A small soft toy tiger was left at the gates of Zion Wildlife Gardens early yesterday - the first of several tributes left for big-cat keeper Dalu Mncube.

Park worker Bridgette Henare-Winiata arrived at the gates crying at the loss of a treasured colleague known for his warm humour and big smile.

"These flowers are from my girls," she said. "This toy was given to my daughter on 17 May and she wanted to give it back to her Uncle Dalu."

Ms Henare-Winiata was led from the gates by another woman.

They returned to the park's office where staff - most of whom saw the tiger attack that killed Mr Mncube on Wednesday - gathered throughout the day while they were interviewed by police, the Department of Labour and the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry investigators.

Whangarei area police commander Inspector Paul Dimery said officers were still getting witness accounts to find out what had happened.

Mr Mncube's colleagues put themselves at risk as they desperately tried to rescue their most experienced keeper.

"We're aware that a fire extinguisher was used," Mr Dimery said. "We're aware of a stick being used and I'm aware of firearms being used."

Mr Dimery said he believed staff had acted according to protocol.

He said Mr Mncube died from "severe trauma" inflicted by the park's biggest white tiger, 260kg Abu.

Abu was shot an unknown number of times with a shotgun and a .308 rifle after the attack.

Mr Dimery said he believed shooting the tiger was the "correct call".

"They had to shoot the tiger so they could get to the deceased and at that stage they didn't know if he was deceased," he said. "Preliminary investigations is that everyone followed the emergency procedures. Clearly one of those things is to remove any person that's been injured.

"They've managed to do that - at some risk I would suggest."

Mr Mncube's sister-in-law Roszanna Arnott told TV3 her children saw the news on television and "knew it was their Uncle Dalu".

Ms Arnott said Mr Mncube had a saying: "You have to run as fast as a cheetah to work with the lions ... and he reckoned he could."

He would not have blamed the animal and would not have wanted it shot.

Those visiting the park said they were devastated, not just by the loss of Mr Mncube, but by the loss of Abu.

Neo Phamotse said he had known Mr Mncube for about three years.

"It's a very sad loss. I think the lions will feel like they've lost their father."

Park staff were yesterday supporting Mr Mncube's wife and 1-year-old daughter.

"The staff are extremely upset," the park's security and staff operations manager, Barry Nalder, said. "He was a really, really popular man."

Mr Nalder said the park's website had received about 47,000 hits.

"The family are grateful for all the condolences extended to them, but ... they're still in shock."

Park operations manager Glen Holland said the attack happened very quickly and staff decided within one minute to get a firearm which they had available. He defended the decision to shoot Abu. "There was no stopping that animal until the bullet was used."