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'Glamping' thrill in Australia's bush has a serious side

Luxury holidays bring visitors up close to endangered rhino

Dubbo zoo visitors feed carrots to a giraffe. (Photo by Di Smith)

DUBBO, Australia -- The name says it all: Zoofari Lodge. It may be a collection of tents in the Australian bush, but there is nothing rough about it. This is luxurious "glamping" (short for "glamorous camping") featuring air-conditioning, big soft beds, huge baths with showers, mini-bars, movie-star bath robes, and private viewing lounges overlooking a magical parade of rhinoceroses, giraffes, zebras, antelopes and ostriches.

The animals come so close it seems you could almost reach out and touch them -- save for the ditch and electrified fence that keep them safely separated.

Welcome to Australia's Taronga Western Plains Zoo, located near Dubbo, 300 km west of Sydney. If your long-held dream of encountering a white rhino in the wild in Africa is just a step too far, then the zoofari experience at Dubbo might be what you are looking for. It is designed to replicate the savanna plains of Africa, providing plenty of room for animals to roam in conditions that are familiar to them.

Zoo glamping appeals both to city couples in search of a plush and romantic bush getaway, and to families seeking a fun-filled nature adventure. Depending on the time of the year, an overnight zoofari visit costs two people a total of between 640 and 820 Australian dollars ($468 and $600). Two adults and two children will pay between A$1,000 and A$1,200 for a zoofari package that includes two days of zoo admission, an overnight stay in an "animal view" tent-cabin close to the animals, bicycle hire, breakfast, dinner and wine-tasting, and morning and evening bus tours.

During a recent visit, the zoofari more than lived up to its name. After months of searing drought conditions across much of inland Australia, the rains had finally arrived. From the front deck of a luxury tent-cabin -- named Bongo after an African antelope species -- I watched white rhinos gamboling in the mud, then chasing herds of zebras, giraffes and blackbuck antelopes as rain saturated the plains.

View of Bongo tent cabin, part of Zoofari Lodge at Western Plains Zoo (Photo by Geoff Hiscock)

Like jumbo-sized sheepdogs, the rhinos turned and wheeled, although they were no match for the agile zebras and blackbucks in the slippery conditions. When they tired of chasing the other animals, they came snuffling over to the guest cabins to take a good look at their inhabitants.

At night, the zoofari experience includes an open bus tour behind the scenes at the zoo, checking on elephants, hippopotamuses, lions, black rhinos, giraffes and other animals. The tour is preceded by a wine-tasting session at the main lodge, and an African-themed banquet by chef Nan Clark that ranges from buffalo and crocodile meat to chicken legs, cous-cous and quinoa. The food hit the spot for our mixed group of international visitors and Australian families.

There was a Jurassic Park moment when our guide Stephen mentioned a panic button in our bathroom. Like a nuclear launch key, a Perspex cover kept it safe from inadvertent hands, but it was there just in case a wild animal somehow wandered into our orbit. "We are in a zoo, after all," Stephen said philosophically.

In the morning, we were up early to help feed the giraffes, then on to see the delicate lemurs and a black rhino, before finishing with a health check and daily bath for the elephants. It proved a wonderful experience for young and old visitors in the 10 tent-cabins that overlook the savanna. Another group of tent-cabins is set further back in the bush, while for those wanting a more rugged under-canvas experience, the nearby Billabong Camp is also an option.

Luxury camping is a big money-spinner for the tourism industry in Australia, particularly in remote locations such as Uluru in central Australia, Kakadu in the far north of the Northern Territory and Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia. But Dubbo's Western Plains Zoo is considerably more accessible -- about five hours from Sydney by car, via the Blue Mountains.

Rhino eyes visitors in the African savanna section of the Western Plains Zoo. (Photo by Geoff Hiscock)

There are also daily train services to Dubbo from Sydney, while Qantas and REX, a regional airline, make the one-hour flight from Sydney about eight times a day. Dubbo's location on the main inland road from Brisbane to Melbourne makes it a popular resting point for interstate travelers, and a great base for visitors wanting to push further west into the outback after a couple of days seeing the zoo.

The Western Plains Zoo draws about 260,000 visitors a year -- about 1% coming from overseas -- with about 37,000 staying overnight to experience the thrill of 'waking up in the wild.' Visitors can also be a "zoo keeper for a day," working alongside the staff in feeding and caring for the animals.

But while a visit to Dubbo zoo is a fun-filled and educationally rewarding experience for families, there is a more serious side to the zoo's existence -- working with conservation organizations around the world to help breed and protect animals under threat. The Taronga Conservation Society, which runs both the Western Plains Zoo and Taronga Zoo, its Sydney-based counterpart, spends about A$10 million a year on conservation, preservation and public awareness programs.

Some of the A$5 million a year revenue from glamping is used to help save the world's endangered rhino population. As Stephen pointed out during our tour of the rhino enclosures, these animals are in desperate straits globally, under stress from poachers eager to harvest their horns. It does not seem to matter that a rhino horn has no medicinal properties and is not made of ivory -- its primary ingredient is keratin, the protein found in human fingernails and hair.

A safari bus for a night-time behind-the-scenes tour of Dubbo's Western Plains Zoo (Photo by Geoff Hiscock)

Ground up for use as a party drug in Vietnam or an ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine -- or simply as a status symbol on a mantelpiece -- rhino horn is much in demand in Asia, spurring an illegal animal trade that is worth billions of dollars a year and directly funding the poachers, who kill an average of three rhinos a day in Africa.

Rhino numbers have fallen more than 95% in the past 150 years, with much of the killing occurring since the early 2000s, when criminal gangs started turning to large-scale poaching. Today, there are barely 30,000 rhinos left in the wild, with three of the five main species regarded as endangered.

According to the International Rhino Foundation, there are about 22,000 white rhinos and 5,000 black rhinos in Africa, along with 3,000 greater one-horned rhinos (also known as Indian rhinos) in South Asia. Indonesia retains 80 Sumatran rhinos and 67 Javan rhinos. Taronga Western Plains Zoo is home to three of the five species -- black, white and greater one-horned -- and is the only zoo in Australia to have successfully bred examples of all three species.

The Taronga Conservation Society supports conservation efforts for wild rhinos in Africa, Indonesia and India, including funding for habitat protection and reforestation, anti-poaching and rhino protection units, and reduction of human-rhino conflict. Veterinarians, pathologists, reproductive biologists and other breeding experts on the zoo's staff work in the field with their counterparts in Africa and Asia.

A glamping experience in Dubbo may seem far removed from international discussions on the global trade in rhino horn, but as our guide pointed out as he hand-fed a black rhino, money spent by visitors to the zoo helps fund the fight against poachers. It is a war worth winning.

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