Watatunga Wildlife Reserve outside King’s Lynn has gone from strength to strength since opening in 2020, and recently won New Tourism Business of the Year, sponsored by Larking Gowen, at the East of England Tourism Awards 2021-2022.

The business was established by Edward Pope, who developed a love of wildlife from a young age thanks to his father, who was a farmer. “I was always doing conservation work around the farm,” Edward said. “I’d build nest boxes for the barn owls and so on.”

Family trips to Botswana further bolstered Edward’s passion for exotic wildlife, and in August 2020 he opened Watatunga Wildlife Reserve to provide a haven for native and non-native species, its name combining the local village of Watlington with sitatunga – a swamp-loving antelope.

The reserve is home to over 20 different species of deer and antelopes, as well as rare birds. The animals roam free on the 170-acre site, which spans grassy savannah, lakes, marshland and more.

Opening during the pandemic brought its fair share of problems, but Edward and the team quickly made adjustments to keep visitors safe.

“We were due to open in April 2020,” said Edward. “Access to the reserve for visitors would have been in safari trailers only. Covid-19 made it impossible to pursue this business model, so we adapted quickly by hiring six electric buggies and rigging up a speaker system to allow us to deliver a live tour while keeping visitors in their Covid-secure bubbles.

“The self-drive buggy tours have proved a hit, and visitors report that it makes the experience feel more exclusive and exciting. So the buggies are here to stay!”

The buggy tours take place daily, and Watatunga’s knowledgeable guides are on hand to bring the stories of the reserve’s many species to life.

“Our guests love that the site is designed to prioritise the animals’ welfare, and their feedback often refers to the excitement of close encounters with many animals now extinct in the wild,” said Edward.

Watatunga also offers a unique staycation experience through its two newly-renovated self-catering holiday lodges, which boast views over the reserve.

The single-storey Major’s Lodge is fully wheelchair accessible and was created as part of a larger investment into making the reserve and its tours accessible for all visitors.

As well as creating an exciting and educational experience for the public, Watatunga works with zoos and conservation organisations across Europe and Africa to run breeding programmes and support species that are often rare and endangered.

A highlight of the reserve’s conservation work for Edward was the birth of a mountain bongo at Watatunga in May 2021, a species which has just 100 animals remaining in the wild. “This was just one among many species, now critically endangered or extinct in the wild, which have successfully bred at Watatunga,” Edward said.

It’s this ambitious and passionate approach to conservation that led Watatunga to be named winner of the New Tourism Business of the Year award, sponsored by Larking Gowen, at the East of England Tourism Awards 2021-2022.

“Winning the award was amazing – absolutely unexpected and a real morale boost for our team going into the 2022 tour season,” said Edward. “Everyone has worked so hard under ever-changing conditions, and it really was fantastic to be able to celebrate the team’s resilience together on the night.”

Building on their win at the awards, the team aims to continue their vital conservation work while also expanding Watatunga’s offering with corporate and guest experiences and school trips. They also plan to launch new ‘trailer tours’ later this year.

“As a new business, the publicity around the awards has been brilliant at getting our name out there and letting people know that there’s another great reason to visit west Norfolk,” said Edward.

Archant organise and host the annual East of England Tourism Awards to recognise and celebrate those businesses and individuals that contribute to the regional visitor economy. To register for more information on the 2022/23 competition please visit https://www.tourismawards.co.uk/live/en/page/contact-us