It was late last year and Britton and Mashatu Research Director, Dr Andrei Snyman were travelling back to camp late at night. Britton was holding a spotlight trying to pick up the glow of chameleons in the trees when Andrei suggested Britton hand the spotlight back to him so they could shift their focus back to cats.
Nearly instantly, “Andrei was quietly saying ‘Back up, back up, back up!’ and he shone the spotlight on a young female caracal. It was the first time we've seen one in the wild for years. For me, it had been 10 years.
“We quickly scrambled to get a camera but she was gone. Now I’d been bugging Andrei to do a caracal study for years because we’d always concentrated on the bigger animals such as lions and hyenas and at that moment (after we missed the picture) I said, ‘we’d better do that caracal study now buddy’,” Britton tells National Geographic.
For most people, a caracal is a complete mystery animal. It’s in fact a cat – a medium-sized African cat.
One of the 40 species of wild cat yet we rarely hear about. The big cats tend to get all the attention, but there are 33 smaller cats and it’s those which really excite Britton.
Besides working alongside Mashatu Research in Botswana, Britton owns and runs the Wild Cat Conservation Centre at Wilberforce west of Sydney with his partner Kahlia.
According to Britton, the centre is “basically a shopfront for public to come and learn about our conservation breeding programs and our research activities in Africa”, which does include study of the bigger cats.
At the centre though, there are no large cats to be found although they do have cheetahs. However, Britton doesn’t consider them a true big cat because they’re “not in the same ballpark as a lion or a tiger”.
“The centre is about trying to educate people into realizing there's more than just lions and tigers. The big charismatic ones often get a lot of the attention, but we want to try and shine a bit of light on the small ones,” he says.
As for the caracal, the conservation centre current holds a unrelated pair of them, Kato and Kaia.
“They are the only caracals in Australia and people can come out and actually watch them as we explain why a caracal's designed the way it is.
“We answer questions like why do they have these amazing ears with little feathery tufts on the end of them and why they do have 20 different muscles in each ear? We explain how it’s about communication and camouflage, and people start to get an emotional connection with them and then we say they are endangered in North Africa and Asia.
“In South Africa, you can still get a permit to shoot them.”
Britton has just returned from Botswana where Mashatu Research has set up over 30 camera ‘traps” in the hope of capturing an image of the sighted female or another Caracal on film.
“It’s a brand new study and it’s pretty exciting. Our Wild Cat Conservation Foundation has funded the project and it is exciting that we are focusing an entire study on one of the smaller wild cats,” Britton says.
As for people keen on travelling out along the Hawkesbury River in Western Sydney to see the wild cats in action, Britton says the centre is not open like a zoo or wildlife park.
“We limit the numbers of visitors to our centre, so that when guests do come out, you’re the only people on site. We keep it that way so it's very organic and we can just chat about what we do when people first arrive.
“Then we make a bit of a plan with people. Find out what they’re interested in and then we go out and spend an hour or so with the cats.”
Britton himself was not a cat person growing up. He never actually had a pet cat.
“I had every animal other than a cat. When I was growing up, I always loved animals. I had lots of pets – dogs, ducks, sheep, reptiles. As I got older, I guess the animals I got interested in were a bit more exotic.
“I suppose watching National Geographic and nature documentaries got me interested and I was drawn to the wild cats.”
Britton has parlayed that initial fascination into a career and he has worked at zoos and wildlife parks around Australia. Now though, it’s all about wild cats and raising awareness of them among Australians at the centre.
“Not everybody can get to Botswana and see a caracal or a cheetah in the wild whereas they can get to Wilberforce. We’re making it tangible for a lot more people to come out and learn about the work we're doing.
“It’s about making people realise they can make a difference and that by them coming out to visit us, money goes back to Botswana to conserve wild populations for future generations.”
Ben Britton currently features on National Geographic and Nat Geo WILD.
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