Wildest dreams a reality for zoos chief Elaine Bensted


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By Melissa Keogh

Wild African-style adventures, birds of prey flying overhead and tourists sleeping to the chilling laugh of hyenas – South Australia is set to have it all.

Two of the state’s best tourist attractions, Adelaide and Monarto zoos, are set for big changes on the back of rising visitor numbers which hit more than half a million in 2016/17.

At the helm of the plan is Zoos SA CEO Elaine Bensted who officially opened Monarto’s latest heart-stopper, Lions 360, in November 2017.


The Lions 360 experience brings humans face-to-face with the king of the jungle.

The hair-raising attraction has already put hundreds of visitors within clawing range of a pride of African lions.

“The Lions 360 is definitely a first in Australia, and we think the first in the world,” Elaine says.

“It reverses the zoo concept by putting people inside the cage.

“Our lions have 10ha and they can choose where they want to be, but they generally choose to be all around the people in the dome.”

The Lions 360 is a big ticket project included in Zoos SA’s 20-year Masterplan, a document outlining immersive experiences, displays and improvements expected to set Adelaide and Monarto zoos up for further success.

Changes at Adelaide Zoo over the next two decades include a gorilla exhibit and nature-based adventure playground.

But it’s what’s in store for Monarto Zoo that has hearts racing.

Birds of prey flight presentations, safari-style accommodation and Madagascar walk-through experiences are all on the cards.

“The really exciting one that’s just around the corner is Wild Africa and that’s the development of a safari experience (that will be) by far the largest drive through experience outside of Africa,” Elaine says.

“You’ll be able to go on a sunset safari drive and come back and stay in accommodation from family cabins to a safari resort and ‘glamping’ in tents.”

Elaine says big things are on the horizon for Monarto Zoo, Australia’s largest open-range zoo and a major tourist attraction in SA.

With SA’s tourism industry worth $6.3 billion and attracting 13.6 million day trips to and around the state in a year, Elaine says tourism is a big employer.

“Zoos SA employs 250 people … and we’re lucky to be supported by over 500 volunteers,” she says.

“People think of the obvious jobs, the animal carer and the vets but we also have horticulturalists, asset staff and retail staff – so a really diverse range of jobs.”

Local communities also benefit from the zoo’s operations, Elaine says.

“We have about 3000 animals and they all need to be fed,” she says.

“If you see our fruit, veg and meat bill, it’s fairly large, so of course all this is supporting local communities.

“When we built the Lions 360 is was engineered by a Mt Gambier firm and then another SA company Sarah Constructions did the building work.”

Elaine has been Zoos SA CEO for the past five years and says her role is “an absolute dream job”.

“It’s really diverse, you are doing a range of conservation projects, but you’re also looking at sourcing funding and looking at new tourism operators to partner with so that people can explore this fabulous region,” she says.

Elaine grew up in SA wanting to be a veterinarian but later decided it would be a poor choice as she faints at the sight of blood.

She says the state’s scenery and business environment make it “a great place to live”.

“I’m very passionate about SA,” Elaine says.

“We have amazing local scenery, and it’s also a really nice place to do business.

“I think we’re the right size and we have a lot of connections.”

Visit the I Choose SA for Industry website to read more stories about key industry leaders, why they’ve chosen SA as a base and how the state is enabling them to succeed.

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