Updated: Nov 10
Imagine having an African reserve in a quaint little village in Norfolk. Well, the time
has come and you can visit this huge reserve, learning all about the animals that live
there as well as the work they do to preserve our natural world. Annie Fowler,
environment expert, finds out all about it.
Picture, a day out in Norfolk, surrounded by fields with the sun shining and the smell of
summer filling the air, with the expectation of seeing the brown hares run across the fields
and the birds swooping. What you don’t expect is 170 acres of unused quarry and
disregarded wetland to be inhabited by some of the world's most endangered species. Most
of which come from Africa.
Instead of diggers, trucks, and lorries in the quarry, it is filled with open fields covered in
wildflowers and different species of grasses, roamed by deer, antelope, and buffalo. Ed Pope
is the creator of this safe haven for the animals which has been a dream long coming and he
is a true conservationist at heart.
Jonathan Usher Smith, Reserve Manager gave some insight into the background of Edward
Pope and the reserve: “The idea of Watatunga Wildlife Reserve came about through Edward
Popes' (Owners) passion for wildlife and conservation. At a young age, he was always very
interested in a lot of our native wildlife and his trips to Africa only fueled his interest in
wildlife, particularly Zebra and Antelope. Originally he grew up and worked in London, but
after his father passed away he returned to run his family farm on Watlington Estate.
“One of the many land uses on the farm was gravel extraction, and one of the byproducts left
behind from this, are these great hollows where they’ve extracted all the material they
needed, so the options were to return the area to arable fields once more or flood them to
form wonderful lakes which attract an abundance of wildlife, needless to say, the lakes were
“It was about this time Edward met another fellow enthusiast Julian Stoyel, who’s one the
leading experts in deer genetics and husbandry in the country. At the time Julian was in
contact with a number of zoos and wildlife parks that were crying out for space for surplus
deer and antelope, Edward was only too happy to help hold a number of different exciting
deer and some antelope species.”
The reserve has 20 species of ungulate (animals with hooves) and rare bird species which
have been given a new home to flourish and breed, contributing to their species' future.
Although the reserve's mission is to conserve and breed these animals it is open to the
public for tours and holiday stays which is a big contribution to the upkeep, as well as a fun
A four-strong team runs the reserve, manages breeding programs, and works with other
conservation groups and specialists to organise guided tours and manages the
Watatunga offers guided tours in golf buggies, like a true African adventure! Jonathan
explained: “The golf buggies are firstly better for the environment as they are electric, they
have little impact on the tracks and pathways. Lastly and most importantly they are silent so
you can observe the wildlife without disturbing them with the sound of an engine, so you can
enjoy the sights and sounds of Watatunga with little or no disturbance, letting the animals act
more naturally and are not bothered by the buggies.”
Initially, before Covid, the tours would have a guide pulling a trailer around with the guests on
the trailer, then Covid came so they had to rethink the idea of how to do the tours. The next
plan was to have golf buggies, so people can stay in their group bubbles, this worked so
well, as people loved driving themselves around on the tour. So now we do three guided
tours a day.
The aim of Watatunga Wildlife Reserve is to promote the need for “Conservation today for
wildlife tomorrow”. So through educating guests via the tours we can tell guests about the
plight of many of the rare and endangered species within Watatunga and the need to protect
them and animals from this country.
“With the main aim of conservation and education, we look to help with many captive
breeding programs looking at long-term help to release animals back to the wild. Within the
reserve, we actively improve the habitat not only benefiting the exotic species but bringing in
vast numbers of native wildlife too.
“The species we have are very different from a lot of other collections as we focus more on
the deer and antelope, these are animals people often overlook or don’t think about their
importance. There are species of deer which are far more endangered than Amur Leopard
or White Rhino but people have never heard about them, often glancing at them in another
collection before moving on to the sexier species."
“Here at Watatunga, we are trying to tell the story of the plight of many rare and endangered
deer and antelope, the Mountain Bongo for example is down to less than a hundred left in the
wild or the success story of the Pere David Deer which was brought back from the brink of
extinction. We also tell people about the evolution of some of these species, take deer for
instance, they were once tiny fanged hoofstock that looked nothing like a lot of the
modern-day antlered species, some of which evolved into giants like the Megaloceros with
antlers over two metres each."
Watatunga is all about conservation and working together to preserve nature's animals. “We
work alongside many zoos, wildlife parks, deer parks and reserves, looking to help rare and
endangered species but also help with their husbandry and welfare of these species, looking
at ways we can improve all the time.”
Visitors are a huge part of the running for Watatunga so the team makes sure there's enough
activities and opportunities for all. “The guests have lots of options to visit, we run guided
buggy tours three times a day Tuesday-Sunday, with the option of cyclists, walkers or a
single guest having the chance to go on the trailer, with the addition also of a wheelchair
trailer as well for wheelchair users.
“We’re looking to be running special photography days on Monday in which photographers
after a tutorial on how to drive the buggies can then spend a whole day out photographing in
As the menagerie grew the idea took seed for fencing off these wonderful lakes and
woodlands to form a truly unique reserve, holding lots of different weird and wonderful deer
and antelope from all over the world, Watatunga Wildlife Reserve was born.
Watatunga is a funny word to say but has a big meaning. “The literal meaning in Swahili is
'we compose' – we think it's a great word to roll around as it's hard to say 'Watatunga' with a