IF you drive down the road from Gatton to Clifton, you might just stumble across a surprise. One of country Queensland’s hidden secrets is the Darling Downs Zoo. This is not a collection of sad animals in rows of cages. No, it’s the largest group of wild animals in regional Queensland and a zoo that just quietly is doing its bit to conserve the rapidly disappearing diversity of the world.
Owner Steve Robinson had a ready answer to why he’d want to set up a zoo in the bush. “As a family, we’re animal people,” he said. “Animals are the path for me, my wife and my daughter.”
That’s why he has been running the zoo for 18 years now. And in that time he’s gathered quite a collection of the wild and wonderful. It’s the only place you can see a lion in Queensland. Or a pygmy hippopotamus. Steve said, “There are only two zoos in Australia that have Sri Lankan leopards. One is the national zoo in Canberra. The other is us.”
But he’s not just about putting animals on display. He said, “If it was just a matter of keeping animals in a row of cages, we wouldn’t do it.” Instead, the zoo is central to conservation efforts.
Steve and Stephanie are part of a group of zookeepers who are working to maintain the genetic diversity of animals, particularly from environments squeezed by human activity, in the hope that in a hundred years, maybe, they can be rewilded and will then thrive.
“I might never see it,” said Steve. “But it’s work I feel I’ve got to do.”
And it’s hard work. Importing 10 zebras took six long years. The battle with quarantine was nothing compared with the shock of the weather. When the zebras boarded their plane in Dallas-Fort Worth, it was -12C and when they got to the zoo it was 41 degrees! It took a lot of effort and a lot of misting to keep the zebras alive but every one of them lived, and you can hear the emotion in Steve’s voice when he talks about how proud he is of the breeding program they kicked off.
You won’t get the hard sell from Steve. He said, “If people make their way out here, they’re going to get what they came for: a relaxed interaction with the animals.” And yes, it’s a commercial concern, with a nice café and a souvenir shop, but the focus is on the animals.
The holiday season is when the zoo gets most busy but even then, you won’t be tripping over other people. But you will get to see a pygmy hippo and very few people can say that. If you book online, you can get a 10% discount with code JTVCB074. It’s a lovely day trip out from Ipswich and as Steve pointed out, “It’s very much a country zoo. If you appreciate clean air and the country way of doing things, we’re for you.”