In 2006 Ukrainian businessman Oleg Zubkov managed to finally convince the authorities to let him turn the ruins of an abandoned military base into an open-air zoo and reserve for lions and tigers. Zubkov ponied up his own cash for the project, instead of buying a submarine or a sports team, like many of his oligarch peers do.
Six years later, 32 hectares of temperate prairie lands of inner Crimea’s Belogorsk province became home to more the 50 lions and tigers, plus hundreds of bird, reptile and mammal species housed in the adjacent zoo, and were ready to welcome their first visitors.
Even more remarkable than the efficiency with which a project of this scale was completed – especially by post-Soviet standards – was the fact that Zubkov personally traveled across many countries, visiting underfunded or mismanaged zoos and circuses, rescuing ill and maltreated animals and bringing them to Taigan for care and rehabilitation. Local tour guides love to tell stories of Zubkov’s special connection with his animal kingdom. They describe lion prides of the reserve accepting him as one of their own, playing and snuggling up with him like house cats.
Today Taigan is the largest reserve of its kind in Europe, and is unlikely to give up the top spot any time soon. This is due to the park’s another remarkable feature: lions and tigers kept here have been reproducing like bunny rabbits. Just days before my visit Taigan welcomed four tiger cubs. The play pen alone has more than half a dozen big cats under a year old. They frolic with one another, happily pose for photos with visitors (expect a smelly lick of the face or a bit of a nibble on your outfit!), and sometimes they get so attached to their new human mates that they grab onto pant legs or crawl into handbags and refuse to vacate them just so that they can keep playing some more.
One of the most fun aspects of Taigan is that you can pet and feed the animals appropriate snacks, which are sold throughout the park. Understandably, most creatures are very people-friendly. Giraffes take orange slices right out of your hand. Lamas photobomb you till you share your snack, whether it’s an apple or ice cream. Lemur-possum-like creatures prefer crackers, and the monkeys… just be careful about those sticky-fingered beasts. Even the giant bears have gotten the cute and cuddly routine down pat when asking for treats.
But it’s the peacocks who really rule this land. These gorgeous but obnoxious birds freely roam around the zoo, screeching and scaring visitors and animal residents alike, just for fun. One particularly mean-spirited ‘cock really enjoyed terrorizing the one year-old giraffe, Zanzibar, every time the kid would get close enough for a treat from the zoo’s guests. It took three adults and a broom to chase away the feathery assailant, just so that baby Zanzibar could eat in peace.
Taigan is a gorgeous, unforgettable experience. It is absolutely worth a full-day trip. You need at least a good five hours to enjoy it properly: two for the zoo part, two to roam all over the lion reserve on elevated walkways and watch these majestic animals play, fight and laze around in their near-natural habitat, and an hour for photos, cafés and the Ferris Wheel, which lets you take in miles and miles of the countryside. Just keep your eyes on your bags when you are visiting the lion cubs – or if you get anywhere near the monkeys.