As the coffin carrying Dalu Mncube was taken to the hearse, one of four lions in a paddock 50m away stood as if at attention, watching as his former keeper was taken from the park for the last time.
The 26-year-old, killed last Wednesday by 260kg white tiger Abu, was farewelled by about 300 people in a private service at the park in Whangarei yesterday.
The song The Lion Sleeps Tonight was played as Mr Mncube was farewelled at Zion Wildlife Gardens - just metres from the lions he thought of as his children.
Friends and family had gathered to celebrate Mr Mncube's life in a marquee set up at the park specially for the occasion.
African dancers and Zulu farewell songs could be heard from the park's perimeter and a Maori kapa haka group performed.
"We tried to incorporate all the different cultures because Dalu was working with all the different cultures," Mr Mncube's best friend, Tshifhiwa Netshidzivhani, said after the ceremony. "The service was very good actually. I'm quite pleased with what happened today."
Mr Netshidzivhani said those present had taken comfort in sharing their memories of Mr Mncube.
"When I introduced myself I said 'eh, kia ora, bro' because that's what he used to do. Everyone remembered what he stood for and what he achieved - personally and at work as well," he said.
"He was full of fun - always laughing and always making everybody happy and that was the focus as well today - everyone trying to remember Dalu the way he was by remembering things that he used to say and the jokes he used to say."
Mr Mncube's brother Fortune Shumba and the park's owner, Patricia Busch, made special tributes at the service, he said.
The family is now focused on sending the body home - something they expect to cost at least $10,000.
"It was very important to Dalu," Mr Netshidzivhani said.
"He loved to be in New Zealand, but he always wanted to go home at the end and would be very happy if that can be a success." A trust fund has been set up to return the body to South Africa, and another has been set up to raise money for his 7-year-old son in Africa, and his New Zealand wife Sharon Arnott and their 1-year-old daughter Starskea.
Mr Mncube was the oldest of six brothers. His only brother in New Zealand, Fortune Shumba, said after the service that it had been "nice and peaceful".
The family's focus was now on getting Mr Mncube's body home so his mother could grieve properly.
"It really means a lot to her just to see the condition that her son was [in], and letting him rest."
Park operator Glen Holland said the park was assisting with some of the costs.
However, "the costs are enormous and the park cannot do it alone".
* TRUST FUNDS
Donations can be made to:
The Zimbabwean Association of New Zealand's fund to take Mr Mncube's body home. National Bank: 06-0101-0776318-00. Reference: Dalu Fund.
The Dalu Mncube Family Trust - account name: Henderson Reeves Connell Rishworth Trust Account. Details: 03-0497-0286461-02. Reference: Dalu Family Trust.By Beck Vass Email Beck