Few zoo owners have a higher profile than Damian Aspinall, whose two parks in Kent attract hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.
But the 61-year-old admits he would happily see Howletts and Port Lympne shut, or turned into rescue centres, if it meant their animals living wild.
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Damian talks about the project
In fact, it’s what he hopes for.
“It kills me to see any animal in captivity,” he says, sincerely.
“I think Howletts and Port Lympne are the best in the world at animal husbandry – but it still kills me. They don’t belong here.”
I’m sat with Damian in a side room of the timber-framed Howletts pavilion, about 200 metres from the 30-room mansion he calls home in the heart of the park.
With his flowing locks, the multi-millionaire, who arrived for our interview alone on a golf buggy, bears a striking resemblance to his late father, John.
Aspinall Snr established Howletts as a private zoo in 1957 before opening it to the public in 1975. The following year Port Lympne welcomed its first visitors.
It’s clear Damian shares his father’s compassion for animals and their welfare.
“It means a lot to me, I’m absolutely passionate about it,” he said. “Animals have as much a right to this planet as we do.”
Through the pavilion window I can see four cape buffalo grazing in the late afternoon sun, having recently arrived from Austria.
They are one of a number of species Damian and his team at the Aspinall Foundation are looking to rewild, with lions, serval cats, gibbons and red river hogs among those primed to start new lives in their natural habitats.
The Foundation has already successfully rewilded hundreds of animals, including gorillas, hyenas and the first-ever cheetahs, cementing its place among the world’s leading organisations in conservation.
Its latest project, to transfer the entire Howletts elephant herd to Africa, is its biggest yet, and its “greatest challenge”.
The 13-strong group are due to bid farewell to Kent this summer and depart on a 4,400-mile journey to Kenya, where they will live a life of freedom.
But the rewilding scheme has come in for some criticism, with a Kent professor and the park’s former head elephant keeper raising concerns for the animals’ welfare.
Damian takes the criticism personally, saying he has little time for the opinions of “ill-informed people who don’t bother to fact-check”.
“I know if it goes well, no one else will care,” he says.
“If it goes badly, I’ll be Mr Nasty – there’s no upside in this for me, none at all.
“I’m only doing it for the animals. You will all jump on me as a mad man if it goes wrong but if it goes right, it might make a small sub paragraph for page six.
“It’s human nature to like bad news rather than good news, it’s a sickness. It’s something wrong with us as a species.
“It’s frustrating as there is no other organisation in the world doing what we do. We have rewilded 300 animals.
“People should be proud we are willing to take these risks.
“People are forming opinions before checking all of the facts. All we’re trying to do is find a way for 13 elephants to go home, to their homeland.”
While the departure of the elephants will mark a significant milestone for Howletts, Damian expects it will not be the last as the two animal parks continue to evolve.
“In the next 20 years, either we’ve managed to extract ourselves from having animals in captivity, or they are animals we are giving a much better life to,” he said.
“As a general rule, we’re phasing out animals that we can’t rewild and going into animals that we can.
“All zoos should be phased out in the next 20 to 30 years, there is no need for them. I think there is a need for welfare centres.
“We’re slowly either rescuing animals or only keeping ones we can breed and release.”
Damian believes that in time there will be no need to have any wild animal in captivity.
“If the animal is so rare, you can protect it in situ,” he says. “You don’t have to bring them to bad European zoos.
“Zoos go around convincing everybody that they are doing great conservation work, but there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that. They talk about education but there is no evidence of positive education that zoos do.
“It’s all a myth. It doesn’t make me very popular with zoos as they don’t want to hear it, but I think it’s a myth that needs to be broken.”
In recent years, Port Lympne has slowly shifted towards becoming a luxury venue for overnight stays, rather than a wild animal park for families to visit.
It is now known as Port Lympne Hotel & Reserve, with visitors able to enjoy stays in places such as Giraffe Hall and Tiger Lodge – the latter at a cost of more than £1,000 per night.
“The accommodation is an interesting phenomenon, as I think we’re the only zoo that doesn’t lock any animal out on display,” Damian says.
“So the public could walk around and see nothing if it’s too rainy or too hot.
“I have great sympathy for the public that they can walk around and not see a lot of animals. But by having the overnight accommodation, people can walk around in a relaxed way in the morning and evenings, when the animals want to be seen.
“That’s much less stressful for the animals, rather than having hundreds of people screaming and shouting ‘Where are the animals? Where are the animals?’
“Other zoos will never agree (to rewild) as they want to have two or three elephants there because the public like to see them.
“When you compare Howletts and Port Lympne with these other dreadful places, then it just breaks my heart. There are awful, awful, awful places which talk about conservation, but I know they do absolutely nothing for conservation.”
Damian says there are no plans yet to introduce overnight stays at Howletts, and he does not know if day visitors will be phased out at Port Lympne.
The father-of-three, who is also chairman of the multi-million-pound Aspers casino group, also remains tight-lipped about the ongoing investigation into the finances of the Aspinall Foundation.
The Charity Commission is probing both the Foundation and the Howletts Wild Animal Trust over “serious concerns about governance and financial management”.
In cases where serious wrongdoing is proven, charities can be taken over or even forced to fold.
Asked when the findings of the investigations will be revealed, Damian says: “I’m not here to talk about that.”
What he does want to talk about is the elephant project, and it’s clear that criticism of the project has struck a nerve.
He says suggestions the animals will not acclimatise to their new surroundings are “absurd”.
“Elephants don’t do well in captivity – calves have very high mortality rates, adults have high mortality rates, low birth rates and they have severe mental distress disorders,” he says.
“Howletts has bred 26 elephants in its time, while the rest of all of the zoos in the UK have had 11 (combined). So we know what we’re doing and have the interests of the elephants first.
“Why should anyone deny elephants the chance to live free? On what basis has anyone got to do that?
“Nothing is without risk. This is not something we do lightly.”
Damian is confident the herd will thrive in Kenya, in comparison to “running around on concrete and mud” at his Canterbury park.
“Humans have stolen 1,500 elephants out of Africa and sent them to zoos and circuses all over the world,” he says. “I don’t remember too many people complaining about that.
“It’s OK to do that, but it’s not OK to try and rehome them? That’s crazy to me.”
There are rumours Netflix wants to document the elephants’ move as part of a global streaming series, but Damian declined to shed any light on the topic.
The monumental task of transporting the herd has been years in the making, and the elephants are being trained to enter tight spaces ahead of their mammoth journey.
Damian, who says the planning process is meticulous, is hoping to avoid going down the sedation route as it can have its complications.
Instead, the keepers will be on the plane to accompany the elephants in an effort to put them at ease.
“We’re flying out UK foods with them so when they get there it’s not a completely different diet. This idea that we just chuck them out there without any thought for the risks is just nonsense.
“We’re hoping it can happen this summer, that’s the aim. But it’s still not a certainty.
“There is a lot of paperwork to get through. We’re doing everything in our power to get them out this summer.”
Damian admits Howletts will likely see visitor numbers fall when the elephants – one of the park’s star attractions – leave for Kenya later this year.
But his concern is only for “doing what’s right” for the animals, and not the financial implications of their departure.
“We look after our elephants as best as we possibly can, but there’s not 1% of me that thinks they belong here,” he says.