The concept of a Plains Zoo well away from the confined Taronga Park Zoo on Sydney Harbour became a burgeoning idea back in the 1960s. Criticism of large plains-dwelling animals being kept in limited pens for life was always one of the regular criticisms of a day out at Taronga Park Zoo. An ex-army camp not far outside Dubbo NSW was chosen for the first new zoo in Australia for 60 years. By this stage in zoo development, the purpose of such institutions had changed from being just public entertainment to the more important cause of conservation of disappearing species. Throughout the world, native habitats were under threat from the environmental destruction and the animals themselves were under threat from the curious human demands for parts of exotic animals (eg. Rhino horns) to provide ‘medicine’ and status symbols. The Taronga Western Plains Zoo now not only provides the entertainment of viewing these animals but also providing breeding programs to assist in the survival of these animals.
The zoo is 300 hectares in size and the animals are kept in large facilities with moats and other barriers that keep the animals in and the visitors out. Depending on the needs of the animals, there are a number of impressive systems to protect the animals in the zoo. A good example is the Wild Asia Wetlands that houses the Siamang Ape, the White-handed Gibbon and the Ring-tailed lemur. The opposite extreme from these moated enclosures is the Savannah area where a large area houses groups of different animals (White Rhinoceros, Eland, Giraffe, Ostrich, Blackbuck and Guinea Fowl) that roam freely around the area together.
Living in Queensland, I have regularly had cause to visit friends and relatives in NSW for the usual births, deaths and marriages. Due to the numbers of family members travelling, driving rather than flying has often been the means of transport so if heading for Canberra and places beyond, we would drive down the Newel Highway via Moree. This route would bypass Dubbo but I regularly thought that one day I would have time to go via Dubbo and visit the Zoo. This item on my bucket list was ticked off in 2021 when we had plenty of time to get back from far south to Brisbane so we “took the long way round” via Dubbo and visited the plains zoo; it was worth the effort. There are many ways of getting around the Zoo from Driving, Walking, catching a tour bus and riding Bikes. We took the bike option and rode the 5 Km of pathways and roads for the three and a half hours it took to make this very enjoyable journey. Unfortunately, by coming in the bike entrance, we missed the Savannah Lake Islands that housed lemurs and the Spider Monkeys so we started off with the introverted Wild Dogs (Lycaon Pictus) who did their best to keep away from the prying eyes of the visitors. Their reputation as Africa’s top hunters is confirmed by the statistics of being 70-90% successful; they can bring down as a pack their prey of up to 250 Kg.
The next animal on the tour was the Meerkats (Suricata Suricatta) and they were clearly the crowd favourite if the crowd was made up of families with small children. We were lucky enough to arrive as the Keeper was coming out to feed the meerkats with their favourite food, worms!
It was interesting to note the way the keeper handled her charges. She explained that if she were to pick up a meerkat, the animal would bite her severely on the finger but this wouldn’t stop a meerkat jumping on a rock and then up to the shoulder of the keeper, invading her space looking for food, as long as the keeper kept her hands to herself.
The next enclosure was quite the contrast with the small meerkats, it housed a couple of enormous Black Rhinoceroses (Diceros bicornis minor). This is a very endangered species prone to poachers killing them for the dubious attractions of their horn. Around 1970, there were as many as 65000 black Rhinos roaming the lower half of Africa but their population today is estimated at around 5,630.
Our next enclosure according to the map was meant to be Zebras but perhaps they were moved elsewhere as the large area housed a large, group of giraffes (Giraffa camelopardalis). They could only be described as gliding gracefully from one side of their area to the other, gazing blankly into the distance, perhaps dreaming of their ancient African Savanah homelands. Giraffes are noted for the size of their tongue (half a metre!) which they use to strip leaves from the high branches. With their long legs they look fairly helpless but these same legs and large hooves mean their kick can be accurate and deadly. Giraffes have good long range sight so they can spot a lion from a mile away and alert their communal buddies.
The next pen was meant to be Ostriches but they were gathered at the far end of their area, presumably a little sick of being gawked at. Moving on, we arrived at the Eland (Taurotagus oryx) enclosure and immediately spotted the large male keeping an eye out for enemies while the rest of the herd went about the important business of grazing. A common name is the Plains Antelope. They can form up to large herds of 500 animals on the savannah, woodlands and grasslands of Southern Africa. They are not a threatened species at present.
From the elands it was bit of a ride up to the where the Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) prowled. It appeared to be alone and seemed to be concerned that its feed was late. It wandered up and down in front of its entrance gate, clearly worried that it was going to starve.
The Cheetah originally wandered freely around Africa, into Iran and even Northern India. Today it is a threatened species from the loss of habitat, dangerous humans, poaching and diseases. In 2016 it was estimated there were 7100 individuals surviving. It is famous for being the fastest land animal capable of running between 80 to 128 km/h.
Next door to the Cheetah was the large compound of the Asian Elephants (Elephas maximus) who seemed to be perpetually eating from their high slung rope nets that contained their feed.
It is the largest living land animal in Asia and has been listed as endangered since 1986, its population has fallen by at least 50% over the last three generations. The future of the species has been put at risk by the usual trio of disasters…loss of habitat, fragmentation of habitat and dangerous humanity, usually by poaching practices seeking ivory.
From the elephants we moved on to a species that we had never seen before. It was the Persian Onager (Equus onager onager) who looked like a well-dressed donkey or a low-slung pony with a contrasting clipped mane. It’s not just a well-dressed member of the horse species, it is the fastest member of the horse family and can run for short bursts at 70 Km/hr. As its name suggests, it is native to Iran and is endangered with no more than 600 individuals left in the wild.
Opposite the Persian Onagers was another animal that we had never seen or heard of before. It looked to be some combination between a cow, a deer and a zebra. It was called a Bongo (Tragelaphus eurycerus isaaci) and it clearly needed plenty of woodland around it to hide. This African forest antelope is critically endangered and there are only 100 left in the wild, victims of course of logging and poaching. Up until the 1960s these animals were rarely seen as they spend their time in small groups feeding in the forest at night. The advance of logging into their habitat has been disastrous for their numbers.