Future of Natureland again in doubt

The future of Nelson's Natureland zoo is once more on the brink, as its parent struggles to survive the aftermath of the Canterbury earthquakes and fewer people visit.

"The success of Natureland is tied to Orana Park and the mothership is not in good shape," Orana Wildlife Trust chief executive Lynn Anderson told the Nelson Mail.

The Christchurch-based Orana Wildlife Trust trust came to Natureland's rescue in 2008 after the Nelson City Council sparked public outrage when it announced it planned to close the ailing zoo. The move came on advice from former Natureland operator the Abel Tasman Gateway Trust that it was struggling financially and could not continue to run the zoo on the council-owned reserve.

A groundswell of public support helped save Natureland, and the same is needed now if it is to grow and survive, management says.

By the end of May visitors to Natureland, made up mainly of locals, were down 14 per cent on the previous year.

"We are of the view that perhaps now that the hype has gone, perhaps the community is taking for granted it will always be there, but this exposes Orana Park to incurring losses we can't sustain. The community can't afford to be complacent because Natureland's future rests on people visiting," Ms Anderson said.

Natureland operations manager Gail Sutton said it had potential for a huge future with its education and conservation programmes but if Nelson did not support it, then she was not sure. Staff had taken on more administration to lighten the load on Orana Park, which had reduced staff. Natureland had also cut its budget and reverted to doing maintenance in-house but no staff cuts were planned at this point.

Ms Anderson said the trust's operation of Orana Park, and ultimately Natureland, had been propped up by a major cost-cutting exercise, including the loss of 10 fulltime equivalent jobs through resignation and redundancy, and cuts to various operations.

Orana Park's annual $2.5 million operating cost has been cut by $600,000 to cope with 20 to 40 per cent fewer numbers through the gate.

"We are down by thousands. In January, we might see 18,000 through the gate, and May about 5000, but that's 20 per cent down this year."

Ms Anderson said typically 45 per cent of the park's visitors were people from elsewhere around New Zealand and overseas, but Christchurch is "not an attractive place to visit" right now and there is a serious accommodation shortage.

The big earthquakes earlier this month set back the recovery, but Orana did not plan to pull back from Natureland at the moment. However, it was important to have discussions with the council, Ms Anderson said.

The city council discussed Natureland in the public-excluded session of a recent council meeting. Council parks and facilities manager Paul McArthur said yesterday the trust advised the council of its lower capacity to deliver services and undertake various improvements according to its funding agreement.

The council agreed in 2008 to provide the wildlife trust with the Natureland site in Tahunanui for 20 years and the trust would pay an annual rental of $10. Nelson ratepayers contributed $200,000 in the first year, $175,000 in the second year, $150,000 in the third year, and no less than that in following years. The council also set aside $160,000 in the first year for essential renewals and improvements. Mr McArthur said not all of that amount had been used.

Ms Sutton said it was not expected that Natureland would develop any new exhibits over the next couple of years. "We are in a holding pattern."

A new year for annual membership to Natureland starts tomorrow which allows members to visit as often as they like until June 2012.

The Nelson Mail