Wild African-style adventures, birds of prey flying overhead and tourists sleeping to the chilling laugh of hyenas – South Australia is set to have it all.
Two of the state’s best tourist attractions, Adelaide and Monarto Zoos, are set for big changes on the back of rising visitor numbers which hit more than half a million in 2016-17.
At the helm of the plan is Zoos SA chief executive officer Elaine Bensted, who officially opened Monarto’s latest heart-stopper, Lions 360, in November 2017.
The hair-raising attraction has already put hundreds of visitors within clawing range of a pride of African lions.
“The Lions 360 is definitely a first in Australia, and we think the first in the world,” Ms Bensted said.
“It reverses the zoo concept by putting people inside the cage.
“Our lions have 10 hectares and they can choose where they want to be, but they generally choose to be all around the people in the dome.”
The Lions 360 is a big-ticket project included in Zoos SA’s 20-year master plan, a document outlining immersive experiences, displays and improvements expected to set Adelaide and Monarto Zoos up for further success.
Changes at Adelaide Zoo over the next two decades include a gorilla exhibit and nature-based adventure playground.
But it’s what’s in store for Monarto Zoo that has hearts racing.
Birds of prey flight presentations, safari-style accommodation and Madagascar walk-through experiences are all on the cards.
“The really exciting one that’s just around the corner is Wild Africa and that’s the development of a safari experience (that will be) by far the largest drive through experience outside of Africa,” Ms Bensted said.
“You’ll be able to go on a sunset safari drive and come back and stay in accommodation from family cabins to a safari resort and ‘glamping’ in tents.”
With SA’s tourism industry worth $6.3 billion and attracting 13.6 million day trips to and around the state in a year, she said tourism was a big employer.
“Zoos SA employs 250 people … and we’re lucky to be supported by over 500 volunteers,” she said.
“People think of the obvious jobs, the animal carer and the vets but we also have horticulturalists, asset staff and retail staff – so a really diverse range of jobs.”
Local communities also benefited from the zoo’s operations, she said.
“We have about 3000 animals and they all need to be fed,” she said.
“If you see our fruit, veg and meat bill, it’s fairly large, so of course all this is supporting local communities.
“When we built the Lions 360 it was engineered by a Mount Gambier firm and then another SA company, Sarah Constructions, did the building work.”
Ms Bensted has been Zoos SA CEO for the past five years and says her role was “an absolute dream job”.
“It’s really diverse, you are doing a range of conservation projects, but you’re also looking at sourcing funding and looking at new tourism operators to partner with so that people can explore this fabulous region,” she said.
She grew up in SA wanting to be a veterinarian but later decided it would be a poor choice as she fainted at the sight of blood.
She said the state’s scenery and business environment made it “a great place to live”.
“I’m very passionate about SA,” she said.
“We have amazing local scenery, and it’s also a really nice place to do business.
“I think we’re the right size and we have a lot of connections.”
This article was originally published at Brand SA News. An earlier version of this story suggested the acquisition of a family of African elephants was also “on the cards”; Zoos SA subsequently clarified that was more of a long-term aspiration.