Mark Stone – Billabong Koala Wildlife Park

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Something very special is about to be revealed at the Billabong Koala and Wildlife Park. Chrissy Jones catches up with a very busy and excited park owner, Mark Stone, to find out more …

So Mark, what’s new at the zoo? I hear you have something unique in store for visitors.

Yes, we have something very exciting due to arrive – a pair of endangered Snow Leopards. The Snow Leopard is one of, if not the most, endangered big cat on the planet – the wild population in decline, with estimated numbers below 4,000.

There has been a lot of work involved to get this project over the line. Only 4 zoos in Australia have them, so they are very, very special.

What are the Snow Leopards’ names, and how old are they? 

The female Snow Leopard is Kamala, the male is Sabu – they are actually brother and sister. They were captive bred at Taronga Zoo in Sydney and are now about 5 and a half years old and ready to move on.

How big are they? 

About 35 kg in weight, and they stand the height of a normal leopard, but because of their huge long tail and big fluffy feet, they do look bigger than the standard leopard.

So how big are their feet?

Massive! Because their home range varies and their temperature range varies, they have to contend with temperatures ranging from 40 degrees below to 40 degrees above zero. They are pretty incredible; it is unbelievable for an animal to be able to sustain those climatic variations. The Snow Leopard has massive feet to help them when they are moving through snow, but they are also very, very agile on rocks. These animals being captive bred in Sydney means the beautiful temperate climate of the Mid North Coast will suit them just fine.

How did this fantastic new exhibit come about?

The project started 5 years ago at an industry meeting at Taronga Zoo, where I caught up with an old friend who asked if I would like to be involved with their Australasian Snow Leopard Species Management Program. I told him I would need a moment to think about that one … it didn’t take me too long to say yes – and that was when the ball started to roll. This was a wonderful opportunity and the highest compliment for Taronga to place their trust in us, considering there are only four zoos in Australia to house this species.

We had a lull in proceedings of a period of 18 months to two years where I actually thought we had lost them to another zoo; we had to keep it all very quiet, because of the interest that would have been shown by some of the other big zoos in the country knowing that they were coming to us.

Due to the hard work and dedication of keepers and staff at Billabong and Taronga Zoo, local tradespeople and all the government bodies involved, we were able to achieve this favourable outcome for Billabong and this region.

This project is the biggest thing I have ever done in 35 years of being in this industry. At this point in time, I would like to make a special mention to a local business man, Dave Doherty. It was Dave’s support, input and help in the construction of the exhibit that saw the exhibit construction completed on time and that got us across the line. Dave and I constructed the whole exhibit. I am very proud of what we have been able to achieve.

We have had lots of local businesses help us out with the supply of the material used, including Bennett’s Steel, Bluescope Steel, Hy-tec Concrete, All Time Glass, Doherty Plumbing & Excavations and Nathan from Country Pools; we tried to keep it as local as we could. I would like to thank them all for making the job that little bit easier.

Construction started around Christmas last year, so basically it has taken 8 months to finish, and there is still some polishing that needs to be done with landscaping and final touches – but otherwise it is ready to go.

Were there any special requirements needed to satisfy Taronga Zoo to enable you to adopt the Snow Leopards?

We have been investigating facilities and doing training for five years in preparation for Kamala and Sabu. My Head Keeper, Christy Brown, has been training in multiple facilities around the country in that time: at Taronga, Perth, Queensland and Western Plains – all with big cats. This was all implemented before we even stroked a pen on paper for the exhibit design.

We tried to evaluate as many facilities as we could; we picked the best and the eyes out of everything, so we ended up with the best possible home for our cats.

A lot of work has gone into the exhibit area. Take us through the process.

From the first meeting at Taronga, there were lots of meetings in Sydney to identify the whole application process. There were 5 different government departments that I have had to deal and comply with. We were even involved in a teleconference around the world about this little zoo in Port Macquarie, to explain what we wanted to do before one of the organisations would give us permission to go ahead.

It was ticking boxes all the way along; a lot of red tape. Once granted, approval was then sought from the Zoo Aquarium Association (ZAA), a national organisation responsible for animal transactions for species that are part of international management programs.

As this animal is part of the Australasian Species Management Program (ASMP), their criteria needed to be fulfilled as well. Yet another hurdle!

Stage two was to seek the approval from NSW state government regulatory authority (DITTRIS), who in turn had to submit the application to the Non Indigenous Animal Advisory Committee (NIAAC) for approval for us to exhibit an endangered exotic species.

Then, of course, there were the legalities and security. We had to have all safety measures, involving firearms, tranquillisers and any chemicals that needed to be implemented and put in place done so. We had to fly an inspector in from Orange to inspect the facility and satisfy him that all our safety measures – the exhibit, our policies and procedures and animal husbandry skills all meet government standards. We had to meet a strict guideline of animal hygiene, exhibit design, construction, safety – the whole box and dice.

Why are the Snow Leopards so special?

Because of their numbers being in decline, I guess is the major reason why they are so special; they are an endangered species. As there are only four zoos in the country that have them, to be part of a programme that is so specialised is a great honour.

All locals should be proud that we have been able to secure this for our region. In all honesty, I am hoping this will encourage the locals to come out and visit the park, and be re-educated that we don’t just have koalas and kangaroos.

What do you need to do for the Snow Leopards in their daily care?

There is lots of general animal husbandry work in that. Feed wise, Freddo’s Meats are going to help us out with the food; once again, keeping it local. Guy at Freddo’s feels there will be no problem with the meat supply. The Snows will get good meat that is for human consumption, but Guy has offered a good price to us, so I thank Guy for that.

Were you given a plan to follow for the exhibit?

No, this was wholly my concept and design; however, I do have set standards as a guideline to the exhibit. Those standards are in place for everyone in NSW to utilise, and there are special criteria for carnivores and then again, that is broken down into requirements for big cats. There are standards and requirements which I complied with to my design, like sizing, but the actual design of the exhibit was entirely up to me.

When the first plans were drawn, they were sent to the Non-Indigenous Animal Committee. They had to approve the plans, because the cats are non-indigenous to Australia and approval had to be gained in relation to animal handling and exhibit design.

Does the exhibit have to remain at a set standard?

Definitely. We are already governed by the Industry and Investment Animal Welfare Unit; they do an inspection every 2 years unless the facility has an issue, or a complaint has been put forward or something like that, then the facility is inspected.

The facility has to be kept at a high standard at all times to satisfy the legislation and to be able to keep the Snow Leopards – and the rest of our animals, for that matter.

When can visitors see Kamala and Sabu for themselves?

We are hoping the Snow Leopards will arrive by Christmas, but they do need a settling in period though – which may be up to 6 weeks. It is totally up to the Snow Leopards. They will give us the signs that they are ready and comfortable in their new surroundings.

Taronga are sending two of their head carnivore keepers well known to Kamala and Sabu to help this settling in process and give them the best possible care during this transition. They will be able to identify if there are any issues and if and when they settle in.  At that point in time, we will keep the general public away until they have settled.

This is a fantastic bonus for us and will also give Christy a bit of reassurance that everything is going OK. She also has created a passionate bond with Kamala and Sabu and has been heavily involved in this project over the past 5 years, and now eagerly awaits their arrival.

We will know they have settled by their movements and reaction to different things – being able to move them through the exhibit, the off exhibit, into the night dens will determine when they are settled. It is very, very important with this particular species that they are allowed to settle; this may happen quickly, but it may take up to six weeks. We hope to be good to go for the Christmas holidays.

Did you have to purchase the Snow Leopards?

No, these guys came from Taronga Zoo at no charge. It surprises some people, but we supply Taronga with koalas, as well as Darling Harbour and Western Plains Zoo, all to enhance their breeding programs; and likewise, they need to meet our requirements before we would even consider letting them go. It usually works on a trade system, a system of helping each other, which is a good policy to be a part of.

In actual monetary value, I couldn’t even tell you how much this project has cost me to put together. Hundreds of thousands of dollars has gone into getting the facility up and running, along with countless hours or hard work and planning.

You have joined the Australasian Snow Leopard Species Management Program. What other animals are on the cards to be introduced to the zoo in the not so distant future?

Taronga now want us to be part of the Red Panda program, so I am hoping that we will have those for Easter next year, and then we will be opening our salt water crocodile exhibit at Christmas time in 2012, and we will need to find room for a Tasmanian Devil exhibit waiting to come from Western Plains.

There is quite a lot in store; I also want to build a penguin exhibit in conjunction with the crocodile exhibit.

We have so much to see at the zoo. We started out with koalas, kangaroos and a few birds around 8 years ago and have progressed to be home to reptiles, monkeys, cassowaries and quolls – which are a good colony of breeding quolls supporting the endangered species programme of Spotted Tail and Eastern Quolls.

Our wombat exhibit is now rated as the best in the country and possibly the world; we are really proud of that one. Our newest resident is a little baby wombat, it’s actually a Hairy Nose Wombat, which is totally different to the common wombat that we are used to seeing in the local area.

Thanks Mark.

Ed’s Note: I encourage all locals to make an entry on your to do list – visit the Billabong Koala and Wildlife Park this Christmas holidays and all going well, you will see not only Kamala and Sabu, but all the amazing animals at the park.

Congratulations Mark and Danena and the entire Billabong crew on joining the Snow Leopard population management program, and well done to all those involved with the planning and execution of the new Snow Leopard exhibit – you are a part of something very, very special that we all should be proud of.

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