The idea for Orana Wildlife Park began when a New Brighton resident, Neville Jemmett, suggested to the Christchurch City Council that a zoo should be built on the recently completed land-fill dump at Bexley. Naturally enough, the concept of having a new zoo in Christchurch was widely reported by the news media and soon caught the imagination of the public. The South Island Zoological Society was formed in July 1970, and in a matter of weeks, had grown from the original eight founding members to over one hundred. A number of public meetings were held to debate the concept behind a modern zoological park, as well as to consider the funding and ongoing support the new project would require. It was soon established that the new venture would be an open range wildlife park with the design reflecting a feeling of the animal’s natural habitat.
The site at Bexley proved totally unsuited for the construction of such a wildlife park, but it wasn’t long before a new site was proposed on McLeans Island, on land to be leased from the North Canterbury Catchment Board.
This was an excellent site for the new wildlife park, being located adjacent to the recently created recreational area and on the end of a tar sealed road, just 18 kilometres from Christchurch. It was light river bed land, with only poor soil and very few trees but the land was easy to work and would be particularly suited for excavation of moats and earth banks which would be used for the construction of a completely new zoo concept.
And Then The Work Began
The first few months were well occupied in designing the new zoo concept and frequent on site planning meetings were held. Of the 80 hectares leased from the North Canterbury Catchment Board, only 16 hactares were to comprise the first stage of the new zoo site. The McLeans area had been planted in pine forest and much of the land we occupied had recently been clear felled, leaving a landscape littered with stumps and debris. There were a few mature pines here and there, that had escaped the loggers saw, but the only other vegetation remaining above the sun baked river bed, were the occasional clumps of impenetrable gorse.
The first working bees were equipped only with picks and shovels in their efforts to clear the site, it was hard, back breaking work for a little band of volunteers who turned up week after week to clear away and burn the debris. As time passed and the results of fund-raising activities began to grow, the second equipment was purchased.
At first, a David Brown tractor and trailer and later, a very old, but still workable D4 bulldozer. With the arrival of this equipment, the working bees became more successful and the site preparation advanced as the landscape began to take hold and the area was planted in trees and shrubs. The boundary fence was erected during 1974, and by mid-1975, work had began on a number of projects, including a toilet block and a service workshop.
THE GRAND OPENING ~ SEPTEMBER 25th 1976
We successfully negotiated the purchase of our first animals during early 1976, and this gave renewed momentum, along with a sense of urgency to prepare the park ready for opening the following spring. By mid August, the animal holding facilities were complete and the arrivals from Australia of our modern day “Noah’s Arc”. On September 10, saw our dream become reality.
When we opened the gates to the public at 10.00am on the 25th September 1976, we had the modest collection of 12 adult lions, 6 lion cubs, 2 tiger cubs, 2 donkeys, 2 camels, 2 water buffalo and 2 Shetland ponies.
Our main trump card was the first drive through lion reserve in New Zealand, and it was this 4 hectare open range display that attracted so many thousands of visitors on that first day. So successful was our opening, that by 2pm on Sunday we had a queue of cars stretching back over 7 kilometres with the last cars coming through the park in the dark with their headlights on to see the animals.
Following that first very successful year, Orana Wildlife Park began to grow and a number of interesting new animal exhibits were added. These included the construction of a wolf wood and the arrival of six North American Timber Wolves from the Auckland Zoo and then development of a farm yard area, where young and friendly animals could be patted and handled by the children. A small food kiosk was built, and work began on the construction of a quarantine facility.
Orana Wildlife Park continued to attract good public support during 1978 and early development included a wallaby walk through enclosure and a display for Australian parakeets. The most significant event for the year, was the importation from the San Francisco zoo of a group of South American Spider monkeys. These were the first monkeys to arrive at Orana Wildlife Park and were displayed on a special island exhibit, established in the newly constructed lake, which was to become the centre piece of the park.
The arrival of two pairs of the very rare Scimitar Horned oryx from Marwell Zoo in England saw a turning point for Orana Wildlife Park as we slowly began to build up a valuable collection of rare and endangered species. Major construction undertaken during 1979 included a new antelope house and yard system and an expansion to our kiosk facilities to include a souvenir shop.
The realignment of the Orana Wildlife Park’s entrance allowed for a large consignment of Australian animals to arrive early in the year, among them were 3 pairs of red kangaroos, and 4 pairs of grey kangaroos from Taronga Zoo in Sydney. Construction of the South Island’s first kiwi rehabilitation centre at Orana Wildlife Park saw our first kiwi arrive, an injured Stewart Island brown kiwi.
The highlight of 1980 was the arrival of two female zebras from England, and a male on breeding load from the Wellington Zoo.
The opening of the first phase of our African Plains area in 1981 saw Orana Wildlife Park enter a new dimension of animal display techniques and for the first time, we were truly able to use large, open range areas for our grazing animals. Through careful landscaping and the use of water moats, visitors were able to see many African savannah species in near natural habitat, while at the same time, enjoy a picnic or barbecue.
The arrival of Orana Wildlife Park’s first giraffe undoubtedly was the highlight of 1982. After almost 18 months of fund raising and negotiation, we saw Jaffa and Celeste arrive in a Jumbo Jet from Canada, while still only babies. They were an instant success, with many thousands visiting them in the first few weeks.
Orana Wildlife Park had reached the stage by 1983, where almost 80% of its animal species were breeding on a regular basis. Our first two zebras were born on the African Plains and by the end of the year, our Scimitar Horned oryx group had produced their 10th calf.
A pair of Llamas arrived from Auckland Zoo, together with 2 female Nilgai to join our lonely male and form the basis of a joint breeding group of this species.
The construction of the South Island’s first Nocturnal Kiwi House dominated the year and its construction and associated fund raising saw great support for Orana Wildlife Park from the community.
The Kiwi house was opened by the Minister of Tourism, the Hon. Mike Moore late in 1984 and soon became a focal point for international tourists visiting our region.
Orana Wildlife Park’s animal collection continued to prosper during 1985 to the extent we were able to send many of our surplus animal’s to overseas zoos.
Construction within the zoo was centred around the development of a New Zealand native fauna and flora display in the central area of the Park and the establishment of an outdoor eating patio and cobblestone area adjacent to the main kiosk.
With the arrival of the white rhino in April of 1986, Orana Wildlife Park is entered a new phase in conservation of endangered species. Orana Park was now involved with all of the other major zoos in the region in helping to preserve many of our endangered mammals and birds and it is with joint venture projects such as “Operation Rhino” in conjunction with the Wellington Zoo, that gives many of these species a chance for the future.
More to come …………….. the next 10 years.