There's an air of excitement as you arrive at Nordens Ark. To begin with, the location of this acclaimed wildlife park and conservation centre is stunning – occupying ancient Åby Manor, which dates back to the 1300s, and situated idyllically alongside beautiful Åby fjord on west Sweden's renowned Bohuslän coast, some 120 km north of Gothenburg.
Then, of course, there are the animals. Visiting wildlife parks is often an excellent way to find out about our planet's remarkable wild animals, and makes for a fun and educational day out. This is certainly the case at Nordens Ark where – from learning about the Amur leopard, the most endangered cat in the world, to the excitement of spotting a wolf in its vast woodland enclosure – there's enough to see and do to keep you busy all day.
But this place is much more than just a wildlife park, and behind the scenes there is another, more serious story.
Across the world, biological diversity is under threat. Sadly, human actions are frequently the cause, with habitat destruction, poaching and climate change creating challenges for many animals – and in the worst cases even leading to the extinction of entire species.
Conservation projects form the backbone of the work taking place at Nordens Ark, which is in fact a non-profit foundation established to help secure the long-term future of endangered animals.
It's an impressive set-up and a major centre for the reintroduction, breeding and protection of many rare species – with an enviable track record of success stories. There is also ongoing work to improve the natural habitats that animals need to survive and thrive.
A wildlife park on Sweden's west coast is tackling the global problem of endangered animals. By Penny Bunting
Photographs by Isabel Bunting. Above: Eurasian lynx; below left: snow leopard
Nordens Ark participates in international conservation projects, and this has included work in Russia with the Amur tiger, in Costa Rica with the common tree frog and in Mongolia with the snow leopard.
There have been some inspiring breeding and reintroduction programmes on Swedish soil too. One major success story involves the peregrine falcon. In 1976, there were no breeding peregrine falcon pairs in Sweden, and the birds were at risk of becoming locally extinct – partly because pesticides in the environment were causing egg shell thinning. But following the Nordens Ark breeding programme for peregrines – the only one of its kind in Sweden – the birds have been reintroduced and are now thriving.
Other successful release projects in Sweden include lesser white-fronted geese, green toads and white-backed woodpeckers.
Alongside this work to help individual species, Nordens Ark is restoring more than 200 hectares of land adjacent to the wildlife park, using conservation practices to support, improve and encourage biodiversity. This area – known as the Ecopark – can also be visited and offers marked trails through beautiful woodlands and meadows.
So, what can a family expect during a visit to Nordens Ark? We visited with our daughters aged 14 and 12, and our first and most important piece of advice is to allow plenty of time for your visit! Nordens Ark is huge – it occupies almost 400 hectares in total – so if possible, it's best to allow two days if you want to enjoy fully everything on offer.
Nordens Ark consists of three large, distinct areas: the Ecopark, farm and wildlife park. It's the wildlife park that most visitors will head to first, and it's here that you'll find many rare and endangered animals.
Because of the vast enclosures, it's advisable to carry binoculars – and be patient. The animals are living in an environment that is designed to closely replicate the habitats they would live in in the wild – this means plenty of camouflage and hiding places, so it sometimes takes a while to spot them. It does make it all the more exciting when you succeed, though!
To guarantee plenty of animal sightings, try to time your visit to each enclosure to coincide with the park's feeding schedule, or one of the ranger talks.
Above: Amur tiger cub; below left: Tom Svensson shows us a buoy, used as a toy by the tigers
One of the best ways to experience the park is to take a guided tour with a ranger. We toured the park with Tom Svensson – a warm and welcoming host who has worked at the park for many years and who shared with us his vast knowledge of the animals and their environments.
Tom is also a renowned wildlife and conservation photographer and a member of Canon's Explorers ambassadors programme – much to the delight of our daughter, a keen amateur photographer, who enjoyed the opportunity to learn some new skills from such a professional.
One of the first things we noticed is how well the animals are looked after. Health and wellbeing is paramount. Mental stimulation is very important, as is the recreation of living conditions that would normally be experienced by the animals in the wild. Even in huge enclosures, such as the ones at Nordens Ark, animals need interest in their day-to-day lives to maintain their mental health.
Above: lynx; wolf; snow leopard
Tom took us to see the Amur tiger cubs, and we watched them lounging in the sunshine with their mother. When we visited there were three cubs and three adult Amur tigers at Nordens Ark. With only 400 Amur tigers left in the wild, the animals here are vital as a genetic backup to protect against future extinction of the species.
Tom called the cubs towards us, dangling mice to entice them closer to the fence. The cubs were undeniably cute, with their oversized paws and fluffy faces – but even these tiny tigers have immense power in their paws, and we were glad of the high-voltage fence separating us from them and their mother.
Trust between the rangers and the animals is very important, and is built up slowly to avoid unnecessarily distressing the animals. This is particularly important when it comes to the wolves – notoriously shy, secretive creatures that are naturally wary of humans.
“It's taken me several years to build up complete trust with the wolves,” Tom told us, as we made our way to the wolf enclosure. The wolves were nowhere to be seen at first, but then Tom called for the female wolf and she appeared almost magically before us, emerging from the shady trees. The wolf enclosure is huge and its inhabitants are one of the hardest animals to spot – having a ranger on hand gives a greater chance of getting a glimpse of these reclusive creatures.
The next stop on our tour was the wolverine enclosure. These fascinating and playful animals are one of Sweden's four large predators – the others are wolf, bear and lynx. The wolverine has 500kg power in its jaws, and can crush almost anything with ease. Tom warned us to keep a tight hold on our belongings, as anything dropped into the wolverine enclosure – hats, sunglasses or mobile phones for example – would become the wolverines' property, and we'd be unlikely to get them back in one piece.
The leopards at Nordens Ark are some of the most endangered animals in the world, and having the opportunity to see them was a real treat.
The Amur leopard is at extreme risk, with only 60 remaining in the wild – a result largely of human activities such as destruction of habitats and poaching. “It's a sad fact that the rarer the animal, the higher the price paid for its fur and bones,” Tom told us.
But there is hope for this threatened species. Two years ago its wild population was even smaller – just 40 worldwide. Reintroduction programmes for creatures like these can help to reverse the worrying trend of rapidly decreasing population, and offer protection against future extinction.
The wildlife park is a fantastic place to practise wildlife photography. Tom runs photography workshops and courses – with early morning rises to capture the animals first thing when they are at their most active. In fact, in a leading Swedish camera magazine, Nordens Ark was ranked fifth in a list of top Swedish wildlife photography locations – quite an achievement given the wealth of wild landscapes and iconic species, including wolf, bear, lynx and elk – boasted by this beautiful Scandinavian country.
After learning about the endangered animals in the wildlife park, touring the wetlands area and amphibian house and visiting the playground, be sure to take the pedestrian tunnel across to the farm. Here you'll find Nordic native breeds, including pigs, sheep, goats and rabbits – with opportunities to pet and feed the animals.
A day or two at Nordens Ark is a wonderful experience. And, as all profit made from visitors to the park and hotel is invested back into the foundation's work, by visiting you are supporting the park's globally-important work to save endangered animals.
Above left: Amur leopard; right: wolverine
This need is taken very seriously when planning the animals' care.
“We have a complex feeding schedule in place for the large carnivores,” explained Tom. “This allows them to engage in their natural behaviours. On the first day of the schedule, droppings are left within the enclosures, which alerts the animals to the presence of prey. The next day a blood trail is introduced, then on the third day the meat itself will be given.”
WITH ONLY 400 AMUR TIGERS LEFT IN THE WILD, THE ANIMALS HERE ARE VITAL AS A GENETIC BACKUP TO PROTECT AGAINST FUTURE EXTINCTION OF THE SPECIES
There are several ways that meat is fed to the animals – but it is never just offered up on a plate! There is always some element of mental and physical challenge – just as the animals would experience in the wild – before the animals can eat. So, in the tigers' enclosure, meat is sometimes suspended over a rocky cliff on a fire hose – the tiger has to figure out a way to get to the meal, such as pulling it up on the hose – before it can eat.
The animals are given toys to play with, too. Tom showed us one of these – a huge ship buoy, which is often given to the tigers. Filled with water it weighs over 300kg – far too heavy for a human to move, but a tiger will roll it around, getting a great workout that increases both physical and mental agility. The deep gashes in the thick, plastic surface of the buoy show just how strong these animals are.
Green Adventures February 2016
Way to go
Nordens Ark is open every day of the year from 10am.
The best place to stay is at Nordens Ark itself. There is an excellent hotel on site (right) offering modern, attractive en-suite rooms with comfortable beds. Family rooms are spacious and have a large double bed and bunk beds. Breakfast and free entrance to the park is included in the price of accommodation, and being on site means you can get the most out of your visit. There's also a good value restaurant on site with a range of hot and cold food available.
The hotel is a great place to base yourself for exploring the surrounding area too. The picturesque seaside village of Smögen, with its colourful cottages, cafes and boutiques, is just a short drive away. Or explore the marked walking trails of the Ecopark, right on the hotel's doorstep – and look out for the Bronze Age rock carvings hidden in the forest.
Activities at Nordens Ark, from kids' camps to conferences – or even eating dinner with close-up views of the wolves or joining the keepers behind the scenes with the big cats – can be booked in advance.