A Sumatran tiger at Adelaide Zoo. Established in 1883, the zoo is Australia's second oldest.

 from entertainment
to appreciating ecology, education, conservation


ADELAIDE ZOO'S HISTORY FOLLOWS A CURVE OF BREAKING DOWN OLD ATTITUDES towards embracing natural ecology – and especially Australian native ecology, as well as moving beyond the idea of a zoo as an amusement park with exotic attractions.

Established in 1883, the zoo is Australia’s second oldest (after Melbourne) and the only major metropolitan zoo in Australia to be owned and operated as a non-profit enterprise. The Royal Zoological Society of South Australia originates from the Acclimatization Society of South Australia, formed in 1878.

Many of the zoo’s original features are preserved. The Lyrebird Restaurant opened in 1891 as a monkey house. The 1883 cast-iron entrance gates and polychrome brickwork remains at the Frome Street entrance. The Thomas Elder Rotunda (1884) and the main administration building (1887) and the former elephant house (built in 1900 in the style of an Indian temple) also reflect past eras.

Near the River Torrens and parklands, the zoo features 1,400 native and exotic animals – with giant pandas Wang Wang and Funi given straring roles. Many animals are in natural settings, from a Queensland rainforest to a south east Asian rainforest.

Seventy kilometres east of Adelaide, Monarto Zoo has free-roaming herds of African and Asian animals grazing in large areas of open grassland.

Many endangered species, including the Przelwalskis (Mongolian) horse and Scimitar-horned oryx roam free here, alongside cheetahs, lions and rhinoceros. Many native Australian animals live extensive areas of natural mallee woodland. The zoos are strong advocates for conservation, education and research, with emphasis on breeding rare species such as the red panda, the black lion tamarin and South Australia’s own yellow-footed rock wallaby.



with birds/fauna brought to colony in 19th Century from Britain

Acclimatisation aim to bring British birds to South Australia for agriculture, ornament

Acclimatisation – a move to bring out birds and other creatures from the British isles and introduce them to South Australia – gathered interest in colony in the 1860s. George Francis, first director of the Adelaide Botanic Garden, told an 1862 meeting of the Adelaide Philosophical Society that “the swallow, the water wagtail, the titmouse, and the house sparrow were likely to be very useful in destroying the insects which pestered the fields and gardens. Then pheasants, ducks, geese, pigeons, and many other birds might be introduced as birds of ornament.”

Acclimatisation Society of South Australia founded by Samuel Way and prominent colonists

The Acclimatisation Society of South Australia was founded by chief justice Samuel Way in 1878. The society was chiefly concerned with introducing and domesticating select “animal, insect and bird species” from the British Isles “whether useful or ornamental ... in the hope that they may be permanently established here and impart to our somewhat unmelodious hills and woods the music and harmony of English country life”. The hopes were also that “insect-destroying birds of the mother country” would help diversify South Australian agriculture.

Adelaide Zoo opens in 1883; president Thomas Elder donates its first elephant Miss Siam

The Zoological and Acclimatisation Society of South Australia emerged in 1882 as a name change from the South Australian Acclimatisation Society founded in 1878. Eventually, the society persuaded the governors of the Botanic Garden to hand over part of its land, north of the River Torrens next to the Albert Bridge. This is where Adelaide Zoological Gardens opened in 1883 as the second in Australia and modelled on the major European zoos particularly, Regents Park in London. Its society president Thomas Elder donated Miss Siam, the zoo's first elephant.



exotic animals gathered in elegant setting through tough times 

R.E. Minchin applies his talents as artistic painter to being first Adelaide Zoo director

The first three Adelaide Zoo directors were three generations of the Minchin family – R.E. (Richard), his son Alfred and his grandson Ronald – spanning the zoo’s first 50 years and each contributing significantly. R.E. Minchin, who’d been foundation secretary and treasurer of the South Australian Acclimatisation Society, had little formal training for a zoo director but, as a skilled artistic painter, his good judgment in collecting specimens, architectural design and managing gardens contributed to the early renown of Adelaide Zoological Gardens from their opening in 1883. The zoo’s first elephant, Miss Siam, was bought by zoo society president Thomas Elder and lions were donated by governor James Ferguson and John Howard Angas, son of South Australian founder George Fife Angas. The zoo had other exotic animals and a pair of Tasmanian tigers.


Alfred Minchin sees zoo through hard times over 40 years; succeeded as director by son Ronald

Alfred Minchin’s 40 years as director, followed by his son Ronald’s six years in the job, saw Adelaide Zoo guided through some tough times during the first half of the 20th Century. Alfred Minchin added buildings and animals to the zoo when he took over as director from his father R.E. (Richard) in 1893. But, by 1903, the zoo’s finances, relying on the state government and benefactors, were down and the annual report said replacing the hippopotamus, buying giraffes and polar bears and “other ideals of the energetic director Mr Minchin” had to be put off. 


Controversial Keith Minchin runs snake park then koala farm near the zoo 1927-60

(Alfred) Keith Minchin was the controversial fourth member of the Adelaide zoological family. Keith was the elder son of Adelaide Zoo director Alfred Minchin (1839-1934) and brother of Ronald Minchin, who was zoo director 1935-40. But, not far from the zoo, in the city’s northern parklands off Edwin Smith Avenue, Keith Minchin set up, wth his father as proprietor, what started out as a snake park, in 1927. It became a koala park with an aquarium, featuring seals and octopuses, that survived until 1960.


Early emphasis on exotic animals at Adelaide Zoo while its trades native species

Adelaide Zoo’s earliest animal collection stressed the exotic over Australian, with special prominence for a core of leading attractions such as elephants, giraffes, a hippopotamus and bears. Following on from their genesis in the Acclimatisation Society of South Australia, the zoo administrators were still ignorant of animals’ place in a particular environment. In 1895, they brought two zebras from South Africa, hoping they could be adjusted at the zoo and then released into the Adelaide Hills as draught animals.


Elder rotunda and the elephant house among heritage gems from early Adelaide Zoo

Buildings from the earliest days of Adelaide Zoo have been listed on the South Australian Heritage Register. They include the Sir Thomas Elder Rotunda, built in 1884 and the largest of its kind in South Australia. Also heritage items are the original main gates and entrance walls on Frome Road, the former Elephant House, the head keeper’s cottage. The zoo is also a botanical garden with significant exotic and native flora, including a Moreton Bay fig planted in 1877.



as amusement attractions become main focus in 20th Century

Profitable elephants used in entertainment/ beasts-of-burden roles at zoo for decades

Miss Siam was the zoo’s first elephant, arriving on the steamer South Australia in 1883. She gave rides to thousands of children during her 20 years at the zoo and the second elephant Mary Ann gave 30 years (1904-34) similar service. She was quickly replaced by Lillian (1934-52) and then Samorn (1956-94), who benefited from more enlightened outlook by being relived of having to give rides in 1982. The treatment of the elephants parallels the struggle to change attitudes of what author Patricia Sumerling calls the “egotists” on the zoo board.


Entertainment edges out education role of Adelaide Zoo in the first half of 20th Century

Adelaide Zoo officials were alert to its scientific educational role from the start, especially when it was central to the case for an annual grant from the South Australian government. But, especially when those grants become leaner, the zoo had to resort to show business. In 1939, it added a circus to its attractions with chimpanzees trained to hold tea parties. This was stopped in 1942 after being criticised by some visitors as possibly cruel. The circus was replaced by a bicycle-riding act by Mias the orangoutang.


Natural habitat not a priority for most animals in the early days of Adelaide Zoo

While some celebrity animal exhibits at the early Adelaide Zoo had distinctive accommodation, most were housed in concrete pits and iron cages. Creating natural surrounds wasn't a priority. Rather, the enclosures for the black bear (1914) and the carnivora house (seven lions and two tigers) were lined with white tiles in 1896 to give “an excellent background for visitors, including natural history students”. The zoo was sensitive to criticism of its conditions but its 1931 annual report claimed the animals were more comfortaby housed than in their natural habitat.


Orangutan George's popularity lacking awareness of the toll on animals' wellbeing

George the orangutan (1950-76) was a prime example of Adelaide Zoo animals that became crowd favourites. Another was Percy the chimpanzee during the 1950s in the tradition of Newsboy the hippopotamus from the 1930s. But this popularity – reflecting the 1960s slogan “Visit the Zoo: Laugh and Learn” – masked a lack of awareness of the damage to the animals' physical and psychological wellbeing. When two Galapagos tortoises arrived from San Diego Zoo in 1972, rides of their backs became standard entertainment for child visitors. 



children's zoo/Australiana/1960s-80s design response to criticism

Joy Adamson of 'Born Free' fame calls zoo the worst; showdown over bird trading in 1960s

Joy Adamson, whose love of lions inspired the book and film Born Free described Adelaide Zoo in 1963 as archaic with enclosures far too small: the worst she had seen. In the same year, a government inquiry exposed the need for the zoo to modernise. The early 1960s also saw an end to the zoo’s dominant role in export trading of live native birds, after the retirement of zoo council president Fred Basse who'd dismissed zoo director William Gasking for refusing to take part in the trading.


Using antibiotics and other drugs allows for open spaces; elephant rides stopped in 1983

Introducing drugs, such as antibiotics and tranquilisers, in the 1960s to treat Adelaide Zoo’s animals had flow-on benefits. Previously, Tthe old cement enclosures had been limewashed daily to rid them of litter, potential infection and smells. But the availability of antibiotics removed the fear of disease and contagion and enabled animals to be displayed on exposed earth. This allowed for the more naturalistic enclosures of the 1980s and 1990s.


Zoo redirects efforts towards education in 1970s; starts to reflect mixed eco systems

Adelaide Zoo made a significant shift in its direction in the early 1970s. The 1971 annual report noted that “a start has been made in promoting the educational as opposed to the purely entertainment or recreational value of the Zoo”. An educational officer was appointed in 1972 to “emphasize to schools the value, purpose and function of the zoo as an educational tool”. Universities were also encouraged to use the zoo for research. The zoo also started to break with tradition and house animals in their mixed eco systems.


With influx of expertise from the 1980s, Adelaide Zoo leaps ahead in design of its eco exhibits

The 1980s influx of landscape architects, wilderness horticulturalists, graphic designers, engineers, audio-specialists and conservation scientists have catapulted Adelaide Zoo to a leader in its animal exhibit design. Besides the panda enclosure, one of the stunning 20th Century additions has been South-East Asia exhibit, known as Immersion, providing visitors with the experience of walking through the jungle, with Sumatran tigers and orangutans seemingly within reach.


MONARTO, ONE OF THE WORLD'S BIGGEST OPEN-RANGE ZOOS, opening to public in 1993, with successful breeding programmes

Lions, giraffes thrive at Monarto Zoo on former site for a satellite city in mallee Murraylands

Monarto, one of the world’s largest open-range zoos covering 1,500 hectares of mallee country one earmarked for a satellite city, opened in 1993 after being first announced in 1982. Monarto has played a major role in many conservation breeding programs for native and exotic species, especially the rare and endangered. Monarto Zoo’s 500 animals from 50 species includes many of Africa’s most impressive animals with one of Australia’s largest lion prides and giraffe herds.


Monarto revives the zoo's links with rhinos going back to arrival of Mr Rhini in 1886

Monarto Zoo is working in a world first with The Australian Rhino Project to move 80 endangered southern white rhinoceros to Australia to safeguard the species from the poaching crisis in Africa. Potentially Monarto Zoo could become home to around 30 rhinos from Africa, starting in 2018 when a female calf, Imani, from mother Umqali, joined five others born at Monarto. But Adelaide Zoo’s experience with rhinos goes back to its beginnings when its first director R.E. Minchin paid £66 and brought Mr Rhini from Borneo in 1886 as the only rhinoceros in Australia. Mr Rhini, who died in 1907, was mistaken for an Indian rhino, until this was corrected by a professor at the South Australian Museum where the animal is now displayed. The zoo’s 21st Century rhino program started when the first white rhino Uhara arrived in 2000 from Singapore Zoo on a long-term breeding loan. The dominant breeding bull Satara and another female Umquali arrived at Monarto Zoo in 2002 from Kruger National Park in South Africa. Zoos SA will have a 500-hectare enclosure for the white rhinos coming to Monarto's 1,500 hectares. 


Cheetahs, Tassie devils and lizards among Monarto Zoo’s many breeding successes

Monarto Zoo’s breeding program keep producing highlights, such as the number of giraffes born there reaching the 40s, making it Australasia’s biggest breeder of giraffes. Kesho, from a litter of cheetahs in 2012, has now given birth to two litters. Monarto’s natives keeping team have been part of an Australia-wide effort to save Tasmanian devils from a cancer threat. In a conservation world first, Monarto Zoo successfully bred one of Australia’s rarest species, the pygmy blue-tongue lizard, in 2016.


Rodney Fox’s shark cage inspired by the city zoo: Monarto using idea for its Lions 360 experience

The close-up tourist/visitor experience with a pride of lions, available at Monarto Zoo from 2018, was inspired by the up-close-to-sharks cage diving experience off Port Lincoln. Rodney Fox, survivor of a great white shark attack in 1963, came up with the shark cage idea – inspired by visits with his niece to Adelaide Zoo and seeing lions in their cages. Monarto’s Lions 360 reverses the zoo concept by putting tourists/visitors inside the cage.


Monarto Zoo's new visitor centre part of Wild Africa expansion project with resort

A new $15.8 million visitor centre for Monarto Zoo, funded by the Australian and South Australian governments, was announced in 2019. The zoo's original visitor centre, built in 1997, has been struggling to cope with the rapid growth in attendance at Monarto, since 2014, that has reached 160,000 visitors each year. The new visitor centre will include a large indoor and outdoor café, nature play spaces, retail, visitor services, offices and improved car parking and access. The visitor centre is part of a bigger Wild Africa expansion project vision for a $50 million safari resort at Monarto Zoo, near Murray Bridge. It will give visitors the chance to stay at Monarto Zoo for the first time in a range of accommodation from safari-resort level to eco-luxe glamping tents. The visitor centre funding was expected to unlock another $35 million in private investment to develop the resort. The vision is for annual visitors to pass 220,000. The Wild Africa precinct proposal would exploit Monarto's ability to expand into an area bigger than all other Australian zoos put together. The 500ha expansion would take Monarto’s total area to 1500ha. Seventy thousand trees have been planted on the land that would become Wild Africa, and 4000 boxthorn plants, 280 rabbit warrens and all internal fences removed. The Wild Africa precinct’s first animal resident in 2019 was southern white rhino male Ibutho. Weighing more than 2.2 tonnes, Ibutho was moved by crane and truck from his enclosure at Monarto Zoo into his new home, destined to become a sanctuary to a crash of 30 rhinos.

Jane Goodall announces addition to Monarto Zoo chimpanzee troop during her visit in 2019

Jane Goodall, the world-renowned primatologist, visited Adelaide Zoo and its sister zoo Monarto Zoo in 2019 to announce that its chimp Zombi was pregnant. Dr Goodall visited the expectant mother and met and named Hope, another recent baby chimp baby at Monarto. The visit coincided with the 10th anniversary of the chimpanzee enclosure at Monarto Zoo, opened by Goodall in 2008. Zoos SA works to help save chimps from extinction through involvement in international breeding programs and by supporting Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Sierra Leone and the Jane Goodall Institute Australia. Goodall acknowledged the importance of captive breeding programs with wild chimp populations thought to have decreased by 90% over  20 years. She endorsed Zoos SA’s work with PhoneCycle to recycle or refurbish old mobile phones, eliminating the need to extract new raw materials (often mined in areas of chimpanzee habitat) and providing phones to those who can’t afford them. All funds raised supported conservation work at the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary and Jane Goodall Institute of Australia. Monarto Zoo was home to 10 chimpanzees at the start of 2019. The females are alphas Zombi and Galatea, both born at Burgers Zoo in the Netherlands and arriving at Monarto in 2010. Hannah and Lani came to Monarto in 2018 from Sydney’s Taronga Zoo. Zombi’s daughter Zuri in 2012 was the first chimpanzee born at Monarto. Little brother Enzi followed in 2015. Tsotsi (alpha), Sandali, Boyd and Gombe were the males troop at Monarto.


builds on 20-year plan, global outlook, major community support

Two giant pandas an expensive, but popular, surprise Chinese loan to Adelaide Zoo in 2009

Zoos SA was $24.4 million in debt in 2011 from being unable to cover the expenses associated with the arrival of giant pandas Wang Wang and Fu Ni two years earlier. The pandas were a surprise gift loan from the Chinese Government to Adelaide Zoo, negotiated by federal foreign affairs minister Alexander Downer, whose grandfather has been on the zoo board. The zoo had to pay $6.7 million for an enclosure to house the animals after $5 million promised by Downer fell through when his government lost office in 2007.


ZoosSA part of an international/national network breeding endangered species

Events of world and national significance are being played out every day as South Australia’s zoos as they play their part in conserving the global network of birds and animals. Within their precincts, Adelaide and Monarto zoos are engaged in nurturing the breeding of endangered species from the Sumatran tiger to the Australian orange-bellied parrot. But the zoos is also supporting conservation projects such as those in Zambia and Kenya.


Zoos’ 20-year plan to expand record-breaking tourist attractions at Adelaide and Monarto

Zoos South Australia (Zoos SA) has a vision to guide the transforming of Adelaide and Monarto zoos over the next 20 years. The Zoos SA Master Plan will build on the zoos’ attractions as the state’s most popular pay-to-enter tourist destinations and successes in conservation, animal breeding and public education and recreation. In 2016-17, a record 585,872 people visited Adelaide and Monarto zoos, bettering the previous record when the giant pandas arrived in 2009-10.


Zoos membership hits 43,000; 600 volunteers backing 3000 animals and 250 full-time staff

Zoos SA in its 2016-17 record-breaking year for visitors also reached a record 46,000 members, with 600 volunteers, supporting its 3000 animals and 250 full-time employees at Adelaide and Monarto zoos. As a conservation charity, Zoos SA relies on this support to fund its vital conservation and breeding programs to save species from extinction. Besides the annual state government grant, corporate sponsorship for the zoos has also returned allowing them to operate on a surplus


Giant pandas Wang Wang and Fu Ni to stay another five years at Adelaide Zoo from 2019

The 10-year loan of Adelaide Zoo’s giant pandas Wang Wang and Fu Ni from China was extended for another five years in 2019. Under a deal with China, the South Australian government will spend about $3.5 million over five years allowing the pandas to remain until at least 2024. Adelaide Zoo is one of only 22 zoos around the world — and the only one in Australia — to host pandas. Since Wang Wang and Fu Ni arrived in 2009, Adelaide Zoo welcomed more than 3.8 million visitors and analysis showed that having the pandas in South Australia generated $33.5 million in economic output in 2010. About a third of Adelaide Zoo’s 420,000 visitors every year are from outside South Australia. But Wang Wang and Fu Ni have failed to breed a baby that would be able to remain in Australia. This is despite Adelaide Zoo retorting to a range of techniques, including “panda porn”, to encourage their breeding efforts. Breeding is always challenging with giant pandas with only a one-on-five success rate in China. Wang Wang and Fu Ni have become elements in the wider question of Australia-China diplomatic relationships since foreign minister Alexander Downer brokered the deal to secure the giant pandas for South Australia during the final years of the Howard government. The pandas arrived in 2009 during the prime ministership of Mr Howard's successor, the Mandarin-speaking Kevin Rudd, who was also a strong panda backer. Since then, so-called “panda diplomacy” has been is an established part of China's strategy of building ties with other nations.

Variety Children's Zoo at Adelaide Zoo adds to Nature's Playground for youngsters of all levels

Adelaide Zoo’s new and improved Variety Children’s Zoo, linked to the popular Nature’s Playground, will give children an interactive and immersive experience with animals such as quokkas, critically-endangered bettongs, goats and many more. The $1.1 million project in 2019 is the product of a zoo partnership with Variety, the Children’s Charity of South Australia, who gave $300,000 towards it. The children’s zoo will feature two-level elements, balance beams and ladders for goats, climbing branches for the quokkas, a dedicated presentation area for keepers to give educational talks, and aerial walkways linking the new children’s zoo to Nature’s Playground. As with its support for Nature’s Playground, opened in 2015, Variety was keen to extend the zoo experience to more children who are sick, disadvantaged or who have special needs. Nature’s Playground includes equipment built on nature-play principles that stimulate all the senses, and suitable for all abilities, through climbing structures, water play features, a natural creek bed and aerial walkways. The precinct also has disability-friendly toilets, a parents’ room and an area suitable for birthday parties and other gatherings. The playground’s aerial walkway gives a bird’s-eye view of the zoo, Adelaide CBD and the riverbank. Adelaide Zoo also conducts other ongoing activities for children, including its school holiday programs, run by conservation educators and other qualified teachers. 

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