Bringing the safari to South Australia

Peter is shining light on the plight of the rhinos.

Peter Clark

From butterflies and crocodiles to rhinos and hyenas, Peter Clark’s career spanning nearly 50 years has involved advocating for and working with some of the rarest animals in the world. He’s been bitten by a crocodile, had insects named after him and is now working on bringing the African safari experience to South Australia. Monarto Safari Park is embarking on a $50 million project called Wild Africa, which will see an expansion of 550 hectares, increased animal population, an 80 room hotel and glamping style accommodation along with 20 kilometres of safari track.

"Their horns are worth a lot of money even though they're just keratin, they don't offer any therapeutical or other benefits, they're just fingernails."Peter Clark

The Wild Africa precinct is already underway, with the project expected to be completed sometime in 2022. The development will allow Monarto to continue its work with the Australian Rhino Project, whose mission is to bring African rhinos to Australia to establish an “insurance population” to ensure their survival. The rhino population is under threat because of the black market value of their horns.

Their horns are worth a lot of money even though they're just keratin, they don't offer any therapeutical or other benefits, they're just fingernails. But they're worth up to about 70,000 US dollars a kilogram on the black market, which is more than cocaine," said Peter.  

“We want to not only support counter-poaching activities in Africa, but we also want to build up a reasonable-sized insurance population of rhinos in Australia and New Zealand. That's why we started working with the Australian Rhino Project, a group of individuals who are very interested in the same thing.”

Peter Clark

The target is to build Monarto’s rhino population to 30-40 white rhinos and ten black rhinos, and Wild Africa is being built to accommodate this. Getting them here is an expensive exercise. Australia’s strict biosecurity laws require quarantining the animals in New Zealand before moving them to a quarantine facility at Monarto.

As one of his favourite animals at the zoo, Peter is passionate about rhino's survival.

“They’re big, and I guess dinosaur-like and helpless. They are a reminder of the megafauna of the past and I think losing them would be very, very sad. It'd be like losing elephants to me, I can't imagine our children not being able to see them,” he said.

Peter grew up in Adelaide, attending St Peter’s College before studying Agriculture at Roseworthy college in 1970, sparking a keen interest in entomology. Roseworthy was an all-boys college at the time, and he describes himself as a young and naïve boy from Adelaide who quickly adjusted to the college lifestyle.

“There was a lot of college spirit there because everybody followed sports and lived together. There were 11 pubs around Roseworthy between Gawler and surrounds. So it was an interesting time,” he said.

Following his degree, Peter’s first job was with the Australian Government as an Agricultural Advisor based in Papua New Guinea. It wasn’t long before his fascination with insects steered him in a different direction.

“Even though I went to New Guinea with the Australian government as an agricultural advisor, I got really involved with insects because New Guinea is mecca for insects. The biggest insects, the biggest butterflies, the longest stick insect, the biggest beetles – so I soon got into collecting them,” he said.

Peter would visit village communities, advising on crops like coffee, cocoa and rice, and he would use these trips to collect insects.

After a period in crocodile farming, and yes, he was bitten once after a failed attempt to get a band around its mouth, it was butterflies that captured his attention. His aim was to create butterfly farms that could provide locals with an alternative source of income.

"It was one alternative to village people having to chop down their forests. The idea, as far-fetched as it might seem, was to set up a handful of businesses that could compete with the revenue that logging gave to people in the village.

The result was an Insect Farming and Trading Agency that operated for 25 years with approximately 2,000 villagers working for them across the country in the different provinces.

“We would keep up to 300,000 insects in stock which we marketed to dealers overseas. New Guinea insects were highly collectible and top of the list were the Birdwing butterflies. These are absolutely magnificent. The biggest I measured in the wild was 33 centimetres across,” he said.

Peter also started working with wildlife and protected species, which led to a partnership with the University of Technology in Lae to set up a zoo called the Rainforest Habitat.

After 30 years in Papua New Guinea, Peter finally returned to Adelaide in 2003 to take up a position as the first curator at Monarto, before becoming the Director, a position created a few years ago when the zoo began to expand rapidly.

"Monarto is growing pretty quickly. It's the largest area zoo in Australasia. In fact, every other zoo in Australia and New Zealand fits into Monarto with room to spare."

More recently the zoo experienced the challenges of COVID-19 and forced closures.

“Like everybody, we struggled. We tried to keep as many people as we could but we probably had to lay off half our front-of-house people for a while. Job keeper helped a lot, but we still had animals to look after. The State Government has been really supportive, so has the Federal Government. Since we've reopened again, we've also had tremendous support from the public. It has all made a difference.”

Story by Renee Capps
Photos by Meaghan Coles

Tagged in lumen summer 2020, lumen