Animal tourism in central and northern Victoria strengthens native species conservation

Australia: The newly established Jirrahlinga Dingo Conservation and Wildlife Education Centre near Castlemaine offers the public a chance to interact with animals while learning about the threats they face.

It was formed last October when owners Tehree and Hamish Gordon decided to combine their dingo farm at Chewton with the Jirrahlinga Koala Sanctuary at Barwon Heads, some 170 kilometres away.

"In a perfect world there would be no wildlife parks or zoos," Ms Gordon said.

"But there is no perfect world."

Ms Gordon said all the animals at the centre had been abandoned or rescued and included pets as well as injured wildlife.

"I actually find people who think animals shouldn't be in zoos and parks a challenge because I agree with them."

"Most of these animals here have come from people who didn't look after them.

"So my challenge to a couple just recently was how can you change the situation?"

She said there were six workers employed to help people interact with the animals and make sure visitors had the best possible experience.

"My keepers are extremely good with people, and they love the opportunity to educate," Ms Gordon said.

Staff member Paris Alloway exemplifies that, handling a diamond python as easily as a young koala or bearded dragon, while sharing information about each animal with authority and enthusiasm.

The Jirrahlinga consolidation was not the only movement of note in Victoria last year.

Kyabram Fauna Park, in the state's north, joined the Zoos Victoria family and now counts Melbourne and Werribee zoos, as well as the Healesville Sanctuary, among its siblings.

For park director Lachlan Gordon, the opportunity to be part of Zoos Victoria's conservation and breeding programs was a huge bonus.

"We have a priority list of 27 threatened species here in Victoria that we've pledged will not go extinct on our watch and Kyabram Fauna Park is now part of that vision and purpose," he said.

"Zoos and wildlife parks have become completely different places than they were 20 or 30 years ago — there's a huge focus on wildlife conservation."

Mr Gordon said part of the vocation of places like the fauna park was being able to educate the public, to give them an appreciation of the natural world, and show them how they could contribute to species conservation.

When the Kyabram community established the fauna park almost 50 years ago, more than half the site was made up of evaporative ponds for the township's stormwater management.

Thousands of tree plantings and restoration work over the years by the community and park staff have helped form fully functioning wetlands and seen the return of more than 35 bird species.

"We've got a huge biodiversity that exists in our wetlands, one of them being the endangered broad-shelled turtle, so it's quite a unique position to have threatened species living at the site as wild animals," Mr Gordon explained.

"There are plans for a new wetlands walking track that will allow visitors to get really immersed in the wetlands and learn more about some of the species that live here."