Port Lympne Wild Animal Park was set up as a private zoo in 1973 by John Aspinall to provide more room for his animals in his first zoo near Canterbury. Aspinall was a gambler who held both eccentric and extremely right-wing views, and ran unseccessfully for parliament in 1997. He had a passion for wild animals, especially gorillas and tigers.
The animal collection on the Howlett estate near Canterbury was opened to the public in 1975. The estate at Port Lympne near Hythe, Kent was purchased in 1973, and opened to the public as Port Lympne Zoo in 1976. The zoological garden and safari park is set in a 600 acres landscape, including the Port Lympne mansion and its 15 acre landscaped gardens.
Both zoos Aspinall founded are known for being unorthodox, on account of the encouragement of close personal relationships between staff and animals, for their breeding of rare and endangered species and for the number of keepers who have been killed by the animals they managed.
Since 1984 Howletts and Port Lympne Wild Animal Parks are managed by The Aspinall Foundation. A charity devoted to protecting rare and endangered animals and, where possible, returning them back to the wild. For instance the Foundation manages two gorilla rescue and rehabilitation projects in the central African countries of Gabon and Congo where they have been able to successfully reintroduce over 50 gorillas to the wild.
Together with Howletts wild animal park they own an extraordinary collection of big and small cats. In Lympne you can find: Barbary lion, Cheetah, Snow leopard, Bengal tiger, Sumatran tiger, Clouded leopard, Pallas cat, Ocelot, Fishing cat, Siberian lynx, Caracal, Rusty-spotted cat, Margay and Scottish wild cat. Along with Howletts they house 7 Fishing Cats and over 16 Ocelots. Ocelots bred at the parks have been sent to Mexico and in time their offspring should be eligible for introduction into wild habitat.
Next to this diversity cats Port Lympne Wild Animal Park is home to the largest breeding herd of black rhinos outside of Africa and the world’s the largest gorillarium, “The Palace of the Apes”.
Port Lympne also offers a safari experience. A safari vehicle takes visitors across the open plains with giraffe, black rhino, wildebeest, zebra, ostrich, antelope and other wildlife roaming free. It is even possible to stay overnight at a lodge in the park to complete the fake African safari adventure.
(Sources: website Port Lympne wild animal park; Wikipedia)
It is on a windy afternoon that I pay Port Lympne Zoo my first visit, already familiar with the thought that I probably need more time to cover everything what the Zoo has to offer. Fortunately, this is enabled by the unique offer that when you buy your ticket you are allowed free entrance for a whole year, provided you give you personal details (including photo) and let them turn your ticket into a ‘passport’.
The Zoo consists of two parts, a regular zoo that you can visit by foot and a safari for which you have to board a truck. Right after the entrance you have to decide when you want to do your ‘truck safari’. A truck in old bush style brings you to the most remote part of the Zoo and covers a distance that could be a challenge for many people. Original walkways have been closed or re-routed since they introduced these truck safaris which led to quite some protest from zoo enthusiast, who think the Zoo is turned into a journey park.
So, I embark on a truck and enter the safari. They named it the ‘African experience’, though also species from other continents are kept on this safari part of the premises. Unfortunately there has been an accident with an elephant early in the morning. One of these pachyderms fell and cannot stand up without external help. And obviously visitors are not supposed to see all this, so no elephants today during the safari ride.
Port Lympne Zoo is beautifully situated in the undulating landscape of Kent in the south of England. The safari route firstly leads downhill through large pastures, which allows for stunning views overlooking the English Channel. Sitting on the hard benches of the old uncomfortable trucks you can see the Kent landscape with African ungulates, such as giraffe, zebra, eland and Greater kudu, accompanied by the Indian blackbuck antelope for instance. Halfway you can disembark and take in the views as long as you like before continuing back to base. At this point midway there is a café and a shop, but also the Livingstone lodges where you can spend the night in safari style. They just recently started this overnight experience, and for those who can’t afford a real trip to Africa this could be an attractive alternative, as the views and wildlife are real. Moreover, it is environment friendly because you can skip the flight to Africa. Also midway, you can have a look at the wolf enclosure. Without much chance of seeing any wolves by the way, because the enclosure is a huge meadow with high grass, trees, ditches and a plethora of hiding places. In other words: excellent.
With the truck you can return to basecamp (entrance area), but you can also get out close to ‘Carnivore territory’ and walk back to basecamp. While doing so you first come along the Pallas’ cat enclosure. A large rocky exhibit, that consists of three different parts of which the middle part has a moat filled with water instead of a fence to separate man from animal. Both Aspinall Foundation’s zoos have good breeding results with this small cat species from the Himalayas. Further down the path you find two Bengal tigers (male siblings) in a large, recently renovated, enclosure on a sloping hill with several high observation posts. In the downhill part of the enclosure the tigers can get easily out of sight. In ‘Carnivore territory’ you can also find Barbary lions and African hunting dogs in simple but adequate enclosures. Unfortunately it started to rain at that point of the visit, so I decided to return to the car park and come back the next day. But not before I had a look at the red panda, which had an enclosure deviating from what you see in other zoos. The surface area is comparable, but it lacks trees or other opportunities to climb, which is absolutely natural behaviour for a red panda. There are a lot of tree trunks to allow the panda to travel around its enclosure above ground level, but this seems not to fulfill the needs of this particular species.
The next day the weather had improved and at least it was dry most of the time. Instead of hopping on a safari truck I went straight after the entrance to the right towards the Iberian wolves, dholes, Amur tigers and Barbary lions. The latter consist of a large breeding group that is scattered all over the Zoo in three different enclosures. The two lions on the right side of the entrance have access to two small shelters and a large outdoor enclosure which is fenced off all around. This part has got grass, a few trees but provide no hiding places whatsoever. If you walk around the wire mesh fence the adult male lion becomes even more nervous than he already is, and is observing you all the time. The lioness is 8 years old and born with a birth defect of the spinal column. That is why she limps with her right front leg, which shows muscle atrophia (according to a zookeeper). But she is in a good overall condition.
The Iberian wolf pack is housed in a fenced off part of the forest of Lympne estate, which provides optimal shelter. But at the time of my visit the pack is nervously pacing close to the fence. Next door the dholes (Cuon alpinus) have a smaller enclosure at their disposal and the forest is less dense. The other carnivore species in this part of the Zoo is the Amur tiger. Four specimens (male, female and two cubs) populate this part of the forest which contains a pond, an grassy artificial elevation, and a shelter of which the roof is used as an observation post.
When returning to basecamp, which is the part of the Zoo located right after the entrance on the left, the snow leopard and another Barbary lions enclosure can be found. Although the snow leopard enclosure contains many enrichment elements such as platforms at various levels and tree trunks for climbing, there is no foliage at all, and the animal is very exposed to the public because of the wire mesh fences and roof, with only one small shelter. The two Barbary lions (male and female) are housed in an enclosure with an undulating ground surface, a small pool, trees, shrubs and high level observation posts. It looks as if they are fed using a method to drag or hang the meet, but I have not seen it being used as it was a fasting day. Nevertheless they are fed very well, as the male is very fat. Compared to the snow leopard exhibit the lion enclosure is much larger.
Walking downhill the several eastern black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis michaeli) paddocks are impressively large with the odd tree protected from the animals’ destruction capacity. These black rhinos together with those of Howletts form the largest captive breeding collection of the world. Close to the rhinos Bush dogs are kept in a rough area with many hiding spots due to the dense greenery of many different trees and shrub species, reed and long grass.
Returning to Carnivore territory I focused on the small cats. Personally, I think the term Carnivore territory is a bit misleading, because you will not find all of the carnivore species they keep in Port Lympne. Quite a few are housed elsewhere, such as Amur tigers, wolves, dholes, snow leopard and clouded leopard. Most of the small cats are housed in enclosures built with wooden poles and wire mesh netting, with a roof less than two meters high, and dense vegetation. More or less spread over the compound you can find several enclosures with fishing cats, of which Port Lympne is one of the most successful breeders in the world. Apart from these shy small cats you can observe Pallas’ cat, Scottish wild cat, black-footed cat, caracal, ocelot, margay, Indian desert cat (Felis lybica ornata), Siberian lynx (Lynx lynx wrangeli) and rusty spotted cat. Regarding the Scottish wild cat Port Lympne is proud to be part of a conservation effort to protect one of the UK’s threatened species.
Considering the primates it can be said that only the Guinea baboons (Papio papio) and the ones that are housed in the mixed species exhibit — de Brazza’s monkey, eastern black and white colobus monkey, and gorilla — enjoy a natural environment. All the other primates are housed in enclosures that are erected with wooden poles, wire mesh netting and artificial enrichment. It must be said that the enrichment really is rich, with climbing facilities like wooden beams and ropes, and rubber slings. The western lowland gorilla must be mentioned specifically. Not only because Howletts and Port Lympne Zoo have the largest captive breeding collection of these magnificent great apes in the world, but foremost for the way they are housed. They are kept in what looks like a huge cage with straw bedding, both in Howletts and Port Lympne, which I haven’t seen before. The philosophy is that the deep layer of straw, which is topped up with fresh straw daily recreates the leaf litter of the forest floor. It also supplies a source of heat in the winter, almost like under floor heating. Other ideas introduced to enhance gorilla welfare are enrichments such as a vast variety of cage furniture and puzzle feeders. More information about Aspinall’s philosophy on gorilla enrichment to enhance welfare can be found .
A neighbour of the gorillas is the greater bamboo lemur or broad-nosed gentle lemur (Prolemur simus). This lemur is one of the rarest primates in the world with around 150 currently known to exist in the wild, and critically endangered. They live in bamboo thickets in Madagascar, and their diet consists mainly of bamboo (98%). The Aspinall Foundation is implementing a conservation programme in Madagascar working in partnership with local communities. Only seven zoos in the world hold approximately 15 greater bamboo lemurs in captivity, of which two can be found in Port Lympne Zoo. Belle, the female greater bamboo lemur at the park gave birth in July 2012.
At the end of my visit I had the pleasure of finally see the most beautiful of the feline species, the clouded leopard. This elusive cat is kept a bit off track in the Primate trail, and showed itself in quite a bare enclosure, when compared to the enclosure in Howletts which is like a real jungle. Port Lympne and Howletts Zoos may be the largest breeders of clouded leopards in western zoos (Europe en US).
John Aspinall’s legacy is not just the Aspinall Foundation, but his ideas about how humans may and can interact with wild animals have found fertile soil in his son Damian. In this video you see Damian Aspinall’s daughter Tansy 18 months old — about 20 years ago — playing with a gorilla:
ABCNews brought the news about the release of the video as follows:
A 300-pound gorilla picks up a toddler and carries her as if she’s one of its own in a 22-year-old video that is only now being seen by the masses.
The gorilla belongs to Damian Aspinall, who heads a foundation dedicated to conservation and sending gorillas back into the wild.
The little girl in the video is Aspinall’s daughter, Tansy. The blonde-haired toddler has a smile on her face as she pets, plays and is carried around by a gorilla.
Aspinall said he is releasing the video now to bring awareness to endangered gorillas and to show their gentle nature.
(Source: ABCNews, 16.09.2012)
Aspinall’s gorilla enrichment to enhance welfare
At Howletts and Port Lympne together they are fortunate enough to house the largest breeding collection of western lowland gorillas in the world. This enables them to keep their gorillas in large age diverse groups. This is one of the simplest yet most effective ways of enriching the lives of the gorillas, producing well-balanced individuals who exhibit species-specific behaviour.
The enclosures provide their gorillas with a 3 dimensional space. This is achieved in 3 main ways;
The floor area.
This is covered in a deep layer of straw, which is topped up with fresh straw daily. This is their attempt to recreate the leaf litter of the forest floor. It also supplies a source of heat in the winter, almost like under floor heating. At various times during the day they scatter small food items such as seeds and maize from the roof of the enclosures. By doing so they are encouraging the gorillas to forage, which is a natural behaviour. In the wild they would spend most of the day looking for food.
The gorillas are also provided with a vast variety of cage furniture. These are all at different heights and made from different materials. Some are fixed and some are mobile increasing the complexity of the gorilla’s environment. These include natural rope, fire hose, wooden platforms, tyres, slides, nesting baskets and fire hose hammocks.
The space frame.
This is the metal framework at the top of each enclosure. This is the key to the enclosure being 3 dimensional, like upstairs and downstairs in your own house. It creates a whole new space for the gorillas, as well as space for the keepers to attach cage furniture to.
Puzzle feeders are different objects that require the gorillas to think and manipulate ways of retrieving their food. Some puzzle feeders they use:
These are definitely a favourite of their gorillas. The trays that fit inside the pots are filled with honey, jam, lemon curd or sometimes even marmite! The gorillas poke sticks through the holes in the top and get a tasty treat on the end of the stick when they pull it back out.
A wooden maze that clips onto the side of the enclosure. The gorillas have to use sticks to manipulate the nuts from one end of the maze to the other, where they can get them out of the feeder.
These are a favourite of their younger gorillas. Small pieces of food are placed inside and as the gorillas spin them around the food falls out. They also provide hours of fun even when empty.
Hanging or fixed logs with drilled holes that are filled with honey, jam or lemon curd.
An extremely hard plastic ball with holes in it that can be filled with seeds, nuts or pellets.
Plastic bottles filled with nuts and seeds. The bottles beforehand are sterilised and free from wrappers and caps. This is to avoid cross contamination and the possible risk of injury to the gorillas.
Depending on the season they are able to offer their gorillas different novel food items. In doing this they are able to provide a vast variety to the animals’ diet as well as a form of mental stimulation. They provide large whole pumpkins, whole coconuts, freshly cut maize, different species of tree branches, and Swedish turnip which has been drilled and filled with goodies such as honey and seeds. Importantly, because the gorillas are so intelligent, they always have to think up new enrichment ideas.
Directions to Port Lympne Reserve
Port Lympne Reserve is located in the South East of England in Kent, and is within easy reach of the home counties of London, Surrey, Sussex, and Essex.
Port Lympne Reserve is approximately a 1 hour and 20 minute train and bus journey from Charing Cross or Victoria railway station in London, or approximately 40 minutes from St Pancras International, London, on the high speed service. Take the train to Ashford International station (which is also a stop for the Eurostar train arriving from France), a travel planner for this train ride you will find here. From here take a bus journey from the domestic station side. The Stagecoach East Kent number 10 bus runs between Ashford and Folkestone via the park. For bus times please call 0871 2002233 or check here.
The southern coastal region of Kent has many beautiful scenic cycle routes. When you have access to a bicycle and are not afraid of undulating terrain I would recommend travelling to the Zoo by bicycle. A great journey planner is available here, where you can find information on bike shops for bicycle hire in the area as well.
If you are travelling by car Port Lympne Reserve lies on the B2067, and is just past Ashford, Kent. It is also a short distance from Canterbury, Folkestone and the southeast coast of England.
Travelling from Surrey and West Sussex could not be easier. Your fastest route will be to join the M25 and travel in the direction of the Dartford Tunnel. Then take the M26/M20, and leave the M20 at Junction 11 just past Ashford. Port Lympne is a 10 minute drive from this point. Just follow the brown tourist signs to the park. Estimated travelling time from Junction 8 of the M25 is 1 hour and 10 minutes.
Directions from London, Essex and East Sussex include joining the M25/M26. Look for signposts to the M20 in the direction of Ashford to determine your direction of travel. Follow the M20 to Junction 11 and then follow the brown tourist signs to Port Lympne. Estimated travelling time from the M25/M26 or M25/M20 interchange is 45 minutes.
The car park (free of charge) is very large with parking bays on the grass and on hard standing. Access to the gatehouse and entrance to the park is via the footbridge.
When using SatNav please set the Post code to CT21 4LR.
Download the zoo map here.