Five salivating lions circle a caged truck full of people as it slowly beeps into the den. An impatient lioness, with paws the size of dinner plates, springs and lands squarely on top of the cage.
I prefer being an onlooker than sized up as meals-on-wheels by a hungry lioness but up close and personal encounters like this make Christchurch's Orana Wildlife Park a thrilling place to visit.
With over 400 animals from 70 different species, New Zealand's only open-range zoo offers the chance to hand feed a giraffe, talk to a tiger, eyeball a rhino or be driven into a lion den. Unlike the zoos of old, the possibility of sighting a bored-beyond-belief zebra or sad-eyed chimpanzee is rare, at Orana animals are encouraged to hunt and search for their food.
The 80 hectare park-like grounds are a fair distance to cover on foot so, on arrival, we board the complimentary open-air Safari Shuttle. As we trundle around the park watching wild dogs prowl through sun-bleached grass and giraffes with legs astride trying to reach low branches, it seems like we’re in an African savannah.
At one point we make an unscheduled pit-stop near the Cheetah enclosure. Our driver is concerned for a child's leg to be scratched on a tree-branch if he doesn't keep it inside the shuttle. I'm more worried about the possibility of the leg being bitten off as, at first glance, we seem to be separated from the Cheetah by a mere puddle of water. On further inspection I see the savannah has limits. The moat has a well disguised, but sturdy, electric fence.
It’s nearly kiwi feeding time, so feeling patriotic we jump-off at one of the many shuttle stops and venture into the pitch black Kiwi House. I don't think I've ever seen a kiwi that wasn't stuffed or on TV. But as a wildlife expert explains, the possibility of actually seeing a kiwi in the wild is extremely rare. They are practically extinct. Within 25 years there could be no more wild kiwis shuffling about in the dim undergrowth, only those like Piwi, born through Orana’s breeding programme last year.
We move on past the house of the Sumatran Tiger who gazes down haughtily from a log. A keeper instructs a group waiting for their encounter, “keep behind the red line” and “don't make sudden movements”. It's a sobering reminder that for all their cute fur these are still wild animals.
Luckily patting a llama is something that doesn't require bravery, so I make a beeline for the nearest one trotting past with its keeper. If llamas ever become extinct at least I can say I've touched one.
Story written by : Angela Pearse
Photography : Craig Powell