For years the ASPINALL FOUNDATION has been working on environmental conservation – rescuing and breeding endangered species, caring for them in its properties in Britain and later releasing them into their natural habitats around the world. Here’s a special portfolio of the many rare creatures raised under its supervision and care
Photography by Jack Davison Text by Tom Seymour
For the purposes of this feature, In Africa, the foundation protects a 1 million acre we wanted to start with a story… our photographer Jack Davison grew up loving animals and the environments in which they live. “I spent a lot of my childhood with my nose buried in various animal encyclopaedias,” he says, before sharing some of the first photographs he can remember taking. There, stuck to the pages of a sketchbook with Pritt Stick, is a photo of a 10-year-old Jack standing next to a baboon at the zoo. The caption, in Jack’s handwriting, says: “My best picture ever.”
But nowadays we understand that many zoos, like the one Jack enjoyed as a child, do less in the way of conservation efforts and awareness than they claim. Our treatment of animals that, today, stand on the edge of extinction acts as something of a microcosm for our broader commitment to conservation issues that are already at the stage of irreversible decline. Human intervention of the positive kind is required, using conservation methods that will forge a new framework for our species to live together with other animals in better harmony. With this in mind, Davison photographed the animals of the Aspinall Foundation, including the Javan lemur that graces one of this issue’s covers.
The organisation is chaired by Damian Aspinall and was originally set up by his father, John, who, as well as owning a London casino, founded the Kent wildlife reserves Howletts and Port Lympne. At the heart of the foundation’s work is the belief in the reintroduction of kept animals to what, without such violent intervention, would have been their natural habitats. This is groundbreaking; the foundation is the only such British organisation actively campaigning and implementing programmes that place and protect animals born and held in captivity in the UK back in the wild. Both of the foundation’s sites house animals that can be viewed by paying guests, and animals are bred in the reserves. A hotel room built into the tiger reserve goes for £1,000 a night – although, Damian points out, it is fully booked 98 per cent of the time.
Over the past few years, the foundation has reintroduced to their natural habitat eight black rhinos, 12 grizzled langurs, 90 ebony langurs, 33 Javan gibbons, 11 European bisons and over 70 western lowland gorillas. In fact, during our time at the Aspinall Foundation, the team were preparing to send a group of Javan langurs from the Kent parks to the Aspinall project in Java, where, after a period of getting used to the new area, the animals will be released into the forests to mix with wild groups. In tandem with these efforts, the foundation’s in situ team in Java also works closely with authorities to rescue primates from the illegal pet trade. Once the langurs have been rescued, often from horribly cramped cages, they are then rehabilitated at the centres in east Java and one in west Java. The rescued primates are introduced to other groups and then, once the group is ready, released into the protected forests.
In Africa, the foundation protects a 1 million acre-large conservation area called the Batéké Plateau. “When we first took on the custodianship of this area it was pretty barren of wildlife – most of the animals had been hunted out of the area,” writes Amanda McCabe, who runs the Aspinall Foundation’s blog. “We started by setting up patrols in the area to combat poachers. Our in situ team then worked with local communities and rescued baby gorillas orphaned by the bush meat trade,” she explains. Once rehabilitated, these orphans are released into the protected forests together and tracked by the team. “In the 1990s, we started returning western lowland gorillas born at the parks to the plateau. Since then we’ve started protecting the area. We have seen hundreds of animals return, including forest elephant, red river hogs, chimps, mandrills, leopards and even a lion.”
A fundamental part of the organisation’s work is with local communities and governments to help protect conservation projects in countries that have seen dwindling number of animals in the wild. In Madagascar, the foundation works with communities to counteract the poaching and hunting of lemurs. Initiatives have included setting up farms and running conservation classes in local schools. While the foundation are yet to return any lemurs to Madagascar from the parks in Kent, they have been carrying out surveys to monitor populations of various lemur species. Their work with the greater bamboo lemur resulted in more populations being discovered and this subspecies of critically endangered lemur was subsequently taken off the list of the world’s 25 most endangered primates.
It’s difficult to engage one’s mind with how precarious the many conservation efforts we face are –such is the enormity of the subject. A rapidly warming planet. A highly organised and integrated poaching mafia and a hungry, wealthy black market. Ecosystems all over the world, ones that existed in natural equilibrium for millennia, devastated in the space of a few generations. Habitats that have protected and nurtured the world’s most remarkable and beautiful animals vanishing before our very eyes.
Given the complexity and scale of these issues, it’s easy to shrink into apathy and the sense that it’s too late, we’ve missed our chance, that nothing now can be done. But, as Jack Davison says, it’s the role of artists and creatives to shine a light on these issues. To highlight, package and present them, to press feeble governments and unconcerned corporations. “A subject I spent my adolescence occupied with is now something I am being asked to photograph and try and bring meaning to,” Davison says. “Photography can be a really effective way of starkly showing the plight of certain species.” And it’s the job of people in positions of power and influence, like Damian Aspinall, to break with the status quo, to find new ways of thinking, to develop new modes of practice, and to have the bravery to see them through. If a lemur born in a cage can find a way to swing through the rainforest, then surely we can find a way.
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