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Zoos in Australia

Emu watercolour by Sarah Stone c. 1790

New Holland Cassowary (now called emu - Dromaius novaehollandiae) by Sarah Stone, watercolour, c. 1790. Image courtesy of the State Library of New South Wales.

Since Captain Cook's exploration of the east coast of Australia in 1770, with the botanist Joseph Banks, Europeans have been fascinated by the strange flora and fauna of Australia. However, the first zoo in Australia, Melbourne Zoo, wasn't established until 1862.

The history of zoos

Human interest in keeping animals dates back to at least 1500 BC when Queen Hatshepsut of Egypt built a zoo. Many zoos were created by rulers in Africa, India and China to demonstrate their wealth and power.

The Greeks established the first zoos to study animal behaviour. They charged admission to view the specimens, and set up an education process. One of the most notable teachers at a Greek zoo was Aristotle. One of his best-known students was Alexander the Great, who collected many animals for the zoos.

British and European exploration of the world in the 18th and 19th centuries led to the discovery of many species of animals that they considered to be unusual. This encouraged the keeping of animals as exotica in Europe and Britain. The idea of zoos as places of entertainment also developed.

The role of the zoo today

Modern zoos undertake environmental education and conservation of endangered species, zoological research, and provide for recreation through exhibiting animals to the public, special events, and 'behind the scenes' tours and overnight stays which include close encounters with the animals:

Zoos now are a place where people can get in touch with the natural world by experiencing a variety of flora and fauna in a close-up real-life situation. There is still no experience quite like seeing the real and unpredictable animal - who knows what it will do next? There are sights, smells, and sounds of a zoo which take people away from their daily surroundings.
Judith Henke, Melbourne Zoo, 1998

Today Australia is prominent in pioneering new practices for zoos, sanctuaries and aquaria. Zoos are one of the institutions charged with trying to counter the threat to species extinction in Australia and throughout the world.

Melbourne Zoo assists in survival programs for animals species under threat and we also run extensive educational programs, both for the general public and for students. Over 100,000 students a year benefit from our program.
Judith Henke, Melbourne Zoo, 1998

Australia's endangered species

The two main threats to the continuation of species in Australia, which have already caused extinctions are:

  • loss of habitat - this may result from climate change, activities of humans or natural events; and
  • the introduction of alien species which prey on and compete with native species for food and habitat.

Hundreds of Australian species have become extinct since Captain Cook and Joseph Banks explored the east coast of Australia in 1770. These include at least 41 bird and mammal species and more than 100 plant species. It is likely that other species have disappeared too, without our knowledge. Biologists have now listed all those plants and animals that they know are at risk of extinction in Australia – these are called endangered species.

The endangered list includes 10 species of fish, 12 frogs, 13 reptiles, 32 birds, 33 mammals and 209 plants. In addition, there are many more species that are listed as vulnerable and some that are classified as rare. Many zoos focus on the high profile animals in danger, in order to attract paying visitors although there are also less popular species which contribute to biological diversity and which are necessary to keep our ecosystems healthy.

Australian zoos

Koala at Taronga Zoo

Koala (Phascolarctos cinereus) at Taronga and Western Plains Zoo.

Australia has a wealth of public and private zoos. Many include exotic (to us) species such as big cats and elephants, while others focus on Australian animals and birds. Some emphasise their breeding programs for endangered animals.

Public zoos

Taronga Zoo and Western Plains Zoo are jointly administered New South Wales public zoos. Taronga Zoo in Sydney has about 340 species and over 2600 individual animals. Western Plains Zoo is an open range zoo in Dubbo, in the central west of New South Wales. It has over 100 species and 850 individual animals and primarily caters for large, open range animals. Visitors are encouraged to sponsor individual animals, both exotic and Australian native animals.

Melbourne Zoo, Victoria, is Australia's oldest zoo. Significant historic features such as the design of the Main Walk and an early 20th Century menagerie exhibit are preserved in an historic zone so visitors are able to measure the great improvements which have been achieved since the zoo opened in 1862 . The zoo displays a representative sample of the world's fauna and flora in a series of bioclimatic (or habitat) zones and boasts 350 animal species on 22 hectares of grounds and enclosures.

Australian Wildlife Health Centre

The Australian Wildlife Health Centre at Healesville Sanctuary, seen on approach. Photography by Peter Bennets. Image by architecturemedia.com.

Healesville Sanctuary, Victoria, is an example of a publicly managed zoo which displays Australian animals in their natural environments, even providing a reversed day-night cycle for visitors to see nocturnal animals. All of this visitor activity pays for an extensive research and conservation program. In 2002 the Sanctuary was home to more than 200 species of Australian native fauna.

Minifie Nixon's design for the Australian Wildlife Health Centre at the Healesville Sanctuary takes a highly experimental approach in creating what is believed to be the first open veterinary hospital in the world. The centre was designed on the basis that it is no longer the humans who are protected from the dangerous creatures behind bars. We, the gawking hordes, are now recognized as the true threat. Visitors are able to view the work of the sanctuary within a doughnut shaped structure.

The Adelaide Zoo, South Australia, focuses on endangered and rare animals from the continents which made up the super continent Gondwana – South America, India, Africa and Australia (also South East Asia). The Zoo is home to over 3,400 animals and almost 300 species of exotic and native mammals, birds, reptiles and fish.

Dingo pups at Cleland Wildlife Park

Dingo pups at Cleland Wildlife Park, South Australia. The dingos (Canis lupus dingo) were bred by the Australian Dingo Conservation Association in Canberra.

Monarto Zoological Park, South Australia, is an open-range sanctuary undertaking a major role nationally and internationally in breeding programs for rare and endangered species. The Park is operated by the Royal Zoological Society of South Australia. Monarto ranges across 1100 hectares designed to let larger species like zebra roam as if in their natural environment.

Cleland Wildlife Park, just outside of Adelaide, is part of the Cleland Conservation Park. The Kaurna Aboriginal people of the Adelaide Plains know the area as Yurridla. The Yurridla Trail offers a chance to hear Aboriginal guides bring to life their Dreaming stories and explain the inseparable relationship between Aboriginal culture and Australian wildlife.

Private zoos

Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary in Brisbane, Queensland, is the world's first and largest koala sanctuary with over 130 koalas. The sanctuary is home to over 130 koalas and a large variety of other Australian wildlife.

Billabong Sanctuary, near Townsville, Queensland, has three habitats of rainforest, eucalypt forest and wetlands in the one location. The native animals are displayed in their own environments in natural surroundings.

Wave Rock Wildlife Park, at Hyden in the south west of Western Australia offers visitors the chance to enjoy and observe hundreds of birds and animals from the area, as well as from around Australia, in the three hectares of Wildlife Park.

Australia Zoo is situated on the Glasshouse Mountains Tourist Drive, Beerwah, Queensland. The zoo features both Australian native species and exotic species of mammals, birds and reptiles.

Giraffe at Melbourne Zoo

Giraffe at Melbourne Zoo. Image courtesy of Andrew Starkey.

Werribee Open Range Zoo, Victoria, is an African adventure just 30 minutes out of Melbourne. This zoo enables its animals to live in an environment similar to their natural habitat. The Zoo focuses on research into conservation and biodiversity.

Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary, on the Queensland Gold Coast, is set in 27 hectares of Australian bushland. It is home to hundreds of native birds and animals, many of them endangered. The Sanctuary caters for over 1400 mammals, birds and reptiles.

Zootober

Zoo Month or 'Zootober', held each year in October, provides an opportunity for zoos to promote particular features of their animal collections and also to provide the community with access to information about animals, their environments and the challenge of maintaining zoos.

Zoo Month is used to highlight the gardens as well as our animals - our horticulturists offer courses through the CAE on how to create wildlife-friendly gardens and this is an important issue so we can help native wildlife survive in the suburbs. We also hope Zoo Month will help us achieve increased recognition for many of the projects we support - such as conservation programs for endangered native orchids and the plants of the Western Victorian Basalt Plains. These are often overlooked for the more high profile projects like the conservation of the Western Lowland Gorilla or Sumatran Tiger.
Judith Henke, Melbourne Zoo, 1998

Useful links

Links to Australian zoos, wildlife parks and sanctuaries

Australian Capital Territory

New South Wales

Northern Territory

Queensland

South Australia

Tasmania

Victoria

Western Australia

Australian animals links

Other animals links

Other resources links

Last updated: 9th December 2014
Creators: Mijo Consulting, et al.

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