The two white lions step purposefully forward, their bodies fluid. One is heavily, beautifully maned and the other slender and streamlined. Both are as graceful as they are strong, their green eyes staring piercingly into the faces of the two hunched hyenas over an arrangement of wine glasses and dinner plates.
Food is being served in the Rainforest Cave at Jamala Wildlife Lodge, and the arrival of two feline guests has unequivocally stolen the show. The lions, introduced as siblings Jake and Mischka, were previously only interested in lounging around in their glass-walled den with heated flooring, watching a room filled with humans. Now it’s a different story as the hyenas make their entrance and instincts rear up. All animals are on high alert and it’s a standoff. Even when the humans rise from their chairs to take photos of the lions and the gangster-like hyenas with their sloped backsides, none of the creatures take any notice. And then as quickly as it started, it’s over. The lions lose interest and the hyenas slink off into the darkness of their quiet abodes.
All of the animals at the National Zoo & Aquarium in Canberra have stories of how they came to be in captivity. "I came across Jake and Mischka in an African zoo," says owner and founder of the Canberra zoo, Richard Tindale. "Their enclosure was small and the zoo couldn’t afford to keep them. I spent a bit of time with them - they were 10 months old and drop-dead gorgeous, but as we had just agreed to take on six other white lions, the last thing we needed was a fourth lion enclosure. However, it was impossible for my wife Maureen and I to leave them there, so a few months later they were on a flight to Australia. Jake and Mischka have pretty flash surroundings compared to what they had in Africa – four dens with in-slab heating, a heavily vegetated enclosure with a moat, and they love being close to their neighbouring pride of lions (called the Brat Pack)."
"They are uncanny at knowing when I’m around – I can be 40 metres away and one or both will sense me, turn around and look straight at me," Tindale says, trying not to beam with pride. "I never personally feed them, but as soon as they see me they come to the fence for a bit of bonding. It is hard not to think that they associate meeting me in Africa with their new lifestyle."
The animals at Tindale's zoo could not be let loose in the wild, many having been rescued from other organisations where they were being mistreated (often for the entertainment of crowds like their beloved sun bear) or were living in cramped quarters. Others like Jake and Mischka are thought to be extinct in the wild and have been bred in captivity for generations.
Jamala Wildlife Lodge opened in December 2014, and has immediately put the Australian capital on the map, especially for animal-lovers and those after an intimate experience where environmental awareness is key, hand-in-hand with some luxury accommodation and fine food and wine if guests want to stay overnight. Tindale created the extraordinary lodge “to educate visitors about aiding the survival of many of the world’s endangered species.”
Guests can choose one of 18 rooms that are spread across extremely varied regions of the zoo – from tree houses where giraffes in all their gangly beauty parade by and visit guests on their balconies; to jungle bungalows where the hay-strewn ‘beds’ of grizzly or brown bears, lions, cheetahs, sun bears and tigers (heated flooring keeps them close and cosy) are literally at the foot of the king-sized beds in the African safari-styled rooms. Although they don't have to hang around humans, as the white lions and hyenas often do in the dining area – they are free to visit or roam as they please. However, they seem as inquisitive about the human guests as the humans are about them. With only a centimetre of glass separating man from beast, it’s a matter of who's looking at who?
Despite Australian Capital Tourism Deputy Director Jonathan Kobus stating that the zoo would be a boon to the local tourism sector, the National Zoo & Aquarium receives no government funding. Richard and Maureen are lucky in that many of their family members are involved in the business and they are hands-on with every aspect of operations, right down to the details such as food served inhouse, so their precious zoo and aquarium will continue to be privately owned and managed.
An all-inclusive overnight package at Jamala includes two private tours with highly knowledgeable zoo-keepers and guests enjoy dining experiences like the one with Mischka, Jake and their rival hyenas. The guests also have free reign of the zoo and aquarium after the public has left.
The original house where the Tindales lived with their children as they were developing the zoo is now the luxurious uShaka Lodge, and one enormous wall of the lounge room looks in on the aquarium where a leopard shark, tawny nurse shark and a friendly gigantic groper mingle with the other marine life.
"Maureen, the kids and myself were animal lovers from an early age and all six kids have had a major impact on the development of the zoo and Jamala," says Tindale. "Three of them and a son-in-law are still the driving forces behind it. The original aim was to make a contribution to the alarming reduction of big cats in the wild," he says. "That has grown. My daughter Shelley Russell oversees the health and welfare of all the animals, and has been responsible for fundraising and awareness programs for a great number of endangered species."
Whatever accommodation is chosen, guests can be close to some of the many rare species of the world that need our attention, now. At some of the best zoos in the world, you can meet the animals, but Jamala is taking it to an entirely new level, giving people the kind of close encounters that are life-changing not only for the people involved, but hopefully for the animals themselves, and the continuation of their species.