An ambitious expansion of Monarto Zoo is on the cards, one that would make it an international safari destination with an area greater than every other Australian zoo put together.
The Wild Africa precinct, first proposed in 2010, is one step closer to realisation thanks to the in-principle backing of a private investor.
The investor plans to buy land for 21 private lodges in the middle of the new, greatly expanded safari precinct, which would feature rhinoceros, cheetah, giraffes and other African animals in a free-range environment.
The money raised through the sale would then be re-invested in two other overnight accommodation areas: a luxury "glamping" area and a cabin park.
The expansion would roughly double Monarto Zoo's 42-strong workforce and bring significant economic benefits to the Murraylands by extending the time many of the zoo's 133,000 annual visitors – mostly day trippers – would spend in the region.
A new main entrance and visitor centre may also be built near the zoo's northern boundary, off Monarto Road.
Zoos SA chief executive Elaine Bensted, who met Murray Bridge councillors on Monday, said the non-profit organisation's financial troubles were now firmly in the past.
"Now we're in surplus and looking at investing in the future," she said.
"That 500 hectares offers the opportunity for a really genuine safari experience unparalleled in Australia.
"We already market Monarto as one of the largest open-range zoos in Australiasia; when you go to 1500ha, you can fit every other zoo in Australia in that area and have land left over."
She said 70,000 trees had already been planted on the land that would become Wild Africa, and 4000 boxthorn plants, 280 rabbit warrens and all internal fences removed.
Monarto Zoo was used as an agistment area for Adelaide Zoo from 1983 and opened to the public as an independent attraction 10 years later.
Zoos SA, which operates both zoos, fell $24 million into debt in 2011 due to a lack of sponsorship.
We're in surplus and looking at investing in the future.Elaine Bensted