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Get up close to big cats at the Big Cat Sanctuary

PUBLISHED: 10:13 04 June 2018 | UPDATED: 17:07 04 June 2018

Viktoria the puma waiting to pounce (photo: Manu Palomeque)

Viktoria the puma waiting to pounce (photo: Manu Palomeque)

Manu Palomeque 07977074797

Deep in the darkest Kentish Weald lies the Big Cat Sanctuary where, if you dare, you can get up close to lions, tigers, jaguars and panthers

It’s said there are few more impressive sights than that of a lion silhouetted on the horizon, nor sounds more spine-chilling than its majestic roar as night falls on the East African savannah.

I don’t hear any roaring when I visit the Big Cat Sanctuary deep in the Kent Weald, but literally one second beyond the visitor’s centre, I’m greeted by a spectacle I’ll never forget.

It’s an African lion in all his majestic glory, sitting just feet away on a platform, regal and detached, lord of all he surveys.

Round the corner, there’s another one. The keepers are preparing to feed the lions in the neighbouring enclosure, and he can smell what’s on the menu. He’s anticipating his meal and showing it, impatient for a piece of the action.

At one point he bounds towards the fencing, and I try to imagine the terror I’d feel, confronted by such a powerful beast in the wild. No matter how many times you’ve seen the pictures in a book, or watched the TV documentaries, nothing beats seeing these marvellous creatures in the skin.

Panther on the prowl (photo: Manu Palomeque)Panther on the prowl (photo: Manu Palomeque)

Lions have huge heads and splendid manes, but relatively slender, though still muscular bodies. Tigers just look like balls of muscle. I’ve watched them prowling up and down at London Zoo, but there it’s from the other side of a glass pane.

At the Big Cat Sanctuary, when you go in the tiger sheds, you are almost near enough to breathe the same air. A yellow line keeps you a foot or so back, but you are close enough to feel a ripple of excitement.

Most of the big cats here are what Tanith Brown, the charity’s press and PR officer calls apex predators, at the top of the food chain; even the handlers do not access the enclosures with them.

Even so the Sanctuary does offer various big cat experiences which, in the company of the keeper, enable you to get up close and personal with some of the animals, and even to hand feed a big cat.

“The cats are ambassadors for their cousins in the world, and are part of our education programme, raising awareness of the plight of the world’s big cats.” explains Tanith.

Sofia the majestic jaguar (photo: Manu Palomeque)Sofia the majestic jaguar (photo: Manu Palomeque)

Big cats had been at the 32 acre (13ha) site in Smarden for many years even before Big Cat Sanctuary founder Peter Sampson acquired the land in 2000 as a sister site to the Sampson family’s Paradise Wildlife Park in Hertfordshire, which they operate as a more conventional family zoo attraction.

“Our four main motivational pillars here are welfare, conservation, education and breeding,” says Tanith.

With around 50 big and small cats from across 15 different species, ranging from lions, leopards, jaguars, tigers and cheetahs to the European lynx and the Rusty Spotted Cat, the smallest wild cat, the Sanctuary not only has the most diverse feline collection in Britain, it also has some of the most endangered.

As well as providing retirement homes for older cats, the Sanctuary participates in the world’s most important programmes, like the European Endangered Species Breeding Programme.

Among their breeding successes include the Amur leopard, the world’s most endangered big cat, with fewer than 45 remaining in the wild globally, as well as Sumatran tigers, Amur tigers and Pallus cats.

Two African lions relax in the sun (photo: Manu Palomeque)Two African lions relax in the sun (photo: Manu Palomeque)

The really tragic thing, however, as you look around this wonderful place is that it is difficult to spot a single species here that isn’t facing a fight for survival, almost entirely due to the activities of humankind, via poaching, the contracting of their habitat ranges either through farming or urban development, or as the collateral victims of warfare between nations.

This is not simply the result of human behaviour in the last hundred years as lions, after all, were once found in Europe, but the pressures on big cats have certainly accelerated even within the last 25 years.

“They will continue to, until people learn to co-exist with these wild animals in order to maintain a balanced natural environment,” says Tanith.

“And the extra pressures of human population growth on developing countries are also huge. But we are involved with many conservation projects to help them, including in Costa Rica right now where there is a programme to help build up a sustainable jaguar population.”

As a registered UK charity, there is no support from central government for the Sanctuary, which is reliant on donations and money raised through its educational and visitor experiences.

The Big Cat Sanctuary (photo: Manu Palomeque)The Big Cat Sanctuary (photo: Manu Palomeque)

As well as hosting school visitors, the Sanctuary offers several Big Cat experiences, including overnight stays in 16 specially built lodges, as well as Ranger For A Day and Cheetah Experiences, and photographic workshops.

Participants in the adoptions schemes which help fund cat husbandry are able to visit once a year on special Supporters’ Afternoons. The nature of the charity’s work means the site is not a walk-in attraction, and all visits must be pre-booked.

If you have any feeling at all for some the globe’s most glorious species, and are moved by their plight, I guarantee it is worth the effort, and your support.

The Big Cat Sanctuary is holding its annual Open Days from 26-29 July 2018, www.thebigcatsanctuary.org/events

Other Kent wildlife attractions

Howletts

Originally Howletts Zoo, privately set up by John Aspinall in 1973. The 90-acre site has the largest herd of African elephants in Britain and some of the largest family groups of western lowland gorillas in the world.

Opening this spring is a new outdoor exhibition Animals of the Ice Age, featuring life-size recreations of extinct creatures like giant sloths and mammoths, lining the park’s Woodland Walk.

Port Lympne

The sister site of Howletts, it is a breeding sanctuary and home to more than 700 animals, including the largest breeding herd of black rhinos in the country.

Working with the Aspinall Foundation, as at Howletts, it has enjoyed considerable success with its breeding programmes of rare species. Safari trucks offer visitors a range of African Experiences, taking in big cats, black rhinos, and the endangered Rothschild’s Giraffe.

Wingham Wildlife Park

It first opened in 1986 as a dedicated bird park, but has subsequently expanded and now has more than 200 different animal species, including chimpanzees, crocodiles and tigers, as well as penguins and flamingos. Has also involved itself in many animal rescue projects.

Among the exciting range of pre-book experiences on offer is the chance to shadow a reptile keeper on their rounds to the lizards, snakes and tarantulas,

and see the Cuban crocodile take its feed.

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