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Big Cat Sanctuary in Smarden near Ashford joins forces with DS TECHEETAH Formula E team

By Dan Wright

Thanks to its starring role in a hit BBC documentary, The Big Cat Sanctuary has enjoyed a surge in exposure - and now a leftfield partnership with a Formula E team is taking the centre's conservation work to a whole new audience, as Dan Wright discovers

A conservation charity joining forces with a motorsport team is an unlikely partnership in anyone's book.

But if the Big Cat Sanctuary in Smarden near Ashford is going to continue to help some of the world's most endangered species, it must spread its message far and wide.

That's why it has united with the DS TECHEETAH Formula E team, which is competing in the world's only all-electric racing championship.

A cheetah from the sanctuary explores the Formula E car. Picture: DS TECHEETAH
A cheetah from the sanctuary explores the Formula E car. Picture: DS TECHEETAH

The Headcorn Road site - home to more than 50 cats including white lions and snow leopards - gained huge awareness last year through BBC Two's Big Cats About The House series.

Giles Clark, the sanctuary's director of cats and conservation, shot to fame in the three-part programme after hand-rearing five-day-old Jaguar cub Maya and timid cheetah Willow, who both now live at the park.

He says becoming the racing team's charity partner can help raise awareness of the plight facing big cats.

Giles Clark with Maya the jaguar on the Big Cats About The House programme. Picture: BBC
Giles Clark with Maya the jaguar on the Big Cats About The House programme. Picture: BBC

"The partnership is a perfect demonstration of the solutions we need to find for conservation challenges," Mr Clark says.

"Historically, the motorsport audience may not have wanted to engage with environmental challenges so it is about introducing it to them in a way that people find interesting.

"It is about taking our message of conservation to parts of society which, potentially, would otherwise have not wanted to take it on board."

Former F1 star Jean-Eric Vergne enjoyed his visit to the Big Cat Sanctuary. Picture: DS TECHEETAH
Former F1 star Jean-Eric Vergne enjoyed his visit to the Big Cat Sanctuary. Picture: DS TECHEETAH

The collaboration with DS - which was previously an arm of Citroen but is now a standalone French car marque - sees the sanctuary's logo stuck proudly to the front of the team's two battery-powered racers.

DS TECHEETAH chiefs say they are fighting to halt climate change by developing technology to get more electric vehicles on the road, which sits well with the sanctuary's aim of contributing to global breeding programmes and supporting conservation projects worldwide.

The Smarden site's logo can now be spotted in Formula E races across the globe, where 22 single-seater cars all powered by a green battery power system fight wheel-to-wheel.

Giles Clark with Willow the cheetah cub on the Big Cats About The House programme. Picture: BBC
Giles Clark with Willow the cheetah cub on the Big Cats About The House programme. Picture: BBC

To mark the partnership with the sanctuary, the DS TECHEETAH drivers - Jean-Eric Vergne and Andre Lotterer - visited the 32-acre site last month to meet the two cheetahs their cars are named after.

Reigning champion Vergne, who currently leads the championship by six points, previously competed in F1 for three seasons between 2012 and 2014.

The French star has already scored two Formula E wins this season - including around the streets of Monaco last month.

Giles Clark, Andre Lotterer and Jean-Eric Vergne at the Big Cat Sanctuary. Picture: DS TECHEETAH
Giles Clark, Andre Lotterer and Jean-Eric Vergne at the Big Cat Sanctuary. Picture: DS TECHEETAH

"To see a team that is doing a partnership not to gain money but for a good cause is extremely rare in motorsport," Vergne, who stayed at the Eastwell Manor hotel on his visit to the sanctuary, says.

"My favourite cartoon as a kid was the Jungle Book and I have always been attracted to animals.

"I have a Bengal cat at home in London which looks quite exotic and is a mini cheetah.

Jean-Eric Vergne feeds Willow, who starred on the Big Cats About The House programme. Picture: DS TECHEETAH
Jean-Eric Vergne feeds Willow, who starred on the Big Cats About The House programme. Picture: DS TECHEETAH

"The partnership shows the DNA of our team and it is the reason why I love it - we are pushing in the same direction with the same mentality."

The sanctuary is usually closed to visitors, but will open its doors next month for a series of open days which have already sold out.

Mr Clark - who helped Vergne and Lotterer hand-feed Willow during their visit - says the threat to cheetahs is of particular concern, with less than 7,000 remaining in the wild.

Less than 7,000 cheetahs remain in the wild. Picture: DS TECHEETAH
Less than 7,000 cheetahs remain in the wild. Picture: DS TECHEETAH

He said: "While we wish all big cats to remain in the wild and it is our ambition to release them, for some it is not possible, and they fill a crucial role in breeding and in creating awareness for the plight of the species at the sanctuary.

"Raising funds and awareness are two of the most important things for a charity and this is why we have partnered up.

"We hope to entice an audience from all over the world to help us in our mission to put cheetahs first.

"As Formula E gets more popular, hopefully our partnership can go from strength to strength."

WHAT IS FORMULA E?

It may not have the reach of other motorsports, but Formula E is growing - and it's growing at quite a pace.

The all-electric racing series uses single-seater cars which are slower than the machines seen in Formula 1, but produce no emissions and little noise.

Since its launch in 2014, the championship has attracted more and more big-name car manufacturers all keen to show off their environmentally-friendly work.

Jean-Eric Vergne poses with the Big Cat Sanctuary logo on his Formula E car
Jean-Eric Vergne poses with the Big Cat Sanctuary logo on his Formula E car

Audi, Jaguar and Nissan all currently race in the series, with Porsche and Mercedes having already confirmed they are joining in as well later this year.

The championship promotes the significant development of electric vehicle technology - and the battery-powered cars put on quite a show.

The races - which all take place in cities on street circuits - are always unpredictable, something which can't be said about Formula 1.

'We have had eight different winners this season, which you don't see in F1...' - Jean-Eric Vergne

"People are coming around now and realising the racing is actually better in Formula E than Formula 1," Vergne says.

"It's unpredictable, the races are shorter, there's more overtaking and more fights - there's not only one or two drivers who can win.

"We have had eight different winners this season, which you don't see in F1."

The championship will race in London next July on a track built around the Royal Docks and ExCeL exhibition centre.

The next round, from Bern in Switzerland, can be seen on the BBC Red Button on Saturday at 10pm.

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