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A Walk on the Wild Side at Kent's Beautiful Conservation Project

“It’s our problem-free, philosophy, Hakuna Matataaa.” This refrain is on an endless loop from our children on the drive back from Howlett’s Wild Animal Park.

But it’s worth the eye twitch on the zillionth chorus reprisal, because it's inspired by the real life, red river hogs immortalised in the Lion King, who we've spent the afternoon feeding at Kent’s beautiful, ancient parkland. The peculiarly cute creatures usually inhabit central and western Africa’s savannahs, forests and swamps, following chimpanzees for dropped fruit or eating elephant dung for its seeds. But we find these chubby Pumbas happily waddling around a specially made enclosure at the Bekesbourne attraction.

It’s tempting to leap in and offer belly rubs - which they sometimes welcome - but we’re advised to remain behind the fence during the experience as surprisingly, these tubby bush hogs can jump pretty high and are occasionally grumpy with strangers. Our children delightedly scoop bananas, carrots, cauliflower and courgettes from buckets and scatter them for the hungry diners, who jostle for food and happily snort away as they chomp down on their lunch. During the 30-minute feeding, the keepers share facts about the river hogs and discuss Howlett’s work as world leaders in breeding rare and endangered species, with the goal of returning animals back to the wild, where possible.

Both Howlett’s Park and our favourite safari experience, Port Lympne work in partnership with The Aspinall Foundation, which works to repopulate the planet with animals that are facing extinction.

As an example, two rhino cows born at Port Lympne - Kivu and Tana - were successfully sent to Thaba Thola in South Africa in 2004, where they have since reared nine calves. That’s a remarkable impact for a wildlife park in Britain, given that the number of rhinos in the world had dropped to just 2,500 in the early Nineties. Read our review of their extraordinary 600-acre sister park, Port Lympne, here.

Our giraffe feeding experience at Port Lympne was a major tick off the bucket list. And like its bigger, Kent sibling, Howlett’s also offers a range of incredible animal encounters, from time with river hogs, elephants and snow leopards, to their amazing after hours events, hand-feeding everything from rhinos to lemurs with the park to yourself, plus six-hour Junior Ranger adventures for 7-13 year olds and even the chance to be a keeper for the day. Howlett’s is smaller - at 100 acres - and flatter than its, hilly, 600-acre sibling, so it is easier to stroll around with two little ones and see more animals with less effort.

And unlike Port Lympne, Howlett’s is also the proud home to a gaggle of elephants. And not just any elephants - this is the largest herd in the UK, with 13 glorious, wrinkly characters you can watch enjoying their four sand, grass, mud and concrete paddocks and splashing about in a deep pond.

There is also a viewing platform to admire them from. It’s both magical and surreal to see so many of these magnificent creatures, throwing dung on themselves, sheltering their impossibly cute baby elephant under their sizeable lugholes, comically attempting to climb walls, like drunken old men and seeing their long trunks, elegantly snaking around to grab branches and food.

And naturally, our children will never recover from the thrill of seeing their windscreen wiper tails swish through an avalanche of poo. Encore

Strolling around the pretty park, filled with pockets of beautiful flowers, we watch Sumatran tigers, stretching in the sun; cheeky Gibbons enjoying grown-up cuddles; ring tailed lemurs showing off with acrobatic displays; and a pair of beautiful rhinos, charging around like overgrown puppies.

Our short and easy amble takes us through a succession of rare creatures - there are 390 animals across 52 species and although some are sleepy or sheltering from the molten, August sunshine, there are endless, fascinating creatures we could lose hours watching, particularly in the quieter, more shaded enclosures

We also discover an excellent children’s play area, giving kids the opportunity to ape the animals they have encountered, climbing, swinging and balancing among the trees.

And it is here that our children meet another pair of rare-sighted creatures… Bluey and Bingo, who pop up throughout the day at The Pavillion Cafe to meet fans of the only kid’s TV show parents actually enjoy watching. The Aussie duo will also be making special appearances throughout the day on 30 August.

But our Howlett’s highlight is undoubtedly the troop of 24, critically endangered, Western Lowland Gorillas. Again, there are multiple, tiered viewing platforms around the vast enclosures, separating them into different families and groups. It’s a wise move because like us, everybody swarms to this area.

Adults and children alike lose track of time, watching these extraordinary creatures. Our children recognise the eye-watering stench from our Port Lympne gorilla encounter, long before they are silenced by the jaw-dropping sight of gentle giant, Ebeki taking centre stage, proudly standing and stretching out his muscular legs and torso, while thoughtfully staring into the eyes of his audience and glancing around to keep a watchful eye on his cheeky three-year-old.

You can also meet baby Kumbi, their 150th gorilla, who was born in July and they hope to release into the forests of the Batéké Plateau in Gabon, when he's ready, as part of the Gorilla Protection Project.

There are now only 95,000 Western Lowland Gorillas - 90% fewer than 10 years ago. But between Howlett’s and Port Lympne, they have had 15 births and successfully returned 50 to the wild, who have gone on to have more than 30 babies.

It’s moving to see their wise, thoughtful eyes locked in a gaze with our awestruck children - the next generation of possible conservationists who, after face-to-face encounters like this, will have greater empathy and interest in these beautiful characters, who share 96 percent of our DNA. And hopefully these encounters with the next generation and the money raised for the amazing work that Aspinall Foundation does will mean that one day - as glorious as they are - places like Howlett’s Park won’t need to exist and these incredible creatures will be free to live as they should, in the wild.

Howlett's Wild Animal Park, Bekesbourne Ln, Bekesbourne, Littlebourne, Canterbury CT4 5EL. Tickets from £24.50 per adult and £20 per child (3-15 years). Animal experiences and encounters from £15 to £295

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