About an hour from London lies Headcorn, a sleepy little village in Kent. This was my destination early on Saturday morning.
Stepping off the train I was greeted by the wonderful smell of cow shit. Not all together unpleasant but rather familiar and almost comforting, reminding me of growing up in Heidelberg.
I gather not much goes on in Headcorn and assumed most of the other passengers alighting at that station were there for the same reason I was: the Big Cat Sanctuary!
I was right. We were greeted by an animal print people carrier and whisked off down the road to meet the big puddy cats.
Quick registration, a welcome cuppa tea and we were herded into a marquee for an introductory talk about the sanctuary.
Home to a variety of big cats: African Lions, Amur Leopards, Clouded Leopards, Sumatran Tigers, Cheetah, Pallas Cats, Chinese Leopards, Black Leopard, Servals, Snow Leopards.
Some verging on extinction, namely the Amur Leopards (some added viewing pleasure: http://bit.ly/odOExK) with only between 30-35 left in the wild. BCS is actively involved in the breeding programme and took delivery of a new male leopard only a few months back. Their female Amur Leopard is ranked 7th in world and the new addition ranked 5th. With genetics like that they’re hoping for some excellent offspring. Xizi should be coming into season any day now so let’s keep our fingers crossed.
The Sumatran Tigers (http://bit.ly/oMJr7r) are on the decline due to deforestation and the increasing demand for palm oil. Again BCS is involved in the worldwide breeding programme and successfully delivered a pair of cubs only 2 weeks ago. Unfortunately we didn’t glimpse these cuties as they’re still being hidden away by their protective mum.
After the talk we were left to wander around the complex at our leisure with a schedule of timed feeds for added entertainment.
The first thing that struck me was how zoo-like the enclosures were. This didn’t sit well with me. In fact I’ve been to zoos where the big cats have had more room to roam.
The volunteer “rangers”, as enthusiastic as they were lacked knowledge. Facts and figures were bandied around but that was the extent of what they knew. When questioned more on behaviour, etc they were certainly out of their comfort zone. Again it left me feeling a little uneasy.
At this point I should say that I felt very fortunate to see all the animals I did, some of which I’d not seen in the flesh before, but I left the sanctuary with mixed feelings. I know they are doing their best for the animals and they mean well. They are also playing an important part in the conservation of these animals and hopefully will be instumental in the survival of these species.
However, seeing amazing animals caged up in these enclosures upset me.
All the fencing didn’t aid me trying to capture awesome shots of these felines. I’m new to this photography malarky and had I known there would be this much fencing I would have asked my dear housemate for advice. I came armed with my trusty G10, which I love to bits. Fellow cat watchers turned up with DSLRs with lenses the size of my forearm. Yes, it did leave me feeling a little inadequate #lensenvy
I didn’t come away with the greatest shots, but it’s the memories that count.
By the time we got to explore the sanctuary it was nearing midday. What do cats do around midday? SLEEP.
The other thing that left me feeling uneasy was the pacing. Clearly the animals were distressed by our presence and the bigger the crowds, the more they paced.
I had the prefect opportunity to get great shots of the Black Leopard but was fascinated and horrified at what I was witnessing.
At 1pm an enrichment feed was arranged for the Sumatran Tiger “Nias”. The wheelbarrow of meat was rolled out and suddenly the sleeping cats began stirring all over the sanctuary. They could smell blood.
This was rather fortunate for us, as many were safely snoozing away in their “houses” and we wouldn’t have seen them otherwise.
The enrichment feed involved the rangers hiding meat all over the enclosure, in boxes, under tree trunks for Nias to find. It didn’t take long for him to find and devour the treats.
This was the perfect opportunity to sneak off while everyone was gathered at the Sumatran Tiger enclosure and visit the (now awake) other residents.
Khan the Black Leopard (http://bit.ly/nqUM4t) was aggitated, his enclosure being the closest to where the action was taking place. He was pacing furiously. Khan’s enclosure is one of the few fitted with a glass viewing pane, perfect for taking pics. I’d struck up a conversation with one of the rangers (one of the more knowledgeable ones!). I turned briefly to glance over at Khan, waving my hand as I spoke and next thing he was up against the glass clawing at it. The determination in his eyes was frightening. He kept on and on and this of course caught the attention of the crowd, who all rushed over to see. Including small children who were then thrust up again the glass for a better look. Some of them banging the glass with their fists (as those horrible little creatures do) adding to Khan’s distress and annoyance.
I had to walk away.
Seeing this spectacular feline up close was breathtaking. He’s not entirely black, as the light dances across his coat the leopard print patterns emerge. The huge paws pressed up against the glass, sharp powerful claws extending. A deep chest rattling growl reveals the glistening teeth. In awe!
This isn’t one of my pics but gives you some idea of what I (literally) came face to face with:
Seeing these majestic creatures up close is the only way to appreciate how powerful and magnificent they are. The effort put into saving these animals is warranted, losing any of these species is not an option.
If you can donate, do so now! There are many initiatives working towards helping the survivial of these animals.
It’s made me more determined to seek out organisations in Asia while I’m travelling, and hopefully do my bit to ensure we don’t lose them forever.
Next adventure: Particle Accelerator in Didcot in 2 weeks!