a leak to the media) there was no going back.

Orana began and remains a charity controlled by a trust.

In July 1970, eight people formed the South Island Zoological Society. Within a few weeks, the number of members had grown to over 100. Fundraising, brain storming and public meetings breathed continued life into the project.

There was one thought that kept coming up to the surface – it was a perfect time to move with more modern methods of captive animal care. This project would be an open range wildlife park rather than then being known by the older term of ‘zoo’.

Bexley proved to be an unsuitable site for the construction work needed. A new site was found out at McLeans Island. 80 hectares were leased off the North Canterbury Catchment Board – only 16 hectares being chosen to develop first as Stage One. Two more stages would follow during the 1980’s, opening Orana up to the full 80 hectares.

The first working bee was undertaken by volunteers with picks and shovels! It was back-breaking work. As fundraising continued and picked up speed, construction equipment was able to be purchased.

The boundary fence was erected in 1974. By 1975 buildings such as a service workshop and public toilets were built. The sourcing of suitable animals was also in full swing. The first animals – twelve adult lions, six lion cubs, two tiger cubs, two camels, two donkeys, two water buffalo and two Shetland ponies – arrived early September 1976.

The name Orana was chosen as it was the Maori word for ‘welcome’ or ‘a place of refuge’.

The grand opening happened on the 25th September 1976. The gates opened at 10am and cars were still queuing to enter at twilight, needing their headlights to be able to view the animals. At times, the queue was 7km long.

From opening day till now, almost 40 years later, Orana continues to be proud of older milestones and celebrates the making of new ones. Here are a few examples:

*The arrival of two pairs of the very rare Scimitar Horned Oryx from Marwell Zoo in England. Orana is the only wildlife facility in the world that has artificially bred this species.

*The construction of the South Island’s first Kiwi rehabilitation centre. Orana’s first Kiwi was an injured Stewart Island Brown Kiwi.

*The birth of Ibutho – a male Southern White Rhino – was not only the first Rhino birth in New Zealand but also the first surviving calf born to captive-born parents in the world.

Orana Wildlife Park became and remains internationally recognised for its involvement in captive breeding programmes for endangered exotic animals, as well as New Zealand’s own rare fauna since its first 10 years.

Orana always looks to the future, especially more than ever now with surviving the ups and downs of these past two years of earthquakes. What’s next for Orana? The building of two exhibits – one to display the recently arrived Tarantulas, and the other for the expected lowland Gorillas due in 2015.

*images courtesy of Orana Wildlife Trust*

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