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Wonders of Orana Wildlife Park

As the world’s species dwindle due to poaching and habitat destruction, Orana Wildlife Park plays a crucial role in ensuring species survive for future generations to enjoy. Julie Haines discovers more . . .

If feeding a giraffe needs to be crossed off your bucket list, you don't have to travel all the way to Africa.

I was teeming with excitement about joining one of the giraffe encounters that Orana Wildlife Park in Christchurch holds twice a day. We each held a switch of wattle and stood on a platform at neck level with the graceful giraffes, in eager anticipation of what was to come. The keepers told us to “act like a tree” and the giraffes would strip off the leaves. As we stood there doing our best tree trunk impersonations, eight-year-old Shira stretched across, wrapped her tongue around the branch and greedily swallowed it whole, stick and all. My daughter was a bit nervous, but the gentle giraffes are vegetarian and don't bite.

Orana is New Zealand's only open range zoo, and it plays a vital role in breeding endangered species and preserving the diversity of the gene pool via exchanges with zoos in Australia.

The giraffes are part of a global captive breeding programme. Numbers are declining worldwide due to poaching and encroachment of habitat. Orana has successfully bred 16 calves, the most recent being Shira's son who was born in October.

Orana is also part of a global conservation effort to stop the Southern white rhinoceros from going extinct. We watched three females and a male eating hay during the daily “face-to-face” encounter, and learned that these pre-historic looking animals are in danger from poachers in the wild due to the perception among some people that their horns have medicinal properties. Their horns contain keratin which is the same substance that makes human hair and nails. We saw up close how they had shaped their own horns by rubbing them against hard objects. Females are inclined to prefer sharper horns to protect their young, whereas bulls tend to have stumps. Orana's bull, Stumpy, is so named for that reason.

The rhinos love wallowing in their mud pool and they were caked in dried mud as they slobbered up their hay. Who needs expensive skin treatments made with chemicals when nature has provided mud: a sun screen, moisturiser and insect repellent rolled into one?

Our close-up position allowed us to get a good view of the rhinos' massive feet. They have three toes and spring off the middle toe when they walk, so despite their bulky size they prance rather than plod. Their eye sight is blurry, but thanks to ears that swivel their hearing is excellent.

There are many other rare breeds roaming the 80 hectares at the wildlife park. Orana has the only scimitar-horned oryx in New Zealand, a species that has been extinct in the wild since the 1980s. Over 80 oryx have been bred at Orana since 1979. The wildlife park is also one of the most successful cheetah breeders in Australasia, which is a special achievement because they are difficult to breed in captivity.

Cheetahs are the world's fastest land animal, reaching over 100kmh in short bursts, but when we visited the cheetahs were sitting in the shade under a tree.

Orana is home to addax too, an endangered desert antelope from the Sahara that numbers just over 1000 worldwide, mostly now in captivity.

On arrival at Orana visitors are given a map detailing the times when keepers run daily presentations.

In the meerkat enclosure we watched one meerkat digging furiously while others raced about then stood to inquisitively watch the visitors. We learned that meerkats dig tunnels up to 5 metres long and 2 metres deep in the harsh desert scrublands of Africa. In the morning they expose their bellies to the sun to warm up because their tummies have the least amount of hair. One meerkat will stand guard to protect the “mob” of meerkats from eagles and other predators — but in Christchurch, away from their natural predators, they emit sounds to warn the others when a plane flies over.

At the informative otter presentation, we watched Asian small-clawed otters behaving remarkably like the meerkats, standing on their hind legs to scrutinise us. Otters are an indicator species, which means they will only live in an area with clean fresh water. They actually spend more time on land than in the water, and have two layers of fur. The outer layer being water proof. The cute otters at Orana only weigh between 3.5 to 4.5 kilograms, as their breed is the smallest in the otter family. While we watched, the keeper threw cat biscuits to supplement their seafood diet with extra protein.

During the Western lowland gorilla presentation, the keepers hid lettuce and peanut butter around the enclosure, to encourage the gorillas to mimic the natural behaviour of foraging for food in the wild. The two gorillas looked scarily human like, and when one turned his back to us it definitely felt like a snub! The gorillas are vegetarian, but according to the keeper each one has the strength of 11 men. I had to stifle a laugh as the man standing next to me told his obviously fussy eater son: “See, look, he eats his greens!”

Over 1000 animals at Orana, including endangered ones

Gorilla numbers are diminishing in the wild due to hunting, but also the reduction of habitat for the mining of coltan, which is used in mobile phones and computers. If you want to help protect gorillas, recycling electronic devices reduces the need for coltan to be mined. Orana has a collection box for old mobile phones and has partnered with a New Zealand firm that recycles them.

One of the popular presentations each day is the lion feeding. Each of the animals in the pride eats 5kg of high protein meat a day. We watched as a lion ran across the paddock for its afternoon snack — its powerful legs making the short sprint look effortless.

The majestic lions are sadly one of the most hunted trophy animals in Africa. Orana does not breed its four lions, however, because they are too closely related genetically.

Adrenaline junkies can book the Lion Encounter and drive through the habitat in a modified vehicle with the keepers while the lions are fed. The lions often climb on to the roof, so this is not for the faint hearted. (Note the Lion Encounter does not operate during Covid Alert Level 2.)

When we wanted to rest our feet, we joined the complimentary Safari Shuttle for a tour of the park and learned some interesting facts about the animals from the onboard wildlife expert. For instance, other animals follow waterbuck across the African plains because they are good at finding water. The springbok can leap 2 metres high. The American bison once numbered in the millions, but due to the demand for meat their numbers dwindled at one point to under 1000.

There are over 1000 animals at Orana. Threatened native species such as the kiwi, South Island whio, pāteke (brown teal waterfowl) and kākāriki karaka (orange-fronted parakeet) are bred at Orana and released in the wild. Other species on display include Tasmanian devils, Maud Island frogs, mischievous kea, Sumatran tigers, emus, lemurs, spider monkeys, and zebras. The Siamang gibbons were enjoyable to watch — when we passed on the safari shuttle they were hanging from ropes. Later in the day we watched them grooming each other.

While I was enchanted by the wild animals, my nine-year-old daughter's favourite part of the zoo was the farmyard. She was stoked to hand-feed alpacas, her current favourite animal. I bravely fed a turkey after watching the lady in front of me scream and drop the pellets when she felt his pointy beak. I also fed kune kune pigs carrots and patted their wiry hair. As I cooed over a little piglet the keeper said: “Gavin, sit, sit!” and he obeyed her command like a dog.

Whether you want to pat a calf or admire something more exotic from a foreign land, Orana Wildlife Park is a terrific family friendly option, and better still your entrance fee will contribute to the conservation of the very same wildlife that you love.

• For more information visit www.oranawildlifepark.co.nz

© Copyright Julie Haines 2021

Little diggers: Meerkats protect their families by digging tunnels with escape routes and standing guard against predators.
Up close and personal: Visitors hand feed giraffes at Orana Wildlife Park. The giraffe is the world's tallest animal.
Orana Wildlife Park - Visitors hand feed giraffes at Orana Wildlife Park. The giraffe is the world's tallest animal.
SNACK TIME: Visitors hand feed giraffes at Orana Wildlife Park. The giraffe is the world's tallest animal.
Orana Wildlife Park - The Safari Shuttle drives a circuit of Orana Wildlife Park
Hungry alpacas: Children get great enjoyment out of feeding alpacas in the farmyard.
Orana Wildlife Park - children get great enjoyment out of feeding alpacas in the farmyard
Orana Wildlife Park - the mischievous kea are the world's only mountain parrot
A rhino eats hay behind contact barriers during the park's face-to-face encounter. Southern white rhinoceros can weigh over 3,000 kg and run at over 45km/h.
Close encounter: A rhino eats hay behind contact barriers during the park's face-to-face encounter.
Shy gorillas: Orana is home to the only gorillas in New Zealand. They came from Taronga Zoo in Sydney