DARWIN - Exotic and endangered animals from an abandoned wildlife sanctuary were sold to a hunting safari in the Northern Territory, it has been revealed.
Some 300 animals, including herds of critically endangered African scimitar horned oryx and addax, were sent to Mary River Australian Safaris following two separate legal disputes.
The scimitar horned oryx is extinct in the wild, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
The deal had been kept quiet until the accidental shooting of a pygmy hippopotamus in the Douglas Daly region, some 200km south of Darwin, last week raised questions about the whereabouts of Tipperary Wildlife Sanctuary's herbivorous animals.
Nico Courtney, 27, was out spotlight hunting with mates on November 12 when he shot what he thought was a pig, but was, in fact, a hippopotamus.
Speculation grew that many of the animals escaped when the open-plains zoo was sold in 2004, and had survived for several years in the NT outback without the help of humans.
But the fantasy of a mini African menagerie wandering freely in the Top End could not be further from the truth.
Warren Anderson, a millionaire property developer who established Tipperary Sanctuary in 1986, said that the NT government was to blame for the sanctuary's demise.
"That Labor government up there destroyed that wildlife park and you can lay the blame for the predicament these animals are in squarely on their shoulders," he said.
Mr Anderson was accused of animal neglect for failing to adequately feed two of his rhinoceroses in 2003 and subsequently arrested at gunpoint, but was later exonerated.
He eventually decided to sell the animals and the property.
At its prime, Tipperary was home to about 2,000 animals from Africa, India and Mongolia.
Mareeba Wild Animal Park, in far north Queensland, was to take most of the animals.
However, the deal hit difficulties when the Mareeba sanctuary was raided in March 2004 by the Australian Federal Police and the RSPCA.
The then owner of Mareeba, David Gill, fled back to the UK and sold about 300 of the animals to Mary River Australian Safaris.
A spokesman for the Australasian Regional Association of Zoological Parks and Aquaria (ARAZPA) told AAP some of the more crowd-attracting animals were eventually transferred to Mareeba.
A source, who did not wish to be identified, said the rest of the animals, not including any of an endangered species, were destroyed.
"Otherwise they just would have been left there (at Tipperary) to starve to death," the source told AAP.
Kevin Gleeson, the owner of Mary River Australian Safaris, said he was able to save some of the animals by buying them.
"I feel personally that most people turned their backs on the animals," he told AAP.
Mr Gleeson said the scimitar horned oryx herd had doubled in size since being transferred to his property, about 300km south of Darwin, and that none had been taken as trophies to date.
"I've got to be able to afford to feed and keep that animal, so sustainability is the key.
"Let me get those animals to a breeding stage where I have surplus, and then we will allow the hunters to take the surplus - the older animals who are no longer breeding - and then I can maintain the herd forever.
"If you want to help an animal species survive today you've got to give it a value."
He said hunters were known conservationists.
"If you've got an endangered animal and you haven't got any management in place for that animal - then, yes, it is criminal to shoot it."