When Steve Nichols first suggested bringing tigers to the wildlife park he runs at Friskney, there was some serious discussion around the family kitchen table.
Now the Lincolnshire Wildlife Park is quickly becoming known as the country’s largest collection of Bengal tigers and the only research centre of its kind. Next year, a huge visitor centre is set to be completed which will enable people to get up close and personal with all of its 11 tigers.
It is a long way from where the park started in 2003 as a parrot sanctuary, growing to become one of the biggest parrot rescue centres in the world. As the bird collection expanded, so did the park and Steve began to also take in meerkats, emus, snakes, lemurs and tortoises, among other animals. Then he heard about two tigers that needed a home.
He said: “We became aware that there are quite a few tigers kept privately by the public and found out that it got to a point where people were unable to look after them any more. That is where we started by taking in the tigers.
“When I first talked about it, there was always the massive question - do you want a big killer nearby? We had a big family meeting and as I live on the site of the park the first enclosure was in the back garden, 10 metres away from my kitchen.”
The tiger collection started with a male and female Bengal, who were shortly found to be expecting triplet cubs. The babies, Baseera, Lajuka and Sajiba have now grown into 24-stone tigers and are fondly loved by the family, which includes Steve’s wife Dawn, children Laura and Liam, and grandchildren Montell, 17, Kacia, five, and Mila (six weeks). The triplets and mum Dehra are currently the only tigers on public show at the park.
Steve, 56, who originally comes from Sheffield, added: “The idea became to build a rehabilitation and research centre for the tigers.
“We thought we would build something quite special and it has evolved from that. Once we started building people started calling and we now have 11 tigers, the country’s largest collection, and the largest housing facility in the country. It is sheer luxury, they have underfloor heating, and another area that stays cooler. They have their own lake, 500 trees and their own Indian temple.
“Bengal tigers are the most iconic and endangered, and unfortunately there are only about 1500 left in the world.
“There was a lot of organising to do to take on the first tigers and we needed to make something that was ‘tiger-proof’. We have specialist zoo keepers who are cat keepers. It is a little bit ‘Jurassic Park-ish’ but the feedback from the tops of the academic world and the zoo world has been great and that it is quite unique.
“Over the past 12 months we will have spent not far off a million pounds on this.”
Steve and his team are working closely with vets and researchers from Lincoln University
He said: “We are monitoring the tigers’ daily activities and when they eat etc. The research is on the environment, enrichment and for what is of interest to them and to benefit tigers in captivity; to benefit them in the long-term.”
The aim is that the new visitor centre will be completed by February next year and opened in March.
“We are putting in a huge visitor centre so that people can get up close to the tigers in the new facility. You will be able to get within 39mm of these tigers through a piece of bulletproof glass and see them swimming from 4,500m away.
“We aim to be a premier attraction to benefit the county. I could not have picked a better place than Friskney to have this centre. The people of Friskney love what we do. It is going to get better and better and we are constantly growing.”
* The Bengal tiger, also called the royal Bengal tiger, is the national animal of both India and Bangladesh. Since 2010 it has been classified as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.
Steve Nichols said: “Bengals are seen as ‘the’ tiger and there are a number of Bengals in private holdings.
“It is absolutely unbelievable that there are about 35 registered cat owners - that is from tigers to lions. These are usually very wealthy people and people who want to own them need to apply for a DWA (Dangerous Wild Animal licence) and prove to their council that they can provide the facilities.
“When people can’t look after them any more that is where we are contacted to take them in.”
As well as the tigers, the Lincolnshire Wildlife Park has also just taken in a puma called Nigel.
The park has grown quickly since it first opened as a parrot sanctuary and now has more than 100 different species of parrot, operating as a charity to help re-home birds, along with the mammals and reptiles it looks after.