The rolling green hills of the British countryside may seem an unlikely haven for animals more at home in the Serengeti, but Port Lympne in Kent, just a 30-minute train ride from London, is a breeding sanctuary for 75 rare and endangered species.
Set in 600 acres, the reserve works in partnership with the internationally renowned AspinallFoundation which was set up to help animals return to the wild wherever possible.
Founded by John Aspinall in the early 1970s, he dreamed of re-introducing gorillas bred at Port Lympne, back to the wild. His vision is being carried forward by his son Damian who believes that the reintroduction of animals into their natural habitats is vital to help conserve both the wildlife and their environment.
Eight rhino, 180 primates, 11 European Bison and over 70 Western Lowland gorillas, are among the animals who have gone back to the wild from Port Lympne. The rhino have already produced 25 offspring between them at their new home in Africa.
Visitors to the reserve can go on safari to see free-roaming giraffes and camels and you are always likely to spot a big cat, buffalo and zebras.
You can go for the day or book one of the reserve’s award-winning short breaks and spend a night under the stars in a 180-degree bubble pod.
The luxury stays – only posh glamping here – includes a tour in your own golf buggy, and you can even have a very civilised afternoon tea while looking out on the expertly designed leopard enclosure.
Alternatively, you can stay in the 4-star hotel, nestled in 15 acres of beautifully landscaped gardens.
The Grade II listed country house is steeped in history – Sir Winston Churchill and T E Lawrence are among guests who have stayed there.
In 1942 it was commandeered by the RAF and an influx of Czech pilots set about destroying the place. From the end of the second world war no one had lived in the mansion and the gardens, which had at one time employed 14 full-time gardeners, were looked after by just one pensioner.
When John Aspinall took over he began a 10-year garden renovation project as well as working with the approval of English Heritage to bring the home back to its former glory.
Providing the specialist diets required by the animals is a huge undertaking with the primates receiving 50 different varieties of fruits and vegetables. Much of the food is provided from the reserve’s own woodlands but they also have their own nursery in Canterbury which produces 30 different crops and 20 different herbs each year.
In the summer the nursery produces 500 boxes of vegetables a week. And what’s good enough for the animals is definitely good enough for the humans – the produce is also used in the reserve’s restaurants.
The grandly decorated hotel opened as a hotel and wedding venue in 2014 and is a mix of brightly coloured murals and luxury furnishings. It’s the perfect backdrop for a special day if you want to escape the urban jungle of nearby London.
Visitors and hotel guests as well as wedding parties all contribute to the vital fundraising needed to keep the reserve and its overseas projects going. There are regular events and you can even adopt an animal from wherever you are in the world and follow its progress.
For more information about Port Lympne and the work of the reserve, go to www.aspinallfoundation.org