You can’t fly to Africa right now. But you can see the big five (lions, leopards, rhinoceros, elephants and buffalo) – and a lot more besides. Australians are flocking to wildlife parks and zoos, and the call of the wild is now such big business that it has sparked the interest of investors.

Last week, Atlas Advisors Australia and Elanor Investors Group spent $10 million buying Hunter Valley Zoo north of Sydney.

The investment partners already own Featherdale Wildlife Park in Western Sydney and Mogo Wildlife Park near Batemans Bay on the NSW South Coast.

There are plans to build accommodation so that visitors can sleep comfortably at the zoo and have breakfast with giraffes the next morning.

“Domestic tourism is in for a pretty good run in the next three to five years while people adjust their holiday preferences. When borders reopen, there won’t be a rush back to tourism hotspots like Bali,” said Guy Hedley, executive chairman of Atlas Advisors.

Instead, nature-based domestic tourism is on the rise as families seek to connect with nature.

So which wildlife park or zoo will you visit this year? Here are five of Australia’s best wildlife zoofari experiences.

Hunter Valley Zoo

About 150,000 people visit this park every year. You can get close to meerkats, tamarins and marmosets if you book an encounter experience. You can also see lemurs, emperor tamarins and black-handed spider monkeys.

The zoo has a wide range of Australian native animals, such as dingos, wombats, wallabies, koalas, quokkas, kangaroos, flying foxes and Tasmanian devils.

For the most adventurous, there are lions, leopards, cheetahs and ostriches. There’s also a reptile enclosure to spot American alligators, rhinoceros, iguanas and lace monitors.

The zoo is well stocked with Australian birds such as kookaburra, red-tailed cockatoo, king parrot, rainbow lorikeet and jabiru. You can also spot the South American blue and gold macaw.

Hunter Valley Zoo is in the heart of the popular Hunter Valley wine region in Nulkaba, about five minutes’ drive from Cessnock.

Visit: huntervalleyzoo.com.au

National Zoo & Aquarium and Jamala Wildlife lodge, Canberra

Home to six zebras, two rhinoceros, two white lions from Africa, five cheetahs, six tigers, four giraffes, two sun bears from Malaysia and much more wildlife. You can also spot alpaca, Tasmanian devil, meerkat, kangaroo and dingo.

But what has made the zoo famous is its luxurious Jamala Wildlife Lodge, where you can stay in five-star luxury in a lodge with its own shark tank, treehouse rooms overlooking a private giraffe enclosure or in a jungle bungalow separated by only a glass wall from an enclosure where lions, cheetahs and sun bears roam freely.

Visit: nationalzoo.com.au; jamalawildlifelodge.com.au

Werribee Open Range Zoo

Spot lions, hippos, cheetahs, gorillas and monkeys on the African River trail. Learn more about the African western lowland gorillas, which are usually led by a single silverback male. Watch the kings of the savannah, the majestic lions that roam northern Africa, south-west Asia and India. You can book a 40-minute session to see how zookeepers care for these stunning animals or a close encounter with Kulinda the cheetah to watch how she is trained.

Werribee is part of Zoos Victoria, a world-leading conservation organisation dedicated to fighting wildlife extinction. About 35 kilometres south-west of Melbourne, the zoo is enroute to Victoria’s stunning Great Ocean Road. COVID restrictions may affect opening hours.

Visit: zoo.org.au/werribee

Australia Zoo

This adventure zoo was made famous by the late Steve Irwin. It has more than 1200 animals from Africa, Southeast Asia and local Aussie favourites. When walking around the zoo, keep a lookout for the “burrowing beauty” – the iconic wombat which can often be found digging, grazing or snoozing around shrubs. You can also pat and hand-feed red kangaroos and rock wallabies as they roam the grassland.

The zoo’s Sumatran and Bengal tigers are kept in 80 metres of grassland in an enclosure which allows the big cats to run, play and swim. You can also book a close encounter with the rhinoceros (the experience is limited to eight people). And if you love the 30-centimetre-tall meerkats, meet this cheeky mob with big personalities. They weigh less than one kilogram each and if you are lucky, they may even sit on your shoulder. Lastly, keep your cameras ready for the three zebras in the African grassland enclosure.

Visit: australiazoo.com.au

Adelaide Zoo

This is the country’s second-oldest zoo and home to Wang Wang and Fu Ni – Australasia’s only breeding pair of giant pandas. Playful Fu Ni loves interacting with zookeepers and has been partially hand-raised. She won a silver medal for the most popular panda outside of China in an online competition. Wang Wang is more laidback and independent.

You can go behind the scenes on a close encounter to hand-feed the pandas. If you feel brave enough, you can even also get within a whisker of the African lions and feed them their meaty lunch.

If you adore penguins, you can join the zookeepers on a trip to Penguin Beach to help feed the colony of little penguins their fishy lunch. The minimum age for this experience is 10 years. You can also help zookeepers prepare meals for the orangutans and tamarins in a special behind-the-scenes experience.

Visit: adelaidezoo.com.au 

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