In July 1970, the South Island Zoological Society (SIZS) was formed with the idea of creating a wildlife park in Canterbury – 50 years later, Christchurch’s Orana Wildlife Park is thriving.
The ambitious idea captured the imagination of the locals. Within weeks of the Society’s formation, it had grown from the eight founding members to over 100 people. Vice-President of SIZS, David Laughlin, says: “The Society set out to develop an open range, drive-through, zoo. Starting with almost unusable land – a dry, stony riverbed – volunteers cleared the site, initially with just hand tools. It was backbreaking work! As fundraising results increased, second hand equipment was purchased resulting in significant progress.”
On 10 September 1976, Orana’s first animals – 18 lions (including six cubs), two tiger cubs, two donkeys, two camels, two water buffalo and two Shetland ponies – arrived from Australia.
Orana’s main trump card was the drive-through Lion Reserve, the first and only one of its type in New Zealand. This amazing experience set the tone for the zoo, and Orana has continued to provide amazing opportunities for people to connect with wildlife. The drive-through Lion Reserve operated until 1995. Today, Orana operates the unique Lion Encounter, the only one of its type in the Southern Hemisphere, and a ‘historical nod’ to the drive-through days.
Now, David believes there’s a different highlight. “Our crowning glory is perhaps the walk-through native bird aviary built 26 years ago. The habitat was ahead of its time – an immersive exhibit for visitors to encounter threatened native birds. Over the years, the aviary (currently closed for a well-earned upgrade) has become a key conservation habitat for the park’s whio/blue duck pair, a species Orana breeds for release to the wild.”
“From very humble beginnings, it is immensely satisfying to see what Orana has become today – an international quality zoo that is testament to the foresight of the founders. Our vision has truly been realised,” concludes David.