When Steve Nichols first suggested bringing tigers to the wildlife park he runs, 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, in Friskney, 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 (5) 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 1,500 left in the world.
“There was a lot of organising 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.”
• The park is situated in Friskney (PE22 8PP), between Boston and Skegness, and is open every day apart from Christmas Day. A family ticket costs £40.