Skip to main content
In depth

Zoos South Australia’s CEO, Elaine Bensted: Passports and Listening to Lions

Zoos South Australia comprises two zoos: Adelaide Zoo, which is city-based and the smallest of the metropolitan zoos in Australia; and Monarto Zoo, the largest zoo in Australia,  an open-range zoo about an hour’s drive north of Adelaide.

It is a non-profit conservation charity providing conservation education, and supporting and elaine bensted ceo zoos south australia with a wombat called bindiconducting many conservation, breeding and research programmes.  We caught up with Zoos South Australia CEO, Elaine Bensted (right, with Bindi the wombat).

Before the Zoos

Elaine Bensted took up her position as CEO of Zoos South Australia in September 2012. The Zoo was in financial difficulty, struggling with overwhelming debts which, though they had been alleviated to an extent with the support of the State Government and major sponsor Westpac, nevertheless highlighted the urgent need for a competent hand on the helm and a change of direction.

Elaine, a prominent and highly respected member of the Australian business community, with a background in the financial and educational sectors, was a godsend. For her, the appointment was not only the opportunity to develop and build on an iconic South Australian institution, but the fulfilment of a long-held dream. Throughout childhood, Elaine’s plan was to be a vet – but it turned out she was squeamish about the sight of blood.

Her career in finance may have come about,  “…more by accident than design”, but when the troubled Zoo sought a CEO to turn its fortunes around, she was the ideal candidate.

Elaine has a strong career history of leadership in senior roles. She was the previous Chief Executive at TAFE (Technical and Further Education) SA and prior to that held senior roles in both the State and local government. She has extensive experience in the private financial sector, including human resource and training management, operation and project management and running a branch of a bank. Her qualifications include an MBA and Masters in Public Policy and Management.

baby with wallaby Courtney McFarlane © Zoos SA copy
Elaine’s first concern was to improve the numbers of visitors, admissions at the gate being a key source of revenue. 

Sourcing revenue is just a part of the complex process of balancing  the fiscal imperative of attracting visitors through the gates with educational and conservation initiatives and, in a world where the practice of keeping animals in captivity is increasingly controversial, the welfare of the animals themselves. But Elaine seems undaunted, her first impression of the job unchanged: “I literally just saw the job advertised and thought: Wow – what a dream job.”

Falling Asleep Listening to Lions

Since her appointment, things have been improving significantly.

“We had a 5% growth budgeted for Adelaide Zoo and a 15% growth for Monarto Zoo, and both are travelling ahead of budget, so that’s really pleasing to see.”

Elaine puts a lot of focus on working with the media and increasing the marketing effort, as well as putting initiatives in place to improve the visitor experience and make each trip to the zoo unforgettable, fresh and exciting.

“A lot of work goes into giving zoo visitors different experiences when they come – we have a range of funny, quirky things which make each visit more fun.”monarto zoo passport zoos south australia

These range from trails to the ‘passport’ given to each child, which is stamped as they pass through each country-themed section of the zoo, learning about the fauna of that region.

50, 000 school students visit the zoos each year.

“We have a wonderful facility in Adelaide where schoolkids can sleep overnight in tents up on the roof of the education building – they do a night tour of the zoo and fall asleep listening to the lions.”

Or perhaps they don’t fall asleep: “They often look somewhat exhausted when they leave the next day. So do the teachers!”

She is refreshingly honest about the magnitude of the task she faces. Zoos South Australia is an independent, members-based charity, not, unlike other zoos in Australia, a government entity, so the funding received from the government is limited. When asked what revenue streams there are, besides gate admissions, she said: “Not as many as I’d like!”

There are just over 32, 000 members who pay an annual membership fee; there are animal ‘adoptions’; and Elaine is continually and increasingly exploring corporate sponsorship; an area where she intends tozoos south australia logo cultivate growth.

“So I’ll ask for money from anywhere I can, really.”

Three Lions, Ten Hectares Equals Visitors

Elaine is initiating a full planning process for Zoos South Australia looking at which animals should be held at Adelaide and Monarto respectively.

“It’s forcing us to ask the hard questions – should we keep large animals at Adelaide, which is quite a small zoo, while Monsarto is very large?”

lioness with cub at monarto zoo australia

There are three lions at Adelaide Zoo. At Monarto, the lion exhibit is larger than the whole of Adelaide Zoo. The pride of lions at Monarto have ten hectares of space in which to roam freely. From a welfare perspective, should Zoos South Australia countenance the keeping of lions at Adelaide?

monarto zoo logoBut lions bring visitors, and that’s the delicate balance that has to be considered – animal welfare versus exhibits that draw the visitors. “Sometimes those two things don’t naturally tie together.”

Like many zoos, Zoos South Australia has put together a tool which assesses each species in order to establish what function it serves as part of the collection: is it part of a breeding programme? Is it used for educational purposes? 

“If the tool shows there isn’t a clearly defined function, then we really have to question ourselves.” She adds: “We’re in the really early stages of mapping both zoos and our collection plan.”

tasmanian devil at monarto zoo south australia

Conservation,  Swamp Tortoises and Pandas

Both local and global conservation initiatives are in place. The Zoos are part of the Tasmanian Devil breeding programme (above). Monato Zoo has been particularly successful in breeding Tasmanian Devils, some of which have now been released onto an island off Tasmania.

They also work with a range of local species that are critically endangered; Western Swamp Tortoisesadelaide zoo logo (below) and Orange Belly Parrots are two examples, and are involved in some international conservation work.

Even in the field of conservation, Elaine is occupied in capitalising on the Zoos’ unique selling points.

The Zoos possess the only giant pandas in the Southern Hemisphere – a definite publicity asset, meaning a financial asset, especially if they go on to breed successfully, something it is hoped might happen next year. This is despite the fact that their acquisition prior to Elaine’s appointment was one of the factors contributing to the Zoo’s financial troubles.

baby western swamp tortoises at adelaide zoo

The Zoos are contributing to the Giant Panda research programme, and, as they do some breeding of white rhinos, also doing a lot of work with the Sarah Conservancy in Kenya.

There are a range of habitat restoration programmes. Monarto Zoo is spread over more than 1000 hectares, and much is being done – weed removal; feral control; replanting and regeneration – to restore the habitat back to its natural state.

This is all hand-in-hand with educational initiatives.

The Future and the Connection with nature

Elaine envisages that zoos will increasingly be planned on the open-range model, like Monarto. “We’re really lucky to have the facilities… When people go to Monarto they do see animals in what is a closer replication of their natural environment.”

The space also allows mixed exhibits in large open plains – a herd of giraffes can run free with eland and zebra.  “It is a much nicer feel for visitors, and I think more and more it will be the expectation of our visitors.”

Elaine’s background in education gives her a clear insight into the educational function and potential of zoos now and in the future. She says that the educational focus is of paramount importance: more and more children are living in apartments and smaller houses without access to large outdoor spaces.  This, combined with an increasing tendency in parents towards risk-aversion – kids aren’t allowed to run out and play at will – often means children these days aren’t connecting with nature in the same way that previous generations did.

“And I think zoos do provide that really strong linkage to give all people, but particularly children, the opportunity to learn about animals from their own back yard but also animals from around the world and what they might mean and how they can change their behaviour to better support species from across the whole globe.”

All images and video kind courtesy and copyright Zoos South Australia

Search for something

More from this author

Related content

Your web browser is out of date. Update your browser for more security, speed and the best experience on this site.

Find out how to update