Get up close and personal with exotic animals in need at Billabong Zoo
Did you know the mid north coast is home to lions, snow leopards, crocodiles, meerkats and spider monkeys? You can even pat, feed and hold them! You’ll find these exotic creatures at Port Macquarie’s Billabong Zoo: Koala and Wildlife Park.
As well as entertaining and delighting guests, Billabong’s owner Mark Stone tells Coastbeat the aim is to educate and inform. He hopes visitors to the park experience the wonder of getting up close and personal with some very special animals while learning about the urgent need to protect them.
A pride of lions at Billabong Zoo: Koala and Wildlife Park
Generations of expertise
Originally operating as a bird park, Mark and Danena Stone bought Billabong in 2003. With 40 years of experience in the zoo industry and a strong passion for the care and well-being of animals, the Stones were a perfect fit.
Mark says this line of work is in his blood and he’s even passed on the passion to his children, Brooke and Blake. “It’s a joy to be able to work alongside them,” Mark enthuses. “Brooke has done her Vet Nurse training and her Zoology degree while Blake has his TAFE teaching qualification and teaches here at the zoo. He’s guiding the next generation of potential conservationists and zookeepers.”
Mark’s genuine desire to teach people about the importance of conservation is palpable.
“My family has been in the industry for three generations and I’ve seen a lot of changes – many of them for the better,” he explains. “Gone are the days of keeping animals in captivity purely for entertainment. Now it’s all about us being able to educate people on the plight of the animals through conservation education.”
Billabong Zoo owner Mark Stone with keeper Simone Popp holding Hollie the koala
Education, conservation and advocacy
This is something the zoo prides itself on. Every half hour or so, keepers give talks and presentations featuring penguins, lions, koalas, reptiles, monkeys, meerkats and more.
“I don’t know any other zoo in Australasia that has the number of keeper talks we have,” Mark says.
“The reason these animals are in captivity is to be ambassadors for their species. People can watch TV programs on cheetahs or lions or snow leopards, but when they can actually see, smell and in some cases touch the animal in front of them, the conservation message really hits home.”
Mark says visitors are often quite surprised by the collection of animals. “I’ve been selective to utilise animals that have a serious need for advocacy and awareness,” he explains. “The biggest message that is fed back to us from visitors is that they can really see and hear the passion that our keepers have for these animals.”
Shrek, the zoo’s massive saltwater crocodile in action. Image courtesy of Greater Port Macquarie Tourism
Koala conservation program
Mark was initially drawn to the zoo because of its koala conservation program. His lifelong ambition has always been to breed koalas in captivity for release back into the wild. While no zoo in New South Wales is currently permitted to do that, Mark remains optimistic his dream will be realised at Billabong.
“I believe we have the facility, the expertise, and most importantly, the qualified staff to be able to pull this off,” he says with confidence. “The Government needs to look to those with a successful captive breeding program to support a wild koala breeding program.”
The impact of the recent bushfires
While the widespread fires in late 2019 and early 2020 caused unfathomable damage, Mark sees a silver lining. “There’s been a renewed appreciation for the wonderful wildlife that we have in this country,” he reasons. “Australia has lost more animals to extinction than any other country on the planet but it’s not because Australians don’t care, they’re just not educated on these matters.”
He and his staff have made it their personal responsibility to spread that message – Billabong’s main tagline is “conservation through education”.
Youngster Magoo (l) and Peta (r) are part of the koala breeding program
This multi-award-winning zoo exhibits over 80 species and cares for more than 220 animals across 10 acres. Ensuring each animal’s wellbeing while giving visitors a satisfying experience is no mean feat. Mark says a lot of time and thought goes into the design of each exhibit.
“When thinking about the various enclosures, I really take time to consider where that animal comes from, what its home in the wild is like and what its needs are,” he explains. “We want visitors to be able to see what they would naturally be doing in the wild. I’m very proud of what we’ve been able to achieve!”
Billabong are the only zoo in Australia to offer up-close encounters with the snow leopard (stock image)
Billabong Zoo is open 9am to 5pm every day of the year (except Christmas Day). There’s a program for school students which can be tailored to meet the needs of the school year level and their current curriculum. You can even book an up-close encounter with a koala, cheetah, meerkat, snow leopard, snake or red panda!