Celebrating 35 years: From left, co-owner Paul Wilson, his son Richard and general manager Paul Kavanagh


As it ticked over 35 years last week, Queenstown’s Kiwi Birdlife Park shared a lot in common with the endangered species it supports — both are in the business of survival.

In 2019, with visitor numbers totalling 55,000-odd, co-owner Paul Wilson says for the first time they turned away some guests ‘‘as it was so packed in here and staff were stressing out’’.

Come Covid-19 last year, when borders closed, a business that had 95% overseas visitation was on life support.

Though the wage subsidy helped, the lifeline was $495,000 from the government’s wildlife institutions relief fund.

‘‘If we hadn’t got that, we would have probably had to lay staff off, and we couldn’t have continued all our breeding programmes,’’ Wilson says.

In 2000, he and his wife Sandra took over the business from his late parents Noeleen and Dick, who’d set up on a disused tip below the Skyline gondola — the council of the time thought they were ‘‘crazy’’, their son recalls.

Thirty-five years later, it’s still the only natives-only, family-owned wildlife park in New Zealand.

‘‘I just can’t stress enough how supportive for conservation the Wilson family have been over that time,’’ says general manager Paul Kavanagh, who joined almost 12 years ago.

‘‘Obviously we don’t have the resources of bigger zoos, but we put those resources where we want.’’

Despite testing times, the park last year opened a $1 million state-of-the-art kiwi house at the far end of the park to avoid the noise of Skyline’s pending redevelopment — Skyline assisted with funding.

Business-wise, of course, the park now has to rely on Kiwis, of the non-feathered sort, only.

‘‘We’ve been pleasantly surprised by numbers, but we’ve had to discount a lot,’’ Kavanagh says.

Locals’ support, in particular, has been valued — to encourage them, the park had donation-only entry last June, while it also has a locals’ pass.

This year also marks 20 years since the park introduced the country’s first free-flight bird show.

‘‘A really important part of what we do is helping to educate and get people excited about conservation’’.

Wilson, who notes planting 20,000-odd native trees has been good for climate change, still also does voluntary work for Department of Conservation — as recently as last week, in Milford.

At his Glenorchy property, he’s also got into regenerative farming — ‘‘it will be really great for people to come up and see what we’re doing’’.

Meanwhile, he and Sandra have also had to cope with family tragedy over the years.

Son Richard, who now works for the park, has battled cancer, and daughter Sophie took her life.

As a result, the family’s supported mental health initiatives at Wakatipu High to the tune of about $20,000.

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Kiwi Birdlife Park’s trialling ‘pancakes at the park’ tomorrow and the following Sunday from 9.30am till noon to support its conservation efforts.

With no entrance fee required, anyone can dine on a $6 pancake at the cafe to the sound of bird song and the sight of wildlife and bees.