Tucked away on a quiet road in Wilberforce lies the Wild Cat Conservation Centre, a safe haven and research centre for endangered felines from across the world. The various species of wild cats occupy a particularly picturesque slice of the Hawkesbury, featuring spacious enclosures and a savannah.
Founded in 2016 by Ben Britton, the Wild Cat Conservation Centre aims to protect wild cat species that are less known to the general public. These include fishing cats, caracals, clouded leopards (the only ones in Australia) and servals, as well as the more popularly known cheetahs. Ben says: “If you look at the 40 species of wild cats in the world, seven of them are considered big cats, and that’s what most people know. It’s the 33 we try to focus on – the sort of lesser known species.
“From a conservation funding point of view, 99% of funding goes to the seven, and 1% gets split between the remaining 33 species. So we try to shine a bit of light on the lesser known species, some of which are the most endangered wild cats in the world. They’re sort of the forgotten wild cats, but not by us.”
The Wild Cat Conservation Centre has 17 cats currently on site, each part of an international conservation insurance program, kept in captivity due to how endangered their species are. Ben says: “There’s around 7,000 cheetahs remaining in the wild, and if something like a disease went through southern Africa, they could be gone. So it’s good to keep some strong genetics around the world in different populations, in places like Australia.”
Ben has always had a passion for the animal kingdom, surrounded by pets growing up and catching frogs in the bush. “It was always animals growing up,” he says, “so the animals sort of chose me, rather than me choosing them.” After working around the world on different science projects and wildlife parks, Ben thought there could be a different way to do a conservation centre. “That’s where our Centre came about, because it was a bit of a passion project. It’s grown from there and ties nicely into the work we’ve been doing for the last 15 years in Africa.”
Having grown up in the Hawkesbury, the location for the Conservation Centre was ideal for Ben, both in its practicality and familiarity. “We wanted an area that had the space for the program, such as the cheetah savannah, and that was close enough to Sydney so people can come out and visit us, but not too far out,” says Ben. “Plus, I like space and country. The Hawkesbury is a bit of a hidden gem like that – you feel like you’re out further than you are, there’s a country feel to it.”
Living on site with his wife Kahlia, Ben’s team are also all locals to the area who are passionate about conservation. The team have a broad set of philosophies that see those who work at the Centre form meaningful relationships with the wild cats on site. Ben says: “Cats like the law of consistency, and they like to know what they’re going to get. From a keeper’s point of view, it’s the three C’s: calm, confident, consistent.”
Those philosophies have been integrated successfully at the Conservation Centre. “The first time cheetahs have ever been bred in Sydney was at this Centre. I think if you can calculate consistently, you’re going to solve a lot of issues and have a nice space for people to visit.”
Ben encourages readers to book a private tour at the Wild Cat Conservation Centre to learn more about the wild cats. “We’re trying to get those educational messages out and let everybody know that we’re here, and they can come along. A lot of people think that we’re not open to the public, but that’s definitely not the case. People often get a surprise that there’s something like this in the Hawkesbury, and so it’s quite special.”
As an independent wildlife centre, the Wild Cat Conservation Centre requires visits, donations and sponsors to continue their work. To visit the site on a guided tour or make a donation, head to https://wildcatcentre.org.au to learn more.
Additionally, the Centre is opening up their Wild Cat Conservation Trip with Ben for the first time since before COVID. The 9-day trip sees 8 people immersed in the African wilderness and learn about conservation, all in native big cat territory. If this is of interest to you, find out more at https://wildcatcentre.org.au/conservation-projects/wild-cat-conservation-trip/