“ Address: Whangarei / Northland / New Zealand „
~ The wildlife garden ~
Set amongst the countryside of Whangarei in the North Island of New Zealand, is Zion Wildlife Gardens, home to some of the world's rarest big cats. This sanctuary provides natural habitats for its animals and is dedicated to the preservation of these species. The garden houses a collection of Barbary and white lions, Royal White and orange Bengal tigers, two Serval cats, a black leopard and a baboon, along with deer that roam freely around the park.
The park is also home to television's The Lion Man, Craig Busch. Craig runs the gardens and has very close bonds with many of the cats, hand-rearing a lot of them from birth. The television programme shows Craig's work in the park and the unbelievable relationships he shares with the animals.
The wildlife gardens are located in a huge grassy park with each animal enclosure large enough to give them plenty of room to live and run about in. The enclosures contain natural features such as trees, sand and large rocks for them to climb, as well as some added in items such as paddling pools and balls for them to play with.
~ Endangered species ~
Due to threats such as poaching, loss of habitat, prey and inbreeding, lions and tigers are both classed as endangered species with less than 20,000 lions left in Africa and less than only 4,000 wild tigers left in the world. The Barbary lion and the Royal White tiger are now extinct in the wild and can only be found living in captivity. There are also no white lions left in the wild, and only a very small few are still in existence.
Zion Wildlife Gardens is part of a specialised breeding programme dedicated to helping these wonderful animals remain in existence, with special care and preservation currently being placed on the Royal White tigers, Barbary lions and white lions.
Craig Busch works with a number of conservation groups around the world and often makes trips to Africa where he brings a rare cat back to New Zealand to enter it into his breeding programme to further the existence of its species.
~ The garden's animals~
Zion, the park's namesake, is more than likely the tamest Barbary lion in the world. He was hand-reared by Craig and they share a special bond that allows Craig to be able to interact with Zion in a way which no one else does, including rolling around on the floor, cuddling up together and playing ball. Zion shares his enclosure with his sister Shia, who also has a close relationship with Craig.
The Wild Pride, run by father Samson and mother Shania with their 3 daughters and 2 sons are not tame enough to be dealt with by hand, but are a breath-taking pack when seen all together.
Siblings Savannah, Aslan and Narnia were taken from the Wild Pride and hand-reared by Craig and now share their own enclosure.
Gandor, the park's first white lion, arrived at the park in 2004 along with Shikira. They are now joined by 3 more playful white lions.
Shikana, an orange Bengal tiger, lives with her daughter Sita. Shikana has a lot of trust in Craig and allows him to be very close and help in the parenting of Sita. Craig even sat and ate his breakfast with her just after she'd given birth! Shikana gave birth to 2 more cubs in 2004.
Rewa, the only female amongst 4 Royal White tigers carries the solid white gene and produced New Zealand's first two Royal White tiger cubs in 2005.
Mandla, a beautiful and friendly black leopard, looks very similar to a black panther.
Zoe and Silas, African Serval cats, are one of the few spotted cats which is not an endangered species.
Foxy the baboon is extremely friendly and enjoys having her back scratched by visitors. Baboons are the largest members of the monkey family.
~ Tours ~
To help fund the development of the park and for the care and future existence of these amazing big cats, Zion Wildlife Gardens offers a range of tours.
Tiger Walk - accompanied by a guide, take one of the beautiful tigers for a walk while a photographer snaps away at your experience (NZD$650/£250 for 2 people).
Big Cat Tour - after a tour of the gardens, meet and pat one of the big cats along with an animal handler ($250/£95).
Young Adult Big Cat Tour/Cub Encounter Tour - if young cats or cubs are available at the park, you get the opportunity for a hand-on encounter with a one of them ($200/£80)
Guided Tour - simply take a guided tour where you meet and find out about all of the park's animals ($60/£25).
The park is open every day of the year, except 25 December.
~ My visit and opinion ~
Because it's in such a remote part of New Zealand, completely out of town, they don't get too many visitors and so, the ones that they do get, are precious towards the development of the park. From the town of Kamo in Whangarei, it's about a 15 minute taxi ride so if you've got a tour booked make sure you plan ahead and leave plenty of time to get there. They don't really advertise the wildlife garden, which is a shame as it's a great visit, and most people only know about it from the TV show.
I definitely definitely definitely recommend a visit here. Although there aren't many animals and it's not like a big zoo, it is a wonderful experience to see the big cats up close. A few times whilst we were there, one cat would begin to roar and, gradually all of the others would join in until every cat throughout the entire park was roaring. The sound they made was simply amazing and it actually felt a bit scary being in the middle of all these huge animals all roaring so loudly.
We only did the guided tour as we were on a budget but I really wish I'd have done the young adult encounter as there were 6 young white cats (3 lions and 3 tigers) which were all playing together and they were just gorgeous and I'd have loved to have had an experience with them. If I ever go back to New Zealand, even if I'm nowhere near Whangarei, I would HAVE to take time out of my trip to visit the park again or even do some volunteer work there.
Craig Busch and his team are doing an amazing job in looking after the cats and trying to ensure that their existence in the world never diminishes. They live in wide natural spaces, not in cramped cages like they do in zoos, and this makes the sanctuary even more of a positive project.
To help towards the aim of the park, you can purchase merchandise from the website, buy a series of The Lion Man on DVD (a great watch), donate some money, or simply take a trip to New Zealand and take a visit to this brilliant wildlife garden. For more details check their website at www.zionwildlifegardens.co.nz.
Zion Wildlife Gardens is dedicated to the preservation of endangered species of big cats.