AFRICA IN THE MALLEE
Heather Caddick reveals why she’s wild about South Australia’s safari-style Monarto Zoo
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.
The Royal Zoological Society of South Australia will host the World Conference for Zoos and Aquariums in Adelaide in October.
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