Shepreth Wildlife Park marks a decade of working with endangered animals
Rebecca Willers is a true force of nature. Passionate about conservation, she has devoted most of her life to saving endangered species.
Just 20 when she took over running her family’s wildlife park, she was the National Zoo Association’s first-ever female president in 2016 and has taken on countless extreme challenges in the name of conservation.
The daring feats, which have raised over £35,000 to support anti-poaching projects in Sumatra, include swimming in the English Channel (and being attacked by jellyfish), climbing Kilimanjaro, walking 40km across the Sumatra’s Kerinci-Seblat National Park (remove tiger snares) and complete the 106km Isle of Wight Ultra Challenge.
Even the pandemic couldn’t dull Rebecca’s resolve as she set out to complete a Shepreth Wildlife Park half marathon, to mark her 40th birthday, raising £16,000. So where does this dynamism come from?
“My dad put a really strong work ethic in my brother Nick and me,” Rebecca enthused. “My mom is amazing too; she ran the London Marathon a few years ago and she is in her 60s. So I think we’re just very energetic people! »
Rebecca’s father Terry bought land in Shepreth in 1979, intending to build houses, but the family started saving animals and by 1984 had given refuge to so many creatures that they decided to open the Willers Mill Wild Animal Sanctuary.
“Jack, an injured jackdaw, was our first rescue, but we ended up with so many animals because my parents were rescuing traffic accidents, so deer, badgers, foxes, as well as exotic species that people didn’t want to keep them at home anymore,” explains Rebecca.
Growing up at the sanctuary, she has fond memories of her (literally) life alongside animals: “I remember we lived with an emu in the kitchen for a while and had a kinkajou (cub) on the landing outside. upstairs,” she recalls. .
Although Rebecca’s career path first took her to magazine journalism, she continued to live and work at the wildlife park. And shortly after her 20th birthday, when the park superintendent left, her father and brother asked her if she would agree to play the role.
“I didn’t need to think about it; I cracked it!” she smiled. “I was thrown into the deep end, but I have no regrets. I’ve been doing it for 21 years now and I love it.
Under Rebecca’s leadership, the focus of the zoo, which was renamed Shepreth Wildlife Park, shifted to conservation, education and research. She showcased her beloved Sumatran tigers (which are critically endangered in the wild by illegal poaching) and signed with BIAZA (the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquaria) and EAZA (the European Association of Zoos) .
“It was a critical point because we were able to meet our peers and explore the role of zoos,” she explains. “So we moved away from the idea of Shepreth as a day-long attraction and focused more on its role in education, conservation and research, which is now at the heart of everything we we do.”
Today, 40% of Shepreth’s animal population is made up of endangered species, including the maned wolf, red panda, clouded leopard, capuchin monkey and ibis. The list of endangered species is depressing, but Rebecca and her team have been instrumental in raising funds and awareness to combat the decline of these extraordinary species.
In 2011 they founded the Shepreth Wildlife Conservation Charity (SWCC) and in November 2012 launched the SWCC Hedgehog Hospital, which has rescued over 5,000 injured hedgehogs.
Through various initiatives – including the popular Tiger and Panda Days – the park, together with the SWCC, have raised £500,000 to support the Hedgehog Hospital and conservation organizations around the world including Red Panda Network and Wildcat Conservation Alliance.
“Being 10 years old and amassing half a million pounds is just amazing,” Rebecca muses. “It’s so rewarding to be able to make such positive changes.”
To mark the charity’s 10th anniversary, the SWCC Hedgehog Hospital Benefit Ball will take place at King’s College, Cambridge on Saturday 19 November. With a lavish dinner, entertainment and captivating speeches, the ball will raise funds for a new conservation center. to support Hedgehog Hospital.
Unafraid of adventure, Rebecca personally sets the pace by taking on 10 new challenges in the hope of raising £10,000. “I have decided to go to extremes so my challenges will include the Welsh Three Peaks with my mum, the Yorkshire Three Peaks with the team I trekked through the Sumatran jungle with and the Welsh 3000s which will be the most difficult.
“These are the 15 highest peaks in Wales, and we’re trying to do it in under 24 hours, so part of it will be in the dark.”
[Read more: Hedgehogs injured by garden strimmers and toxic chemicals treated at Shepreth]
Rebecca will also tackle 24 Lake District peaks over two days, run a marathon around the zoo on Red Panda Day and spend around 15 days in September hiking the 180km GR20 in Corsica, which peaks at 12,000m above sea level. ‘altitude.
“My final challenge, which makes me the most nervous, is doing a piano recital for friends and family!” she confides. “I haven’t played since I was 10 and I love Ludovico Einaudi so I want to learn how to play I Giorni, which is quite a long piece. It’s a tall order, but if anyone has the guts and determination to pull it off, it’s Rebecca!
For more on Shepreth Wildlife Park’s 10th anniversary events, go to sheprethwildlifepark.co.uk.