Although this was not a trip abroad, it was a valuable experience getting up close to large and some very rare cats from around the world and I feel it is worth telling their stories alongside some of the photos I took of these beautiful cats.
Home to over 50 rare cats of the most diverse range in the UK, the Big Cat Sanctuary in Kent was founded in 2000 and is home to some of the most endangered cat species in the World, both small and large cats, including the Amur Leopard with only approximately 45 left in the wild globally and Sumatran Tigers of which there are less than 300 left in the wild.
The BCS aims to breed endangered cats and where possible introduce them back into the wild, it differs from other organisations in that it is not open to the general public, however you can book a photographic experience (which is how I got in). Alternatively you can sign up to become a voluntary ranger for the day or have a safari experience staying in a lodge overnight in the grounds and meeting the cats with a keeper in the day, not to mention hearing the lions roar at night.
If you have any unwanted Christmas trees or bamboo please donate it to the sanctuary, as the Tigers like to walk through the bamboo as it is part of their natural habitat and all of the cats love the smell of Christmas trees.
Each cat has a story from the sanctuary, please read on to get to know these amazing characters and where they have come from.
TAMAIR – THE TIGER
Tamair was born at an Irish circus along with his brothers Genghis and Rocky, and at 5 weeks old came under the care of Peter Sampson who started this cat sanctuary, I have already met Rocky as he is now at the Paradise Wildlife Park, I had a real connection with Rocky, he is a very affectionate Tiger, beautiful.
Tamair is the largest cat at The Big Cat Sanctuary and although he is now old with arthritis and dental problems, he has been very good natured to litters of other cubs born on site, he sleeps in front of a heat lamp for comfort but when he feels energised still plays with his boomer ball.
According to the BCS there are now only six sub species of Tiger left in the wild today, this is so very sad, which is why these sanctuarys where big cats are bred and released back into the wild are so important, in fact I would argue that they are now essential to saving these species.
KUSHKA – A HYBRID TIGER
Kushka is an older Tiger who spent most of her life in a Circus, she was taken out to breed in 2012 but did not cope well being with another Tiger, preferring to be alone, she was an unsettled Tiger.
Thankfully she is now at the BCS and is much calmer and happier, although she suffers from arthritis and loss of hearing she is loved and looked after with plenty of space in her enclosure for some well-deserved peace and quiet.
Hybrids are becoming more and more popular, often bred in circuses or for the exotic pet trade however we should be aware that these interbred hybrids usually have some weaknesses, a price that the animal pays by being born to cater to the exotic pet business.
In Tigers there has been a great deal of inter breeding for their size back in the early days of circuses and a typical problem is the older animal in later life becoming riddled with arthritis due to the unnatural pressure on its joints.
This sanctuary is not open to the general public, with only very small groups of 8 people or so being allowed in at any time, it ensures that none of the cats get stressed and that it remains a calm place for them to live.
PUNA – THE SUMATRAN TIGER
Puna was my favourite Tiger, she is a Sumatran Tiger, native to the Indonesian Island of Sumatra and the most beautiful I have ever seen, she was born into a litter of two cubs in Tiergarten enclosure, Heidleberg but after just 5 days her mother lost interest in her and rejected her.
Puna wandered into an area where some keeping staff found her and looked after her by bottle feeding her and she was kept in an enclosure next to her father before being moved to the Kent Big Cat Sanctuary.
Shockingly, there were three species of Tiger in Sumatra but due to hunting the other two the Javan and Bali have now been classed as extinct, the main threats are from the Chinese superstitions about medicine so Tigers are killed for their body parts.
This makes me extremely angry, why are certain parts of the plant taking so long to wake up from these foolish beliefs? It is so backward and so detrimental to our wildlife and planet, really these ridiculous markets for medicine should have long been addressed and banned.
The other threat, apart from man killing Tigers for their skins, is the palm oil industry, which is taking out huge chunks of forest, Tigers need a lot of area to walkabout and mate, as they are solitary creatures and their habitats are fast disappearing, the loggers are also responsible for their decline.
As stated before, there are less than 45 of these in the wild that is shocking beyond belief.
TINY AND KAFARA – THE WHITE LIONS
Tiny and Kafara are two brothers, there is a third called Manzi, who were born at Woburn Safari Park, but their mother sadly stopped caring for them when she stopped producing milk early.
All three ended up at the Big Cat Sanctuary, however one of the brothers, Manzi, had to be separated from the other two as he is a little too aggressive to them, so Tiny and Kafara stay together in one enclosure, but as you can see from these pictures, the two get on well together and although seen baring their teeth, it is just play fighting, there is true affection seen there.
These Lions enjoy experiencing new scents and toys to play with, so the keepers regularly introduce scented herbs to give them new stimulation, watching them play was just like watching household cats at home, it is so interesting to see their behaviours.
NARNIA – THE WHITE BENGAL TIGER
Narnia was born in a French circus, this attractive blue-eyed tiger was taken in by the sister site Paradise Wildlife Park but was not compatible with their other White Tiger so she was transferred to the Big Cat Sanctuary.
Narnia is naughty, she enjoys nothing more than to pace close to the next enclosure and roar at Nias to annoy him, she also loves to chew the wire and poo in the pond and she is playful and enjoys her boom ball and anything she can find to amuse herself.
These white tigers are rarely seen for various reasons, in nature the mother has been known to kill a white cub as it is too ‘visible’ drawing attention to the pride and destroys any chances of the mother sneaking up on other animals to make a kill. They are also sought after by man and hunted for their skins, these beautiful tigers are sadly at a disadvantage from birth.
LAILA – THE SNOWLEOPARD
IUCN Red List Category Endangered (EN)
Often referred as ‘ghosts in the mountains’, these beautifully dappled Snow Leopards live in the Himalayas and the surrounding foothills, they have huge paws for stalking in the snow and long fluffy tails that they wrap around themselves when it is bitterly cold and they have the ability to retain extra body heat.
Tragically Snow Leopards are hunted for their beautiful furs, to make just one coat for a wealthy human being, it takes 50 Snow Leopards to line up the pattern of just one coat, this is beyond appalling!
However, Snow Leopards do kill livestock of local farmers and are persecuted due to this, it is a very difficult problem to solve, but lets hope that awareness of how endangered these creatures are will make for some essential changes.
Snow Leopards are a protected species under Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) making the killing of Snow Leopards illegal, yet despite this the greed of humanity continues at an alarming rate.
Laila was born in Antwerp zoo and her mother died when she was two months old so as a result was hand reared by keepers and is very affectionate and tame with human beings, she was moved to the Big Cat Sanctuary at one year’s old and I a firm favourite with anyone who encounters her.
I completely fell under the spell of this stunning snow leopard, I have a love of snow leopards as a few years ago was privileged to encounter a litter of three snow leopards at a world heritage cat sanctuary who played happily at my feet as I sat on a grass bank,.
The plan was to rear and release the snow leopards into the wild when they were ready, it is a story that I intend to follow up to see if it is possible to track their progress.
JACK – THE JUNGLE CAT
I have always been intrigued by Jungle cats and have never been able to see one in the wild, despite several attempts to look in the areas that they might be, so this was a great opportunity to at last see what a Jungle cat looked like in reality.
Little Jack was born in Olmense zoo in Belgium and came to the Big Cat Sanctuary at 10 months old, he arrived in winter and as it was so chilly the keepers named him Jack after Jack Frost.
He is strikingly beautiful to look at, with his sculptured face and pointed ears, there is a fox like look about him and his colouring is of a rich sand, have a look at the below images that I took of him in the afternoon sunlight.
According to the BCS, Jack is the only Jungle cat in the UK, he enjoys roaming around in his pen but does not like rainy days and will take up residence in his sleeping quarters, he seems to be very good natured and not at all phased by cameras.
The BCS hope to bring in a female Jungle cat in the hope that they might be able to breed them, if there are any cubs I will be back over there as soon as I can get in and will take some photographs of the baby Jungle cats.
GRIFFIN – THE CARACAL
Griffin was originally born at Exmoore zoo, this handsome medium sized African cat has a lovely red colouring and extraordinary long ears with tufts of hair springing from them and these are thought to perhaps keep flies out of the Caracal’s face as well as acting as a form of accuracy when it is stalking its prey.
They are sometimes called the African Lynx or the Desert Lynx due to these long ears which are a characteristic of the Lynx, however the Caracal is a smaller and lighter cat.
These cats are solitary creatures, only coming together with other cats when they want to mate, the father has nothing to do with the cubs and goes back to his solitary life while the mother brings up the cubs for the duration of approximately one year.
These cats often get shot and killed by farmers in South Africa as the cats hunt and stalk the livestock on the farms, which must be a great temptation for a hungry cat, away from the lure of farm livestock though they are also competent survivors.
PETRA – THE EURASIAN LYNX
Petra is an impressive looking crepuscula cat in that she has an unusual white ring around her eye which is designed to work with its retina and improve its eye sight at dusk and lower light levels.
Petra was born at Norfolk Wildlife Park and was moved around quite a bit following the park’s closure, she has now been moved to BCS and thankfully is very happy and settled there, this is what most impressed me about the park, it is about the cats wellfare and happiness, they are not there for public entertainment.
These cats are there for rest and a peaceful retirement or to breed if they are young enough in order to try and conserve these beautiful animals, where possible the offspring are released into the wild.
VIKTORIA – THE PUMA
Viktoria is a stunning looking Puma and these cats originate from South America, I can recall a story of a female tourist disappearing in Patagonia in an area where a Puma had been frequently seen, it made me think twice about wandering off alone in that area.
Pumas are often also referred to by other common names such as the Mountain Lion, Panther, Cougar, Catamount, etc.
Viktoria is an impressive looking cat, pure muscle tone and although a small cat she is capable of taking down much larger prey including a horse or an unarmed human.
To look at her though you would not think her capable of doing any harm as she looks so serene as she stalks about in her roomy enclosure, rather than roaring this cat makes little chirrup, mewing and yowling sounds with the odd hiss thrown in for good measure.
They do make louder screaming sounds, which are apparently mating calls to attract other cats, but the sound is quite eerie and disconcerting when you hear it, I will certainly be on guard if I ever hear that sound out in the wild.
JAGA AND AQUARIUS – THE FISHING CATS
For many years I have wanted to see Fishing cats in the wild, they are shy creatures though and not easy to find, having only ever seen pictures of them on the internet and in books, I was very excited to get the chance to come to BCS and see a pair there.
Fishing cats live in Vietnam (where I had hoped to see one), Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, Shri Lanka, India and Nepal, sadly though despite them being fairly widespread they are under threat as often killed on sight by locals, it is another example of a terrible persecution of a wonderful animal and saddens me beyond belief.
Fishing cats, as their name suggests can swim in water and under water for their food, they dive into streams from the bank to catch fish, they are also reported to eat snakes, birds and insects, they make a friendly chuckling sound and are fun to watch as they play along the waterside.
Sadly they are in decline due to their habitats being taken away and also by being hunted for their skins, we have no right to be doing this, I hope that stronger bans come into place to stop this illegal market.
It was fantastic to watch these two cats Jaga and Aquarius playing together in the reeds and jumping in and out of the water, it was a wonderful sight, Fishing Cats are top of my list for my favourite cats!
SAMIA – THE SERVAL
Samia was born in captivity at Parc des felins zoo and has bred giving birth to two cubs, one of which called Jua is also at the BCS with Samia.
Her closest relatives are the Caracals and Golden African cats, her markings are very striking with distinctive spots and they are sadly killed for their skins and passed off in the illegal trade as cheetahs.
These cats eats rodents, deer and antelope and will go for flamingos, they can jump an impressive 9 feet high to catch birds and are superb stalkers due to their long ears which gives them a worthy advantage.
Servals differ to other cats as they do not hunt livestock so are no threat to the farmers, however due to their beautiful markings they are targeted for the illegal trade of exotic pets and are being bred with domestic cats to produce hybrid domestic cats, referred to as the Savannah.
BAJRAMI, MARTIN AND KEENE – THE CHEETAHS
Bajami, Martin and Keene were born at Boras Zoo in Sweden and these three cats are part of the studbook for The Southern Cheetah so hopefully they will be breeding in the future at BCS.
Cheetahs are the worlds fastest land mammals capable of running speeds of 68 miles per hour, although for short bursts only, they belong to their own genus Acinonyx due to their elongated body shape, which is very narrow and lightweight with long slender limbs, its fur is covered in single small attractive spotted markings.
Due to their distinctive black tear-drop facial markings the cheetah are one of the most easily identifiable cats to identify.
The cheetah is a very prolific breeder in the wild and can have litters of up 10 young cubs, this is to compensate for the very high mortality rate of cubs from predation and because the adult Cheetah is not a great fighter like Lions and other cats, and often will choose to run from conflict.
These Cheetahs were an absolute gem to photograph as they were very obliging and strided about in front of my camera with confidence. Their facial features are so strikingly beautiful and I felt a calm presence about them, these are really lovely cats.
ATARA – THE NORTH CHINESE LEOPARD
Atara was born at a zoo park in Berlin and is a strikingly beautiful leopard with a long fluffy tail and stocky body and her species is from Beijing and the Gobi Desert, capable of running 36 mile an hour, due to the cooler temperatures these leopards have longer fur.
Atara was very obliging for photographs and seemed to enjoy interacting with us, she had a playful air about her as she roamed about unlike her neighbour, Chinese Leopard Ta-iri who was stalking us the minute we were in view of his enclosure.
As we got nearer he rushed out at us and roared aggressively before running back into the bushes from where he had been hiding, in those few seconds of this encounter you could feel his power.
These leopards are solitary creatures preferring to roam alone and hunt at night, they call out when they are searching for a mate and again sadly they are hunted by the illegal fur traders and are in decline.
HOGAR – THE AMUR LEOPARD
I was instantly struck by what an impressive cat this is, Hogar was born in a zoo in the Czech Republic and was moved to BCS in order to breed and with his partner Xizi, they were successful and produced two cubs who have now been transferred to continue the breeding program.
Shockingly it is estimated that there are only 60 Amur Leopards left in the wild, they are fast approaching extinction due to being hunted by the fur traders and also forest fires which are destroying their habitats, many of which are started deliberately.
There are now groups in place who are trying to save this Leopard, the main one being called ALTA (The Amur Leopard and Tiger Alliance), anything that can help stop the killings of these animals is worth trying, please spread the word and keep the awareness going about the help needed for them.
JETHRO AND TULA– THE PALLAS CATS
The WHF BCS has two Pallas cats, hopefully they will become a breeding pair, and they are amazing looking small cats, with huge eyes peering out of a bundle of unruly fur.
Pallas cats live in the mountains of Russia and parts of Asia and have the longest and thickest fur of any cat to protect them from the cold temperatures of Russia.
Pallas cats differ from the long eared Jungle cats, Pumas, etc. instead these fluffy small cats have small ears, similar to that of the snow leopard, the ears are short and positioned lower down on the cat’s head so that they do not stick up when the cat is hunting amongst rocks and shrubs.
Pallas cats are now a protected species as they were also hunted to small numbers, they are viewed by some farmers as an important asset as the cats feed off agricultural pests so the farmers do not bother them, good news for the Pallas cats, they are, however, still in very low numbers so breeding programs are necessary in helping to increase their numbers.
I only got to see Jethro properly as Tula was feeling a little shy, perhaps next time I will get to see them both, below is my one photo of Jethro, looking very sweet enjoying the warm afternoon sunshine.
This was an amazing experience, I felt incredibly privileged to have the opportunity to have a day at the sanctuary and meet the cats and there are a few ways in which you can do this.
I signed up to a photography day with John Wright, a recognised wildlife photographer who takes small groups out to these special places to learn about the wildlife and capture some memorable images of the subjects, if you love cats and photography, I can highly recommend it, a day taking photographs up close with these beautiful cats is very special.
You can adopt a cat, please see the Big Cat Sanctuary website for details on this, it really is a worthwhile thing to do and you can go and meet the cats with one of the keepers as a thank you.
I will certainly be going back to the Big Cat Sanctuary to see how the cats are all progressing, the staff are amazing with them and it is a truly wonderful place to support.
All images taken by Amanda King 2017