On the crisp November day, laden with waterproof jacket and wellies, I jumped on the Train from London, ready for my day out in Kent. I was greeted at the Wildlife Heritage Foundationby Simon, who has volunteered at the park for years and now is taking a years sabbatical, from his job at American Express, to work there full-time.
I must admit, I was a little hesitant, because Ive never been a huge fan of animals in cages. But Simon was clearly an avid conservationist and he immediately put my mind at rest explaining the purpose behind the centre.
Many of the worlds cats are extremely endangered in the wild, he explained, and the situation is so dire that there are two essential things that need to be done. Firstly we need to protect and restore their natural habitats working with the local communities. Secondly, we need a number of them in captivity; so that when the natural habitats are restored there will still be some animals that can be released.
It is also not enough to just save a couple of animals in captivity, like Noahs Ark, two lions, two tigers, two leopards. To have a healthy population you need to have genetic diversity and hence need a good number of each species.
Simon explained that the Foundation is working with lots of other charities and NGOs to help protect and restore the natural habitats of many cats in the wild, but one exciting one is coming up. President Putin of Russia is apparently a big fan of big cats! He has set up a human free reserve in the Russian Far East, close to Vladivostok where the Amur Leopard is planned to be released.
The Amur leopard is the rarest in the world, with only around 30 left in the wild. However here in Kent I met four: Hogar, Xizi, Artur and Argun! The Foundation has raised two cubs to adulthood who are now continuing the breeding programme in as far flung places such as Japan. The release site is currently being established in Russian and there are plans to start releasing leopards into the wild in the next few years. This is very exciting and really brought home what the Foundation is working to achieve.
Seeing the 40 cats at the Foundation was amazing. They ranged from the kitten sized Rusty Spotted Cats from Sri Lanka to the 12 foot tall Amur Tigers also from Russia. Ares the Jaguar was amazing to see up close, he was so powerful and sleek.
He is at WHF to mate with Athena, a female Black jaguar, although he doesnt seem to have got the idea of what to do with her yet and was humping the ground when I visited him!
I had two main highlights from the day. Firstly, getting to feed a tiger: I was given a bucket of chicken wings, and one by one I held them at one end, poking the other through the enclosure mesh. Nias the eight year old Sumatran tiger gently took the chicken from me and swallowed it down almost in one!
Secondly it was meeting Nias two three month old cubs, Kubu and Toba. They were absolutely adorable, bounding around following mum, Puna and playing with twigs and pieces of wood.
I look forward to following the Wildlife Heritage Foundations progress and cant wait to hear how the Amur leopards release goes.
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