From the African plains to Norfolk: the wildlife reserve helping endangered antelope and deer

  • Emily Knight has been to Watatunga to see how special breeding programmes are helping to increase numbers of endangered antelope and deer.

The East of England is not an obvious place to see antelope roam freely - but a wildlife reserve in Norfolk is playing an important role in protecting these "forgotten species" as they face declining numbers and in some cases, extinction.

While the plight of exotic creatures such as tigers and elephants receive the most attention, many species of rare deer and antelope are critically endangered too.

Seven entire species have disappeared in the last decade alone.

But at the Watatunga Wildlife Reserve close to the busy A10 near King's Lynn, work is going on to reverse that trend, with special breeding programmes and initiatives to reintroduce animals to the wild.

Ed Pope, an expert on antelope and deer and the founder of Watatunga, said: "We are working with some of the forgotten species. It's fantastic, because some of them have never seen big open space and some of them have even never seen grass.

"Then after a week or so they're suddenly 'wow we've got his whole area' and they look really happy."

At Watatunga the antelope are left to roam freely, along with deer from all over the world as well as those native to the British Isles such as the common roe deer.

An orphaned roe deer buck, brought to Watatunga by the RSPCA after its mother was killed on a road. Credit: ITV News Anglia

All of the species at Watatunga play an important role in the balance of individual eco-systems - just as on the African plains.

The antelope are prey for predators, such as lions and tigers, and without these ungulates [large mammals with hooves], there would be no food for them.

"Something like a hog deer is actually very important in eco-systems and without them some of the species like the tigers would be forgotten because they wouldn't have any prey species," said Mr Pope.

"The concept is everything is in together as if they were in the Serengeti," he said.

A roan antelope, found in wooded areas and savannah across central and southern Africa with numbers declining dramatically. Credit: ITV News Anglia

Alex Douglas, now a tour guide at Watatunga, spent 17 years at the Kruger National park in South Africa before she moved to Norfolk in 2018.

"The 'wat' comes from the name of the estate and village, Watlington and 'tunga' comes from the name of a beautiful southern African swamp antelope called the Sitatunga," she explained.

Much to her delight, she still gets to see these rare breeds - some of them more often than she did when they were in their natural African habitats.

"The roan antelope which we have here at Watatunga, which I only saw twice in the wild there [Kruger National Park], much to the envy of my friends in South Africa, I now see it far more regularly."

A pair of nesting storks. Credit: ITV News Anglia

The wildlife reserve is also home to rare birds. A pair of white storks are currently nesting by one of the lakes, with three eggs being carefully guarded.

They went extinct in the UK due to habitat loss and hunting around 500 years ago. 

Now there are a handful around the UK thanks to several breeding programmes - in places such as the Knepp Estate in West Sussex.

"We've got a male and female here," said Ms Douglas. "She's free flying and comes back to us each year, and we're very excited to say we've actually got three eggs on the nest at the moment."

A Great Bustard which went extinct in the UK in 1832, now they've been brought back to the UK, with five at Watatunga. Credit: ITV News Anglia

There are other breeding programmes running at the reserve; the Malayan sambar, hog deer, barasingha and the great bustard, another rare bird.

It's around the size of a turkey and went extinct in the UK in 1832, partly because it was hunted for food and was seen as a trophy bird.

  • Watch 'Dave' the Great Bustard tag along with ITV News Anglia's film crew around the wildlife reserve.

Now around 50% of the world population of great bustards are found in parts of Spain.

A 10-year re-introduction programme in Wiltshire run by the Great Bustard Group has seen numbers rise to around 100, with five at Watatunga.

"Some of them have been habituated to humans" said Mr Pope. "Or perhaps they don't have a very good wing, so releasing them into the full wild would be a bit tricky, so they come here and behave as if they were in the wild."

A Pere David deer with its calf. Credit: ITV News Anglia

Many of the species at Watatunga are under threat, such as the Pere David deer and the scimitar-horned oryx, both now extinct in the wild.

Working in partnership with zoos and safari parks across the UK and Europe, experts are trying to increase numbers once again.

The scimitar-horned oryx has in the past been pushed to extinction due to human disturbance, over-hunting and drought. Credit: ITV News Anglia

Julian Stoyel manages the animals at Watatunga and is Europe's leading deer conservationist.

He said: "We're like the half-way house. We're working along with zoos to re-educate those animals from that unnatural environment to hopefully, possibly, re-release or work with that species to get the numbers up.

"As soon as they come from the zoos into this natural browsing environment, fertility - after a couple of years - goes up. Some of them don't have any young in zoos, whereas after a couple of years here they start having young, so that's very exciting for us."

There are now only about twenty Indian sambar deer in the western world. Credit: ITV News Anglia

The location gives the animals the chance to "develop themselves as a family group" according to Mr Pope, and for the young to "know what to feed on at certain times of the year and really behave as if they were in the wild."

There are also a number of native birds that come to the reserve.

"We've got oyster catchers coming in, white storks, the great bustard, eurasian cranes and barn owl nesting boxes and wading birds coming to the edges of the lakes," said Mr Pope.

Natural browsing helps increase fertility amongst species. Credit: ITV News Anglia

There are currently around 52,000 surplus deer and antelope species in zoos at the moment, according to Mr Stoyel.

"If we work together we can get them back to their environments," he said.

"Obviously there's a lot of work to do with deforestation and all these bigger questions to be asked, but [if we save] these areas, then we can get some of these animals back."

Then perhaps the numbers will start to rise once again.