Once the city of Belogorsk, Ukraine, was home to a Soviet military base full of satellite equipment and powerful computers. But instead of the sound of marching boots, today local residents hear the proud roars of African lions.
Oleg Zubkov, a Ukrainian entrepreneur with a military background, has turned the Cold War relic into a hot tourist attraction; an African savannah on the Crimean Peninsula, a unique attraction in Eastern Europe.
Now called Taigan Safari Park, the base’s tenants currently include monkeys, miniature zebras, parrots, and several lions in a fierce change from its Red Army past.
Zubkov has opened several zoos across the Crimea, but this project is his most ambitious.
“This has become my lifestyle. I guess you’ve got to have a military background and be a little bit crazy to take on a hobby like this,” Zubkov told RT. “And, of course, to love animals. My main aim? I guess to learn to communicate with the animals. And it seems to be working out just fine.”
Visitors and locals now have the opportunity to see firsthand what was they once had to travel to Africa to witness; Lions in the savannah.
“I thought that a lion safari park would work very well in the Crimean environment,” Zubkov said, “And it did. Today, we have 54 lions living in our park, 30 on the range and 24 in cages. It gives a great opportunity for scientific studies.”
Zubkov spent six years dealing with the Ukrainian government and investors to purchase the former military base, fusing a tourist interest in relics of the Soviet past with a taste for exotic adventure, turning it into what is now being called the “New Pearl of the Crimea”.
Once Zubkov finally obtained the 36 hectares of land, he transformed it into a real walk on the wild side.
Today, what used to be the boiler-room is now living quarters for a giraffe. Monkeys occupy what used to be the soldier’s barracks. The site even boasts a hotel for visitors to enjoy a round-the-clock safari experience. Zubkov and regional officials hope that one day the site will even be able to compete with Yalta, the area’s most popular destination for tourists in the Crimea.
Even the old nuclear bomb shelter has found a new lease on life with its thick-walled construction.
“The anti-nuclear bomb shelter…had two sets of armored doors. They could have withstood a hit by a 150-kiloton bomb. They’re still in great condition. A reserve command point was located here when it was a military base, now we have remodeled it into a karaoke room. You can sing here until dawn, and nobody will hear you from behind these walls,” Zubkov told RT.
After the official opening of Taigan park in April, all the local residents of Belogorsk were invited on a free tour to quell local unease about their new neighbors. After all, it’s not every day you’re asked to share your backyard with a pride of African lions.
“Never before have we had such exclusive access to lions in this part of the world. We have many difficulties, but we’re fighting them. Its only our first year, the park has been open for three months now.”
Of the difficulties mentioned, however, enthusiastic visitors and tourists do not appear to be one of them.