The roots of the Aspinall Foundation were laid in 1957 when John Aspinall bought Howletts in Kent as a home for both his family and his growing collection of animals. The additional space allowed his collection to grow over the next decade and a half, until nearby Port Lympne was purchased in 1973.
Many of the animals were then transferred to Port Lympne, which was opened to the public in 1976. Since 1984, the Aspinall Foundation has been carrying on Aspinall’s conservation work, helping to breed rare species and return them to the wild.
The Aspinall Foundation and Gorillas
The Aspinall Foundation has a long and successful history of working with western lowland gorillas. The first baby gorilla was born in Port Lympne in 1975 and since then there have been 129 births – a significant contribution towards maintaining numbers of this critically endangered animal. Currently, The Aspinall Foundation has the largest population of captive gorillas in the world, with around 70 at Howletts and Port Lympne at any given time.
The success of the Aspinall breeding programme is often attributed to John Aspinall’s belief that animals should be kept in an environment that is as close to their natural habitat as possible. To this end, the gorilla accommodation is divided into family groups, with separate enclosures for bachelor males. This closely replicates the social structures that would be found in the wild. They are also fed using scatter feeds and roof feeds in order to encourage natural foraging behaviour.
Animals bred in captivity in Kent have also been introduced to the wild in Congo and Gabon through programmes supported by the Aspinall Foundation. The Projet Protection des Gorilles (PPG) programmes aim to preserve around one million hectares of savannah habitat on the Bateke Plateau that straddles Congo and Gabon. The goal of PPG is to reverse the 60% decline in western lowland gorilla numbers that has occurred over the last 25 years.
The Aspinall Foundation has funded park rangers to patrol the plateau and helped to resource anti-poaching activities. This has led to a reduction in poaching in the area. The Foundation also helps care for orphaned gorillas and uses the orphans to help raise awareness of the effects of poaching.
Back to the wild
Between 1996 and 2006, the Aspinall Foundation was responsible for releasing 51 gorillas into the wild in the Bateke Plateau. Of these, 43 were wild-born orphans and the remainder were brought up in captivity in Kent. More than 84% of the gorilla released in this programme have survived and there have been a further 18 births in the wild in the new gorilla populations.
Local people are involved in the on-going management of the Bateke Plateau and fruit for the orphaned gorillas is sourced from local suppliers. This helps give people a stake in preserving the area rather than over hunting and deforesting it.
Due to the success of the gorilla reintroduction programme, Aspinall will be involved with more releases into the wild in the coming years as well as continuing to help preserve the local habitat.