An African experience down at Eagle Heights
PUBLISHED: 14:02 01 November 2012
Savannah, Zena and Boumani are three unlikely residents of Eynsford who stand out among the English countryside.
The cheetahs, aged eight, six and three, live at Eagle Heights animal centre among 100 or so birds of prey, 26 huskies and two meerkats.
Every day, the Africa Show is put on for visitors. It starts with Annie the African fish eagle swooping down from the sky and showing off her eight-foot wingspan.
Next up, one of the cheetahs is brought to the top of a hill attached to a zip wire.
He sprints – a cheetah can go from 0 to 60mph in just three seconds – and catches his prey (fake, mind, and then replaced with raw meat).
Then the vultures are released, circling and dive-bombing to snatch scraps from the carcass.
The Africa Show is the closest Alan Ames can get to taking his audience to the continent he has visited many times in his life.
Passionate about wildlife, the 56-year-old has studied birds of prey in Central and West Africa and lived in the rainforests of Cameroon.
Eagle Heights is his way of making people here understand the importance of how man and nature can co-exist without damaging the environment, as he explains.
“The centre started off on a small scale, but then it became much more purposeful, with education and changing the attitudes of people to nature.
“A lot of it is to do with sustainability and human population. Many don’t seem to think it is a problem, but human populations are increasing by 200,000 people a day worldwide and for every additional human being, something else is going to be displaced because you need to feed them.
“The population of Africa is to double in 50 years. That means twice the food production and twice the grazing. Everything else is displaced. Globally it is not sustainable.”
It is this thinking that Alan promotes on school visits across the UK.
“I try to make people think about the natural world. Education is the most important thing,” he says.
Eagle Heights is family-run, with wife Sally, daughter Sam and son Johnny working there full-time and handling the animals – which they have learned to do themselves.
The cheetahs arrived after Alan decided to add something “inspirational” to the centre.
The number of cheetahs has fallen from 100,000 to 12,000 in 12 years and this, Alan says, is caused by population expansion and conflicts over land and resources.
It was from other zoos that breed cheetahs that Eagle Heights was able to obtain its three big cats.
If anyone wonders just how one trains a cheetah, it is done just as you would with a dog.
“It is no different,” says Alan. “When you get a cheetah, you wait three months until it is weaned and then train it. Cheetahs are the easiest of the big cats to work with. People have trained them for 4,000 years.”
Red tape prevents Alan from realising his dream of expanding into the “greatest wildlife educational resource in the South East”, but he is in talks with the Department of Wildlife in Gambia about setting up a similar park there.
For Alan, Eagle Heights is more than an attraction.
“The future of much of the world’s wildlife, especially in the developing world, is in the hands of the West. And educating young people is the best way of making sure we save it.”