Taronga, a Zoo for our Times

It’s 6am as the rising sun washes Taronga Zoo in a gentle pink light. Around the zoo the animals are waking. Trumpeting elephants and grumbling tigers break the silence, as 170 keepers tend the animals’ every need, armed with rakes, hoses and buckets of food.

Elephants get a body scrub as a delivery of fresh eucalyptus boughs arrives for the koalas. The sea lions bark morning calls to one another before keepers interrupt with a teeth-cleaning session, while the Komodo dragon has his razor-sharp talons carefully clipped with a steel wire cutter.

‘Taronga’, which is an Aboriginal word for ‘beautiful view’, is a beacon of hope for both threatened and thriving animal populations around the world, with its breeding and conservation programmes and world-class scientific work. Loved by all Australians and on the must-see list of most tourists visiting Sydney, Taronga Zoo turns 100 on October 7 this year.

Outside it may be starting to warm up, but it’s cool and dark in the nocturnal house where the bilbies, a small marsupial, are being ‘trick-fed’ by Paul Davies, Taronga’s longest-serving keeper. “If we scatter their mealworms on the ground all in one go, it makes them lazy,” he explains. “So I put the worms in a coconut with a few holes in it, and suspend it from a branch. The mealworms drop down occasionally to the ground. The bilbies see the odd one and then they dig for more – it makes them think they dug it up themselves and exercises their instincts. I do it right in front of the window where visitors can see – it’s pure theatre.”

Behind the main displays Davies has set up a feeding station where visitors can watch the zoo’s four bilbies scamper around a makeshift desert made from sand trucked in from central Australia. They’re relatives of George, the large grey-and-white bilby that enthralled eight-month-old Prince George, when he and his parents, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, visited the zoo in 2014. “Their visit put bilbies on the map – and George’s importance went up significantly,” says Davies.

In a tunnel-filled display that mimics night-time, a group of Australian plains rats with a home range of 1.5 hectares get to exercise their little legs with a wheel linked to an odometer. “On a frisky day between the colony they can cover 80 kilometres,” says Davies, who spends so much time in the dark with these little creatures that his doctor recommended vitamin D injections. “We jokingly call it the Jenny Craig wheel as they’ve been so fit.”

With 4000 animals across 340 species, Davies has seen his fair share of creatures doing their own thing in the 33 years he’s been here – like the time the zoo was battered by strong winds.

“It blew over a giant fig tree on an island with a moat, which separated the public from Mary the gibbon,” explains Davies. “Unbeknown to us she used the fallen tree as a bridge across the moat and escaped into the zoo. The first I knew of it there was this huge, terrified gibbon running down the road towards me with her arms above her head. It was the middle of the day with people around. I was worried about getting bitten but I grabbed a crate and together with a colleague we put it over her head, then whisked her off to the hospital to check she was OK.”

Spend a day at this busy 28-hectare site and you’ll encounter Australian native wildlife from kangaroos to kookaburras, seen as curiosities to the rest of the world, as well as an international collection of rare and endangered species. Daily feeding and holding sessions, an ornithological display featuring some of the world’s most spectacular birds, a rope-dangling adventure experience and a cable car ride keep the 1.4 million visitors every year engaged. This sensory bombardment of animals and dazzling views is interspersed with lush paths that zigzag their way down to the sparkling water of Sydney Harbour. It’s a site so wonderful it has even prompted marriage proposals.

A match made on the internet

Behind the scenes, breeding and research programmes to protect endangered or near-extinct species are as much a part of the zoo’s work as showcasing animals to the public.

Zookeepers involved in the gorilla breeding programme need to carefully select the right male donor to ensure there’s no inbreeding. Kibabu, Taronga’s 35-year-old male, had already produced 14 offspring when the zoo decided it was time to find a new male to introduce fresh genetic material into the mix.

Taronga’s staff consulted a database containing the histories of more than 2 million animals in zoos around the world, enabling them to see who’s related to whom. Using this technology ‘virtual’ babies can be created to check the inbreeding is zero.

Based on genetics and behaviour, Taronga zookeepers drew up a short list of the best candidates, and hopped on a plane to find the right candidate by visiting gorillas in their own zoos and observing them at close quarters.

The temperament and demeanour have to match that of the group back home. They decided on a male from the Valley of the Monkeys, a wildlife park in Romagne in France. While no money changed hands, a inter-zoo exchange took place with keepers flying over Kibali, an 11-year-old gorilla. “We didn’t want an animal that was unsociable or shy or retiring,” says Erna Walrevan, a senior curator. “We wanted the gorilla in the gorilla.”

In Sydney, the male silverback from France mated with a young female, Kimya, producing two male gorillas in 18 months.

Animals come to the zoo from the most curious of sources. Paul Davies explains: “Our Asian sun bear was rescued by an Australian businessman in Malaysia who saw it in a cage outside a restaurant, waiting to be served up as bear paw soup. He’d been stolen as a cub and grown up in a cage, so we had to get a female born at Canberra Zoo brought here to teach him how sun bears behave.”

A baby sea turtle that had swallowed plastic in the ocean was brought in and reared before being released – and during its stay helped teach visiting schoolchildren about the hazards of plastic bags.

Meanwhile Chloe the wombat, orphaned after a car had hit her mum, was saved when the pouch was checked by a passing motorist and she was duly dispatched to Taronga for rearing.

Others such as the seal from Melbourne Zoo paid a visit as a ‘breeding loan’. In fact, Taronga regularly swaps animals with other zoos around the world – that form a network of 600 zoos – with Singapore Zoo taking delivery of a Taronga tree kangaroo joey for its breeding programme, while one of Taronga’s females came from this world-famous Asian zoo.

Taronga’s future

To mark its 100 years Taronga has launched a $150 million Centenary Master Plan to revitalise the zoo over the next decade, including the Taronga Institute of Science and Learning, “a global hub bringing together wildlife, education and science in a centre of excellence,” says Taronga’s CEO Cameron Kerr. To generate future income a $44 million, 58-room eco retreat is planned, incorporating a new enclave for native animals designed to give guests of the ‘Australia Habitat and Taronga Wildlife Retreat’ special wildlife experiences.

But perhaps the most intriguing of planned projects is the imaginative walk-through Sumatran exhibition aimed at showing visitors why the Sumatran tiger is almost extinct. Cameron Kerr explains: “We’re going to take visitors on a journey to Sumatra to understand local culture so by the time they leave, they’ll understand why there are only 400 left in the wild.

“You start in an aircraft hangar where you hop on a plane and ‘fly’ over Sumatra so you get to see the gravity of the problem – palm oil fields as far as the eye can see and fires – then we land you and you get to walk through a Sumatran village which we’ve modelled on one in Way Kambas National Park, seeing tigers in various threatened or protected habitats. You end up in a supermarket where as a consumer you get to make choices about products you buy and think about the supply chains behind them. There’s nothing wrong as such with palm oil – it’s the devastation its production creates that’s the problem.”

Throw in a new kangaroo habitat and bird aviaries, landscaping and viewing platforms and it’s a zoo for the 21st century, in which future generations will have to deliver solutions for threatened species, wildlife habitats and global warming. “But if you make it fun and entertaining,” says Davies, “people will come back.”

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