A new $9 million African Lion Pridelands project at Dubbo is set to give the threatened species a new home and new hope.
The majestic animals and visitors alike are at the heart of the Taronga Western Plains Zoo exhibit that is taking shape.
A pride of lions will inhabit the expanse, with the importance of their conservation on show to new generations.
Construction of the new exhibit has progressed beyond the halfway mark.
The $9 million project is set to be a major drawcard for the zoo, featuring a large 3.5- hectare open expanse where the lion pride will roam.
It has been designed to offer a unique visitor experience and to be unrivalled in Australia, with a pride of 10-15 lions, replicating natural family groupings in the wild. It is the largest investment in an animal exhibit in the zoo’s history, and represents the first major change to the zoo’s circuit since its opening in 1977.
On Thursday new zoo interim director Nick Boyle took the Daily Liberal behind the scenes to view the construction progress.
The piece of Africa being carved out of the western plains is on track to be completed by the end of the year, he reported.
“This is cutting edge for zoo-based exhibits because it ticks so many different boxes.
It’s an authentic experience that really immerses our visitors in that African feeling,” he said.
“It works towards conservation objectives in a number of areas, in behaviour change and highlighting the plight of lions in the wild.
“But also in our capacity for the regional breeding program for African lions as well.
“So, it’s a fantastic time to be part of Taronga Western Plains Zoo and I’m very privileged to be here at this time.”
Extensive earthworks to shape the exhibit are now complete, including kopjes (rock piles) and elevated viewing areas for both people and lions.
The African-inspired exhibit will also feature a thrilling safari experience for visitors through an encounter from the safety of a purpose-built vehicle.
The visitor area is being built to replicate an African Masai village setting, giving visitors a real insight into, and sensory experience of, being in Africa and the plight of lions in the wild.
According to the IUCN, lion populations have experienced a 43 per cent decline in the past 21 years, with their range becoming increasingly fragmented.
There are about 20,000 lions remaining in the wild.
“But the good news is there’s opportunities to change that,” Mr Boyle said.
“Communities right throughout Africa are recognising the value of lions and all of their nature and opportunities through eco tourism.
“So by highlighting a little piece of Africa right here in Dubbo, we’re able to make those links and hopefully generate interest in protection of those species.”
The next phase of the project is focused on installation of a containment wall within the lake, which will start later this month for completion by early August.
Extensive fencing of the behind-the-scenes night yards and the exhibit perimeter is also underway.
Following completion of the project at the end of the year, lions will be fully introduced to the new exhibit, as will goats to the goat kraals.
It is anticipated that visitors can come and experience the exhibit once the animals are comfortable and settled in to their new surroundings.
“The team is very proud of the work that has gone into this exciting exhibit, and we are looking forward to further enriching the zoo’s visitor experience with a unique and memorable encounter,” Mr Boyle said.
The exhibit will also include a dedicated section where visitors can watch zookeepers working closely with and caring for the lions.