AFRICA IN THE MALLEE

Heather Cad­dick re­veals why she’s wild about South Aus­tralia’s sa­fari-style Monarto Zoo

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Australia -

ALION roars and a sec­ond com­petes, fol­lowed by a duet of growls. Gi­raffes saunter to a wa­ter­hole where feisty ze­bras are buck­ing and kick­ing at the muddy edge. Wa­ter­bucks drink and elands gen­tly graze nearby. This is not Africa but Monarto Zoo, 20km from Murray Bridge and a 40-minute drive from Ade­laide.

From the Monarto gate­house a 4km road winds through mallee scrub­land and part of the 500ha free-range area of the park, where emus and their chicks strut be­side the road, kan­ga­roos and wal­la­bies watch ve­hi­cles pass and, on oc­ca­sion, sleepy lizards hold up vis­i­tors as they slowly cross the road.

An­i­mals have right of way at Monarto, the largest open-range zoo in Aus­tralia. It spreads across 100ha of mallee coun­try and this com­bi­na­tion of zoo and nat­u­ral wilder­ness sanc­tu­ary is, like Ade­laide Zoo, un­der the um­brella of the Royal Zoo­log­i­cal So­ci­ety of South Aus­tralia, a non-profit or­gan­i­sa­tion that plays a vi­tal role in breed­ing pro­grams for en­dan­gered species, ex­otic and in­dige­nous.

At the vis­i­tor cen­tre, staff di­rect ar­rivals to­wards the 90-minute sa­fari bus tour. The air­con­di­tioned ve­hi­cles, which have large win­dows for good view­ing, cruise through the habi­tats of cheetahs, li­ons, gi­raffes, ze­bras, black and white rhi­nos, hye­nas and painted dogs, deer and an­telopes.

As the en­clo­sures are so large, it’s pos­si­ble to ob­serve nat­u­ral an­i­mal be­hav­iour, such as pro­tec­tion of ter­ri­tory, hi­er­ar­chi­cal con­tests be­tween young males of all species, courtship, mat­ing and even births.

Monarto has a herd of 34 gi­raffes and five births have been viewed from sa­fari buses by vis­i­tors. A gi­raffe gives birth stand­ing up but within about an hour the dropped calf will be on its feet and ready to move away with its mother, as the af­ter­birth smell at­tracts preda­tors.

Th­ese an­i­mal be­hav­iour in­sights are pro­vided by Monarto’s team of 85 vol­un­teer tour guides, who pro­vide com­men­tary for the sa­fari tour. Dressed bush-style and full of pas­sion and ded­i­ca­tion (com­bined with of­ten rib­ald hu­mour), th­ese vol­un­teers are out­stand­ing am­bas­sadors for Monarto and for the con­ser­va­tion of wild an­i­mals in gen­eral.

The south­ern white rhino ex­hibit is sig­nif­i­cant, with two re­cent births at Monarto of this gravely en­dan­gered gen­tle gi­ant; adults can weigh 2500kg and, de­spite a fe­ro­cious rep­u­ta­tion in the wild, Monarto’s six res­i­dents are used to hu­man con­tact and dis­play a gen­tle­ness and cu­rios­ity around peo­ple. They like to wal­low in mud baths dur­ing the heat of the day and the twom­onth-old baby is de­light­ing vis­i­tors with its joy of mud slides: af­ter squelch­ing and rolling in the mud, it looks like a fat choco­late baby.

White rhino num­bers in Africa were down to just 100 in 1900 and, al­though there are suc­cess­ful breed­ing pro­grams and the world­wide pop­u­la­tion is now about 7000, they are still greatly at risk. They are poached for their horns, which are ground into pow­der and used as medic­i­nal reme­dies and aphro­disi­acs in some Asian cul­tures.

Monarto is pi­o­neer­ing novel ways of ed­u­cat­ing and, hope­fully, in­spir­ing peo­ple about an­i­mals and their con­ser­va­tion by pro­vid­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties for closer con­tact. There are sa­fari bus stops at the rhino bo­mas and the African wa­ter­hole, with walk­ing tracks link­ing the chee­tah en­clo­sure to the gi­raffe plat­form. Keep­ers will in­tro­duce a rhino to vis­i­tors, al­low­ing closely su­per­vised con­tact. Af­ter pat­ting a rhino, you re­ally can be­lieve the old say­ing about its thick skin but I can at­test that tick­ling a rhino un­der the thigh is like touch­ing pure silk.

A 500m walk­ing track con­nects the rhino boma to the chee­tah plat­form; this is a botan­i­cal walk, where young na­tive col­litris pines flour­ish and the en­dan­gered Monarto mint bush and dag­ger-leafed wat­tles are be­ing es­tab­lished by the zoo’s team of land-care vol­un­teers. Known as the Mallee Min­ders, they spend Wed­nes­days work­ing in the scrub; their red-painted truck, known as the red devil, is of­ten loaded with crates of tube stock to be planted, and con­coc­tions to de­stroy the feral plants in­tro­duced by set­tlers.

About 500ha of Monarto is open mallee wood­land and af­ter 14 years of care is be­com­ing a pris­tine ex­am­ple of mallee coun­try.

Echidna dig­gings can be seen and with great luck it is pos­si­ble to see this wad­dling an­i­mal, one of the old­est sur­viv­ing mam­mals. Its clos­est rel­a­tive is the platy­pus; echid­nas are timid and will dig rapidly in ro­tary fash­ion if they are de­tected. A re­search team at Monarto is mon­i­tor­ing echidna move­ments, for­ag­ing pat­terns and home range, fol­low­ing known in­di­vid­u­als dis­tin­guished by coloured tags.

The chee­tah plat­form is ap­proached by a walk­way that is el­e­vated to al­low ex­cel­lent view­ing of the habi­tat be­low. Cheetahs are greatly en­dan­gered in south­ern Africa and ex­tinct in North Africa and Asia. Monarto’s two re­cent lit­ters are the first to be born in Aus­tralia for 13 years; one lit­ter of six cubs was hand-reared by Monarto’s keep­ers as the mother was un­able to feed them. This has al­lowed the Meet the Chee­tah pro­gram to flour­ish: as you pat and stroke one of the three cheetahs in the pro­gram, you may en­counter a purr seem­ingly as loud as a car en­gine.

Be­yond the chee­tah habi­tat is 60ha of grass­land, where plans are afoot to de­velop a huge Serengeti ex­hibit of African an­i­mals with lux­ury sa­fari-style ac­com­mo­da­tion to be built for overnight stays. Game drives and walks will add to the ex­pe­ri­ence.

From the chee­tah plat­form, a walk­ing track winds through mallee trees and col­litris pines to the wa­ter­hole bus stop, which leads to the gi­raffe plat­form, in turn ap­proached by an­other el­e­vated walk­way, where Monarto’s 34 gi­raffes, in­clud­ing very young calves, can be viewed. They have huge eyes rimmed by long, curly eye­lashes and tongues about 45cm long. Chil­dren watch in awe as th­ese long tongues curl around a wil­low branch and the gi­raffes draw all the leaves into their mouths.

From the gi­raffe plat­form, elands, wa­ter­bucks and ze­bras can be ob­served and the large wa­ter­hole means there are many va­ri­eties of birds, in­clud­ing stilts and plovers. This is also a per­fect van­tage point to watch an­i­mal in­ter­ac­tions; a Monarto guide is sta­tioned at the plat­form to an­swer any ques­tions.

The lion en­clo­sure was opened by the pre­mier of South Aus­tralia in 2003, and to the de­light of the bus full of me­dia rep­re­sen­ta­tives, his sil­ver car was chased by a lion in the en­clo­sure. The pride has now been boosted by the ar­rival of two male cubs, whose an­tics are en­thralling crowds as they have emerged from their cub­bing den into the main habi­tat.

A meet-the-li­ons pro­gram is avail­able to vis­i­tors for a closer in­tro­duc­tion to the beasts and a chance to learn more from their keep­ers. With the suc­cess of th­ese pro­grams, a Work­ing with Wild Life tour has been es­tab­lished to al­low vis­i­tors to work with an­i­mal man­age­ment staff for a full day, of­fer­ing an en­ter­tain­ing in­sight into what’s be­ing done be­hind the scenes.

You could help with en­dan­gered Aus­tralian species such as the Tas­ma­nian devil, see a lion have a tooth filed at the surgery, ob­serve a birth or the fos­ter­ing of or­phaned joeys by fe­male wal­la­bies, pre­pare food for meerkats or feed the bil­bies.

Zoos need to be cat­a­lysts for con­ser­va­tion, loudly beat­ing a warn­ing drum. Each time a tree in what is left of the wild is lopped, an an­i­mal is threat­ened. Restor­ing a har­mo­nious bal­ance be­tween an­i­mals, habi­tats and hu­mans is the ul­ti­mate mis­sion. Ex­tinc­tion is for­ever. Heather Cad­dick is pres­i­dent of the Royal Zoo­log­i­cal So­ci­ety of South Aus­tralia.

Check­list

The Royal Zoo­log­i­cal So­ci­ety of South Aus­tralia will host the World Con­fer­ence for Zoos and Aquar­i­ums in Ade­laide in Oc­to­ber.

www.ade­laide­zoo.com.au

Pic­tures: Ge­off Brooks; Monarto Zoo

Al­most Serengeti: Top left and be­low, oryxes and ze­bras; cen­tre left, a mother gi­raffe ad­mires a minia­ture ver­sion of her­self; cen­tre right, white rhino; top right, a sa­fari bus stop at Monarto Zoo at­tracts lo­cal res­i­dents; be­low right, chow time for gi­raffes

Mane chance: Meet the li­ons

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