The Safari Park ‘Beekse Bergen’ is located on grounds, in the province of Noord-Brabant in the south of the Netherlands, belonging to the municipality of Hilvarenbeek. These grounds were purchased in 1924 and 1938 by the city of Tilburg to use it, among others, as training facilities for the Dutch army. Both councils of the municipalities wanted to exploit the grounds and started to extract sand. The large pond of 70 hectare that was created as a result of this exploitation attracted lots of locals who liked to relax there. So, the municipal councils developed plans to turn it into a leisure park, which opened in 1964, Speelland ‘Beekse Bergen’.
In 1968 the first safari park of the Netherlands opened its gates to the public. It was part of, and named after, the leisure park ‘Beekse Bergen’. At that time it was not yet a safari park as we are used to nowadays, but just a large, 60 hectare, fenced territory. The development of the Lion park was a mutual investment of the two municipalities of Tilburg and Hilvarenbeek, and the owner of the leisure park. From the 1st of June visitors could enter the park in their own car and watch the four different groups of lions, a total of 40 specimens. So, the people being caged in their cars, and the animals roaming around free. Lion park ‘Beekse Bergen’ was designed and created by Jimmy Chipperfield, an English showman and circus director, who introduced the ‘drive-through’ safari park concept in the United Kingdom in the 1960s, such as Longleat and Woburn Abbey.
The Lion park was very successful in the beginning, with sometimes long rows of cars, full of people waiting for hours to experience this novelty. After a few years the number of visitors went down, and in 1970 other African animal species were introduced to attract more people and keep the park viable. The first species to arrive were cheetahs and baboons. The name of the park was changed into Safari park ‘Beekse Bergen’. And already in 1972 the first successful breeding of cheetahs in a Dutch zoo was recorded. This, indeed, was a tremendous success, because cheetahs had proven to be difficult breeders in captivity. Like they did not produce offspring in London Zoo for years, but a year after their introduction in 1966 in Whipsnade wild animal park the first cubs were born.
During the 1970s there was a steady influx of species, white rhinoceroses, zebras, waterbuck, common eland, sable antelope, lamas, nandu, ostriches, giraffes, wildebeest, mountain sheep and gemsbok. As a kind of proof that the zoo was run according good zoo practices, in 1976 another remarkable success was noted, the first rhino was born in the Netherlands. A few years later, in 1978 African hunting dogs were introduced, as were the first tigers.
In this period the influence of Jimmy Chipperfield faded and there was more emphasis on nature conservation and education. In 1980 the Safari park joined the Dutch Zoo Association, and again extended its territory with several hectare, now 120. This allowed for introduction of some different species of ungulates, like Przewalski horse and sika deer, and a boost in the number of visitors.
Early 1980s, the walking safari was introduced, as requested by the public who wanted to leave their car, probably caused by the oil crisis. A small part of the grounds was designated for people to walk along some enclosures with small animals, like ring-tailed lemurs, squirrel monkeys and penguins. Just as in a regular zoo. In addition free flight shows with birds were started, in 1984, which still attract a large crowd a few times a day during the holiday season. Apart from entertainment, the flying is good exercise and essential for the birds to express natural behaviour.
Unfortunately, the Safari Park’s financial situation deteriorated, and the owners – the municipalities of Tilburg and Hilvarenbeek, wanted to close down the Park or sell it. A quick response by loyal visitors, who established the Foundation of Friends Safari Park, prevented closure, and in 1987 the Park was privatised (Libéma BV, a company who owned several leisure parks and zoos already). This gave a boost to whatever was necessary, because financial investment was what the Park had been waiting for. New stables were built and the animal collection was complemented. Major changes were made to the Park’s design and infrastructure. The Park got a more naturalistic design, fences and buildings were removed or hidden behind foliage. The animals were placed together according the geographical situation in the wild. A canal around and partly through the Park was dug, and in 1990 visitors could embark on a boat safari, which enhanced the total experience of visiting the Park.
During this period the Safari Park joined several European Endangered species Programmes (EEPs) and even became coordinator of the EEP for cheetahs.
All through the 1990s changes and additions were made, which led to a walking safari of about four kilometers across the grounds of the Park. Although visitors still can use their own car to drive through the park, the introduction of the bus safari is a success. So, nowadays different kind of safaris are offered to the public, by foot, by boat, by bus or own car, and this means that for a total experience of the Safari Park the visitor should allow for one full day at least. As all safaris are different and provide different views on the animals, and — most strikingly — do also not interfere with each other. The buses, cars and boats do not disturb people doing the walking safari.
Since Safari Park ‘Beekse Bergen’ is privatised there is on-going work in progress. Additions and deletions to the animal collections are made, preceded with changes to enclosures. The most striking additions are made in 2006 with the introduction of four adolescent male gorillas and a group of chimpanzees from the Dutch primate research centre in Rijswijk. And last but not least the birth of a tiger cub after 25 years. Currently 1300 specimens of 110 animals species are on display on 140 hectare.
(Source: website Safari Park Beekse Bergen; website ZOOsite.nl; Wikipedia)