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Founders of Orana Wildlife Park Celebrate 50 Years

In July 1970, the South Island Zoological Society (SIZS) was formed with a vision to create a major wildlife park in Christchurch. Such an ambitious project captured the imagination of Canterbury people. Within weeks, the Society grew from the eight founding members to over 100 people. It took a further six years of planning, fundraising and hard work before Orana Wildlife Park opened.

Vice-President of SIZS, David Laughlin, says: “The Society set out to develop an open range, drive-through, zoo. Starting with almost unusable land - a dry, stony riverbed - volunteers cleared the site, initially with just hand tools. It was backbreaking work! As fundraising results increased, second hand equipment was purchased resulting in significant progress.”

On 10 September 1976, Orana’s first animals arrived from Australia. The ‘Noah’s Ark’ consisted of 18 lions (including 6 cubs), 2 tiger cubs, 2 donkeys, 2 camels, 2 water buffalo and 2 Shetland ponies.

The dream of the Society became a reality at 10am on 25 September 1976, when Orana Park (now Orana Wildlife Park) opened. “By 2pm, a queue of cars stretched 7km along McLeans Island. The last vehicles came through the Park in the dark!” explains David.

Orana’s main trump card was the drive-through Lion Reserve, the first and only one of its type in New Zealand. This amazing experience set the tone for the zoo. Orana has continued to provide amazing opportunities for people to connect with wildlife. The drive-through Lion Reserve operated until 1995. Today, Orana operates the unique Lion Encounter – the only one of its type in the Southern Hemisphere. The experience is an ‘historical nod’ to the drive-through days and the vision of SIZS.

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Drive Through Line Reserve

Once the Park opened, Orana Wildlife Trust was formed to run and manage the zoo. The Society took on the role as a supporting organisation and contributed to capital projects over the years with mix of financial and volunteer labour support. “Our crowning glory is perhaps the walk-through native bird aviary built 26 years ago. The habitat was ahead of its time - an immersive exhibit for visitors to encounter threatened native birds. Over the years, the aviary (currently closed for a well-earned upgrade) has become a key conservation habitat for the Park’s whio/blue duck pair, a species Orana breeds for release to the wild.”

SIZS also made an important contribution to Orana’s newest exhibit, a New Zealand frog research facility for Maud Island/Hamilton’s frog – a significant conservation project with the ultimate aim of reliably breeding these native treasures in captivity, something that has not been achieved globally.

“After 50 years of operation, the Society has achieved its objectives and made the decision to wind down. A final donation will be gifted to Orana at an event this afternoon where we will also unveil a plaque and some special awards will be conferred, marking outstanding service to the Society and zoo.

From very humble beginnings, it is immensely satisfying to see what Orana has become today – an international quality zoo that is testament to the foresight of the founders. Our vision has truly been realised,” concludes David.

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