It’s early evening and the gates to the wildlife park have been closed to the public. All is quiet, except for birdsong, the gentle rustling of wind in the trees and an occasional excited shriek from a gelada monkey. We (my six-year-old daughter Nell and husband Huw) are gathered around a fire pit along with four other families who are trying out Camp Baboon, a new night-time wildlife and bushcraft experience at the Wild Place Project, a satellite venture run by Bristol Zoo.
The 125-acre estate – which once belonged to aviation pioneer George White – opened four years ago and is home to cheetah, zebra and okapi, as well as a number of rare and critically endangered species such as eland, lemurs and, most recently three giraffes. Camp Baboon, which launched last August, means visitors can now stay overnight in one of 10 wooden cabins and explore after dusk.
“In the unlikely event that an animal escapes, we ask that you return to your cabins immediately and wait there until we give the all-clear,” says Matt, our guide. The kids grin, eyes shining at the thought that there might be a stray creature lurking behind us.
Matt and his colleague Tom lead us into Blackhorse Woods, an ancient woodland on the estate, alive with native bird and wildlife species. Beneath the dappled shade of a parachute shelter we learn some basic bushcraft skills, which are essential, we’re told, when doing fieldwork in the wilds of Madagascar, Cameroon or the Congo – places the conservation team regularly visits.
We start with firelighting: first using cotton wool and firesteel, then solar power with a stainless-steel parabolic mirror and finally a bow drill, a simple implement that uses friction to generate heat. The primeval thrill of nurturing a tiny spark into a blazing fire is undeniable. With charcoal on our fingers and smoke in our hair we tour the park.
The emphasis here is on conservation. Since opening to the public in 1836, Bristol Zoo claims it has helped save over 175 species from extinction through breeding programmes and established over 30 field conservation and research projects worldwide. The Wild Place offers a glimpse into this work.
“Most people don’t realise it but there are fewer giraffes than there are African elephants,” says Dr Bryan Carroll, chief executive of the Bristol Zoological Society. “This is why the new giraffe house and enclosure at the Wild Place is so important. It allows us to become part of an international breeding programme while working on the ground in Cameroon to protect their last giraffes.”
We wander through delightfully ramshackle areas, such as a Cameroonian-inspired marketplace and a replica Madagascan village and school, giving visitors an idea of the places the conservators work in.
The project supports villages in places such as Cameroon, Tom tells us. “We provide them with saplings and seeds, and kits to make beehives so they can make and sell their own produce. In that way they are less likely to poach animals for a living.” We visit a replica of an eco-guard’s hut, complete with some grisly exhibits, including confiscated tools and traps. “Poachers are often people who live in poverty and don’t see any other choice,” he says. “Our aim is to provide resources and education so they do have other options, as well as donating equipment such as quadropter drones to anti-poaching patrols.”
Night falls. The sounds in the park change. With such a small group, the kids have already become a little gang, sharing torches, holding hands, as we head back into the trees. Long ago, these woods would have been home to auroch, a kind of giant cow; lynx, brown bear and wild boar. There were wolverines too, says Matt – “kind of like badass badgers”.
The darkness is deep and the sounds unfamiliar. A large shape moves silently beside us. There’s a gasp and a giggle from my daughter and her new friend as eyes glint back at them from between the trees. We have reached Wolf Wood.
We switch off our torch. There’s a snap as a twig breaks; a crunch of dry leaves underfoot. The wolves appear to be within touching distance. There’s magic in this moment, a sense that we truly are in the wilds, though thankfully there’s a fence between us. Reluctantly we move on, it’s getting late, there’s a campfire to light and marshmallows to be toasted.
Lanterns are lit through the meadow as we return to camp, stories shared around the fire, then it’s time for bed (the cabins prove comfy – each comes with a double bed, bunk beds, en-suite shower and a small deck overlooking the campfire).
At dawn we’re woken by the cries and barks of the gelada monkeys. From the highlands of Ethiopia, these extraordinary-looking endangered primates are also known as “bleeding heart baboons” for the red patches on their chests. They sit on their haunches and study us, the early morning sun lighting their golden manes. We do the rounds with the keepers as they check on the animals, making sure they are happy and well fed. Then, when it’s our turn to eat, there’s a final surprise in store, we’re having breakfast with the giraffes.
On the balcony of the giraffe house we tuck into croissants, fruit and hot drinks, while our long-necked neighbours nibble on fresh leaves and acacia tree pellets alongside. One day as a family we may be lucky to see them in the wild, but for now, as an insight into wildlife conservation, this is a fun place to begin.
The Camp Baboon experience was provided by the Wild Place Project. Prices start from £87pp – this includes an overnight stay in a comfortable cabin (sleeps 4), bush skills classes, morning and twilight tours of the park, dinner and breakfast, as well as free entry to Wild Place Project for two days and Bristol Zoo Gardens on the day of your departure.
Native wildlife, Surrey
The British Wildlife Centre in Newchapel is home to more than 40 native species, many of which are endangered, including pine martens, wildcats and water voles.
• Open weekends, bank holidays and school holidays, £11.50 adults/£8.50 children, britishwildlifecentre.co.uk
Ten wolves live at the UK Wolf Conservation Trust near Reading. Visitors can take them for a walk or learn lupine language on a howl night.
• Open Wednesdays, £8 adults/ £5 children, £10 for howl nights, £75 for walks, ukwct.org.uk
The Cornish Seal Sanctuary in Gweek rescues up to 60 sick, injured or stranded seal pups every season, caring for them until they can be returned to the wild. The best time to see the pups between September and March.
• Open daily, from £10.85 adults/£8.75 children, sealsanctuary.co.uk
Tiggywinkles near Aylesbury is a wildlife hospital with a specialist hedgehog unit. Visitors can peek at the patients and meet the permanent residents, including a blind hedgehog and a three-legged deer.
• Open Monday to Friday, £5.10 adults/£3.20 children, sttiggywinkles.org.uk
Redwings cares for more than 1,500 horses, ponies, donkeys and mules at five rescue centres. Caldecott in Norfolk is the biggest; other centres are in Essex, Warwickshire and Angus.
• Open Friday to Monday, free, redwings.org.uk
Wales Ape and Monkey Sanctuary near Abercraf, on the edge of the Brecon Beacons, rescues primates from zoos and laboratories, including chimpanzees, baboons, capuchins and marmosets.
• Open daily, £8.50 adults/£5 children, ape-monkey-rescue.org.uk