Far North Adventures: Kingdom of Zion

by Melissa on October 29, 2012 · 8 comments

It’s been quite a while since I wrote in my Far North Adventures series.  Since I had such a glorious trip to Africa, I put many of my posts about New Zealand on the back-burner.  For those new to the Far North Adventures series – I have taken the opportunity to show off some of the incredible things that you can do while visiting New Zealand’s beautiful Far North.  This series has seen me making a journey to the very top of New Zealand to visit Cape Reinga, cruise around Ahipara on horseback, skydive over the beautiful Bay of Islands, and get all rough and dirty while 4WDing with friends through the sand dunes of the beautiful west coast.  In this latest post, I get to encounter some beautiful big cats at Kingdom of Zion!

Naturally, ever since returning home to New Zealand’s beautiful Far North after my seven-week trip to Africa, I have been dying to get to see lions again.  After working with lions whilst volunteering as lion conservation volunteer at Antelope Park in Zimbabwe, it was very difficult for me to go about my daily routine without the king of the jungle in it.  Luckily for me, there is a big cat park and tourist attraction called Kingdom of Zion right here in Northland, New Zealand.  When a half-price deal came up on Grab One- a daily deal website- I knew that it was finally my chance to check out what they had to offer.

On a rainy October morning, my two best friends, Kate (from Canuckiwikate) and Sophie – hopped in the car and made the two-and-a-half hour drive to Kamo, New Zealand – just outside of Whangarei.  By the time we arrived, the rain was still coming down in full force, but we weren’t deterred.  We made our way into the office and we were given some forms to sign to let them know that we acknowledged the fact that we were going into a park with big cats.

Over the course of the late morning and afternoon we had the opportunity to partake in two tours; the guided tour followed by the feed tour.  The information given on both tours was nearly identical, but it was very cool for us to get to see the cats in two different lights.  On the guided tour it was raining and many of the cats were lazing around, clearly not enjoying the wet weather.  However, by the time we started the feed tour, the sun was out and shining down in full force.  The cats were hungry and knew what time it was.  We got to see how they acted and interacted with each other once food was brought into the mix.

kingdom of zion What does Kingdom of Zion offer?
Unlike conventional zoos, you do not simply get to walk around the grounds.  Instead, there are a number of different tours available:

Guided Tours  – These are the basic tours that allow you to have a guided walk around the park with a knowledgeable guide to tell you everything there is to know about the cats, their personalities and about their species.

Feed Tours  – Pretty much the same as the guided tour, except it happens at feed time.  You get to follow the meat truck around and watch the cats get fed.

Lionman Tour – The big man himself, Craig Busch, gives you a guided tour and introduces you to his 35 big cats.

Cheetah Encounter  – Along with getting a guided tour of the park, you get to enter into the cheetah enclosure and have a one-on-one encounter with the two resident cheetahs.

Behind the Scenes – This full day experience lets you feel like a part of the Kingdom of Zion team.  Follow along as the staff go about their daily routine – accompanying them on the guided tours, go along as the team feed the hungry cats, assist with cleaning enclosures or anything else that may need doing.  This also includes an exclusive cheetah encounter.

What did I think?
It definitely filled the void I was feeling after leaving the lion conservation project in Zimbabwe.  Kingdom of Zion is probably best known for being the backdrop to the popular New Zealand television show “The Lion Man” which featured current owner, Craig Busch, as he interacts with the cats displaying a human-animal bond that defies all sense of logic.  The television show aired for a number of years and was one of the most successful television programs to come out of New Zealand – airing in over 90 countries, worldwide.

The success of the television show aside, there has been a lot of controversy surrounding Kingdom of Zion in the last five years or so.  It took a bit of research on my part, but essentially there had been internal ownership disputes, issues brought up with New Zealand’s Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (who is the governing body over zoos and animal parks), a tragic mauling death of one of the handlers, the park going into receivership, and the inevitable closure of the park for a number of years – until it reopened in April 2012.  That being said, I do feel that the good intentions are there.  The people running Kingdom of Zion truly love what they do and love the cats and you can see that they are passionate about getting the park back up to how it was in it’s glory days.

Sadly, as with most things animal-related, it costs a lot of money for the upkeep of the animals and the grounds.  On our tours I kept hearing “once we get more money we plan to get the lionesses on contraceptives so that we can reunite prides” or “once we get more money we will be building a larger exercise enclosure” or “we need to raise money so that this tiger can have dental surgery” and so on.  It’s a sad reality that the park unfortunately has a bit of stigma attached to it, thanks to the negative media attention of the past.

Only time will tell if the Kingdom of Zion will continue to succeed.  I truly hope it does, as it is an incredible experience for people of all ages to get to see big cats up close.  The Kingdom of Zion’s policy of having only people on guided tours in the park ensures that all visitors walk away with a working knowledge of the cats and various issues that their respective species may face.  I am of the opinion that zoos and animal parks like this serve a purpose to educate visitors as well as help give people the opportunity to become passionate about helping with animal conservation.  The staff and volunteers who run Kingdom of Zion are very well informed and you can tell that they truly enjoy sharing the big cats with locals and tourists alike.  All in all, I’d say give Kingdom of Zion a chance, go and see what they have to offer and hopefully with continued community support they’ll be able to generate enough money to get the park back up and running the way they envision it to be.

**DISCLAIMER:  Kingdom of Zion provided my group with a complimentary feed tour in addition to the already discounted tour I had purchased through Grab One.  While this was much appreciated, all opinions expressed in this post remain my own.**

*Please Note: All photographs are property of Selena McMinn and were taken from the NZ Lionman- Craig Busch Facebook page**

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Kate -Canuckiwikate October 29, 2012 at 10:13 pm

Was definitely an awesome day! I can’t wait to get back to visit the beautiful cats and fun,friendly staff! Their passion is contagious and I’m looking forward to seeing the parks growth in the future. Glad that we got to experience one of New Zealand’s truly unique efforts tucked away right here in northland!

Nice job depicting Kingdom of Zion, keep up the great work raising conservation awareness, Melly!
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Melissa November 5, 2012 at 10:49 pm

Thanks Kate – I hope you return before your trip to Canada so that you can see how their progress has been. It was definitely a great day and a truly awesome little place here in Northland :)

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Scarlett October 30, 2012 at 12:26 am

Glad to see you got your lion fix. I volunteer at a wildlife rescue so I totally get the money issues, it’s such a shame :( Love the photos xx
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Melissa November 5, 2012 at 10:51 pm

It is such a shame that they are so expensive to keep – but its thanks to people like you that others can have experiences and get educated about animals and the different struggles different species have.

Wish I could take credit for these photos, but they were actually taken by the wonderful volunteer at Zion who led our tour group.

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Anne October 30, 2012 at 3:51 am

Sounds like an amazing place…too bad we didn’t get to go there when we were in that neck of the woods.

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Melissa November 5, 2012 at 10:51 pm

I don’t think it was quite opened when you were here. Next time ;)

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Julia October 31, 2012 at 12:44 pm

Very cool Mel. I’m living vicariously through you, as I doubt I’ll ever get to experience it for myself!

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Melissa November 6, 2012 at 10:06 am

Aw you never know, Julia! :) Glad you’re along for the ride though! :) Hope you enjoy!

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