Orana Wildlife Park at McLeans Island turned 40 on Sunday. Bridget Rutherford looks back on the park’s history.

It was September 25, 1976.

The All Blacks toured South Africa, defying a sporting embargo, John Walker won Olympic gold in the 1500m and Australasia's first drive-through lion enclosure opened.

Mum, dad and the kids could jump in the car and drive through Orana Wildlife Park's lion enclosure to get an up close and personal look at the big cats and watch them being fed.

But the experience was scrapped in 1995 due to health and safety reasons.

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The big cats developed a taste for wing mirrors and bumpers, and some liked jumping on the roofs of cars.

Lions once roamed around the parked cars at Orana Wildlife Park. Photo / Christchurch Star
Lions once roamed around the parked cars at Orana Wildlife Park. Photo / Christchurch Star

Visitors began tempting fate, leaning out of their car windows to take photos, with one family stopping their car and attempting to have a picnic on the grass in the enclosure.

Fast-forward 40 years, however, and Orana Wildlife Park still offers an up close and personal lion experience in the safety of a lion-proof cage on the back of a 4WD vehicle.

A lot has changed over the years and staff will look back on that as they mark the park's 40th birthday on Sunday.

The park was the dream of the South Island Zoological Society, formed with the intention of building a major wildlife park in Christchurch.

However, it took six years to plan, fundraise and build it.

What started as a stony riverbed was transformed by volunteers, initially with hand tools before they could buy secondhand equipment, into a wildlife park.

On September 10, 1976, the park's first animals arrived from Australia.

They included 18 lions, six of which were cubs, two tiger cubs, two donkeys, two camels, two water buffalo and two Shetland ponies.

Nowadays the park, which sits on 80ha of McLeans Island land, has about 400 animals representing 70 species.

Visitors can go and see Kidogo, the 23-year-old porcupine, Stumpy the rhino, or Jane the cockatoo - the park's longest resident.

Records show she came from Adelaide Zoo in 1978 and is about 40 years old.

Orana Park - its original name - officially opened its gates to the public on September 25, 1976, at 10am.

By 2pm, a queue of cars stretched 7km along McLeans Island Rd waiting to get in - that's how popular it was.

Two years later, in 1978, the spider monkey island was built - they were the park's first primates.

However, last year it welcomed a different, larger primate species - the country's first gorillas.

Western lowland gorillas Fataki, Fuzu and Mahali arrived at Orana last July from their birth place of Taronga Zoo in Sydney.

Chief executive Lynn Anderson said the park raised 100 per cent of the funds needed to build the $6 million centre and bring the primates to the park.

"There is no doubt the Giant Ape Centre is the most ambitious and greatest development in the park's history, ever," she said.

The centre was built with the intention of a second species of primate to come to the park, which will become reality next year when an orangutan arrives.

Ms Anderson has been working at the park for 20 years. She arrived about nine months after the original drive-through lion encounter closed, but she remembers it fondly.

She introduced the current 4WD caged lion encounter in 1999.

"The idea came from being a child and sitting in the back seat with mum and dad and looking at the keeper in the cage feeding the lions and I thought, it would be so cool and exciting to be inside that cage with the keeper."

It is one of the most popular experiences at the park, along with feeding the three giraffes, she said.

The park has two houses on site with staff living in them to supervise at night time, she said.

This is one of the three gorillas that arrived at Orana Wildlife Park last year. Photo / Christchurch Star
This is one of the three gorillas that arrived at Orana Wildlife Park last year. Photo / Christchurch Star

But sometimes, it is the visitors they need to look out for.

"I once looked out the window across the office and saw someone jumping in the otter pool inside the enclosure - this was many years ago - he had also taken off most of his clothes. He was requested to get out immediately and he did get out. I couldn't quite believe my eyes."

But when it comes to health and safety for the 45 staff working at the park, for dangerous animals, there is a "hands-off" policy, she said.

"We actually promote natural behaviour. We want our gorillas to behave as gorillas would in the wild. It's same for our lions."

The park is owned and operated by Orana Wildlife Trust, which is a charitable trust.

It is not cheap to run and it relies on grants, community support and donations to keep running, Ms Anderson said.

The revenue from entry fees goes straight back into the park's day-to-day running and maintenance, while anything extra goes into new developments.

A notable supporter of the park was philanthropist and Mainfreight founder Neil Graham, who passed away last year.

"Neil was very committed to funding things that people don't like to fund. He wanted to help us improve our roads, signage and toilets."

Ms Anderson said bringing a giraffe over from Australia costs about $50,000 just for transport. And each year it costs $225,000 to feed all of the animals.

The meat for the lions is provided by three different companies, while nearby Raeward Fresh supplies the fruit and vegetables for the other animals.

It costs $40,000 a year to feed the three gorillas - $800 a week in fresh produce. Eggs are also delivered weekly, Ms Anderson said.

"Meerkats are very partial to a hard boiled egg."

Ms Anderson said a difficult time was when the September 2010 and February 2011 earthquakes hit, although it did not cause significant damage.

After that the park was battered by two floods and three snow storms. It had to close for about 40 days on nine separate occasions.

"In an earthquake, the lions would jump up and the primates would call and get upset. But within a short period it got to the point that a lion would carry on sleeping without batting an eyelid."

Native fauna manager Alyssa Salton has worked at the park for 13 years, starting as a volunteer.

Now she is part of the team that carries out Orana's conservation work.

A breed-for-release programme started at the park in 2000. The team breeds native New Zealand birds to be released into the wild, including kiwi, the blue duck and brown teal.

Over her time at the park, Ms Salton said there had been a lot of change, but one of the largest for her was the introduction of the kea enclosure, which opened in 2009.

Ms Salton said her favourite part of the job is seeing the kiwi eggs hatch.

The kiwi will have an even better home in the future as the park begins building its New Zealand Kiwi Centre, which will showcase the work the park does in breeding our national bird.

Ms Anderson said Orana Wildlife Park aimed to continue being a "world class zoo" over the next 40 years, which entertained and educated.

"It's like a canvas we keep adding to."