Whangarei's Kingdom Of Zion wildlife park could finally be the major tourist attraction it's had the potential to become now that it has been taken over by an investment company that plans to turn it into a "world-class facility" for breeding and showing big cats.
Bolton Equities, which is based in Remuera, Auckland, but has land holdings in Northland, has bought the park from Earth Crest and the park is being upgraded to meet new rules around animal enclosures.
The Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) ordered the park closed to the public between July 1 and July 31 while the animal enclosures were upgraded to meet new standards. MPI has now extended the closure until August 31, when the park is likely to be renamed Kamo Wildlife Sanctuary, director Martin Weekes said.
The park, in Gray Rd, Kamo, sprung to international fame as home to TV personality The Lion Man, Craig Busch, but while Mr Busch is not involved in the new ownership, he was always welcome to visit the park he started, Mr Weekes said.
In recent years the park has been torn by division involving a bitter dispute between Mr Busch and his mother, Patricia, over ownership before Earth Crest took it over.
In May 2009 - when the park was known as Zion Wildlife Park and run by Zion Wildlife Gardens, owned by Patricia Busch - big-cat handler Dalubuhle Ncube, also known as Clifford Dalu MnCube, or Dalu, was mauled to death by a male tiger named Abu after he and another handler had entered its enclosure to clean it.
In December 2011, Zion Wildlife Gardens was ordered to pay reparations of $60,000 to Dalu's partner after pleading guilty to one charge under Section 6 of the Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992.
Mr Weekes said Bolton Equities - which has Murray and Robyn Bolton, from Remuera; Edward Davie, from Australia; Kenneth MacDonald, from Tauranga; and Phillip Wells, from Auckland; listed as directors - was a private investment company that saw huge potential for the big-cat park.
"The aim is to get it up to the required (MPI) standards and turn the park into a truly world-class big-cat breeding facility that will be open to the public. (Bolton Equities) sees this as a fantastic facility and want to make sure the public have a wonderful place that they can go and visit to see some amazing big cats," he said.
Mr Weekes said the company did not see the park as a major money maker and were investing in it as a "labour of love because they love big cats".
"Craig Busch isn't involved in the new venture - he has his own park in South Africa - but he's welcome to come to the park any time. He's worked very hard to get the place up and running," he said.
Mr Weekes said the park had 34 big cats - lions, tigers (including white tigers), cheetahs and a black leopard - and some of them might go to Mr Busch's park in South Africa while the Kamo park might take some big cats from the South African park.
"People need to realise that this facility is pretty unique anywhere in the world, in terms of the number of big cats and what we are trying to do," he said.
The company hoped to re-open the park as soon as it had been given the all-clear by MPI so that it could finally become the world-class tourist facility it had always promised to be.