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We're best primates: NI man Mark lands job on Channel 4's Work On The Wild Side after swapping civil service grind to care for monkeys


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Mark Ashcroft, who packed in his job to look after monkeys in a sanctuary

Mark Ashcroft, who packed in his job to look after monkeys in a sanctuary

Mark Ashcroft

Mark Ashcroft

Work on the Wild Side. Mark Ashcroft giving meds to adult male Hector.

Work on the Wild Side. Mark Ashcroft giving meds to adult male Hector.

Work on the Wild Side. Mark Ashcroft with Engeltjie troop monkeys

Work on the Wild Side. Mark Ashcroft with Engeltjie troop monkeys

Mark Ashcroft, who packed in his job to look after monkeys in a sanctuary

MEET the Ballyclare man monkeying around at a wildlife sanctuary in South Africa who is one of the stars of a new telly series.

Mark Ashcroft gave up the day job, swapping the desk-bound grind of life as a civil servant to help hundreds of primates instead.

The Co Antrim man is one of a number of endangered animal rescue heroes who feature in Channel 4 show Work On The Wild Side and is in the first year of a three-year management role with the Vervet Monkey Foundation after packing in the nine-to-five job back home.

Mark (37) said: "Life before was the complete opposite. I worked for the CCEA, the exam board, so I was a public servant with a government office body basically.

"I was just working in there as a technical editor and proofreader, I had been doing that for quite a while. Back in 2010 I was at the CCEA in the print room and one day I was just thinking, 'What am I going to do with myself?'

"And I literally just opened Google and typed in volunteering abroad and found this place on one of the volunteering websites and it just seemed super interesting and a bit different - and I just went for it.

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Mark Ashcroft

Mark Ashcroft

Mark Ashcroft

"You know, when you're sitting there all day, and I guess I would have been 27 or 28, you kind of get to that point and you're like, 'What am I going to do with myself?'"

Mark's love affair with the sanctuary stretches back a decade when he first set off in search of adventure in the wilds of the South African bush as a volunteer for a month.

He returned in 2012 for a longer stint of six months before a two-year staff job in 2015 and now he has been back again since last year.

He told Sunday Life: "The manager position became available here so I immediately took that and dropped everything and came back out again.

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Work on the Wild Side. Mark Ashcroft giving meds to adult male Hector.

Work on the Wild Side. Mark Ashcroft giving meds to adult male Hector.

Work on the Wild Side. Mark Ashcroft giving meds to adult male Hector.

"So I've been out for about eight months now and I'll be here for three years total - basically the position we're in with visas is we can't really stay any longer.

"I am studying environmental science with the Open University and I finish that this time next year, so hopefully I'll have a degree which will also help me.

"But I really do want to stay in this line of work, whether that is in a different country or not. I do prefer Africa, I've kind of grown to love the place, you know? The culture, the atmosphere.

"So if it's going to a different country and working with different animals I'll see what positions are available once I'm leaving, but who knows, maybe I could stay here even longer."

Mark (right) joked that in South Africa he knows more monkeys than he actually knows friends - he is in charge of 553 animals that donors can make a charity donation to name and he does his best to remember them all.

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Work on the Wild Side. Mark Ashcroft with Engeltjie troop monkeys

Work on the Wild Side. Mark Ashcroft with Engeltjie troop monkeys

Work on the Wild Side. Mark Ashcroft with Engeltjie troop monkeys

He said: "My friends list on Facebook is 450, so... I know more monkeys! Most of those friends are people I've met here volunteering, you meet a lot of great people.

"As far as monkeys go they are quite an aggressive species of monkey but it's part of the daily life here, the vervets are indigenous so we have a wild troop around.

"So really it's just a bit of common sense, it's not like they just attack people for no reason. So once you know how to live alongside them they're really not too much trouble at all.

"It's only in the towns where people see them as a problem because they're looking for food. You know, I walk out my front door in the morning and there's a group of monkeys sitting there and they're no problem at all. We have good safety protocols here."

But the worldwide impact of the coronavirus pandemic has also stretched to the monkey sanctuary and Mark admitted he worries how the charity will survive financially.

He explained: "It's something that keeps you awake at night because we're starting to think, how do we care for them every day?

"The director has to figure out where he can get food for the day - it's pretty stressful thinking about where it could go if the lockdown does continue for an extended period time.

"Everybody that's working here is here because they want to help the monkeys, we're all voluntary mostly. As far as the actual virus goes we've been pretty unaffected by it really. In the province I'm in we haven't had any deaths and the cases are pretty limited but the lockdown restrictions themselves have hit us incredibly hard.

"Things like inter-province travel is restricted so we can't get the food so we're having to pay eight to 10 times more for food. We're having to fundraise in completely different avenues."

But life at the sanctuary - situated in an isolated rural area in the north of the country in the sub tropics - has its natural perks as well.

Mark said: "We're in a beautiful environment here and only one hour away from the Kruger National Park, so a couple of times a year a group of us will rent a car and go there for a few days and see some wildlife.

"As far as personally goes, I do a lot of reading and studying in my spare time, and I'm also a bit of a runner as well so I do a bit of long distance running and this is one of the best places to do it because the environment is just so beautiful."

Back home in Northern Ireland, his mum Phyllis and dad Dennis live in Ballyclare, while younger brother Stephen lives in Ballymoney - and Mark says he keeps in touch with them but "they are used to me disappearing and not hearing from me for a while".

In fact, he's so used to his new life that he doesn't bat an eyelid when he sees potentially dangerous beasts like spiders and snakes.

He said: "Even on the sanctuary here we have dangerous snakes everywhere, we have pythons, cobras, puff adders... but honestly, it's just the same as everything else, you don't really see them that much, they tend to stay away from you.

"You get used to it. It's common here to shake your shoes out before you put your feet in them, in case you get a scorpion - the scorpions are probably the worst.

"Even with mosquitos we use mosquito nets in summer and I've had tick bite fever a couple of times, which is like a bad flu. It's little things like this you have to watch out for. It's funny how you get used to stuff - the thought at home terrifies you, even the thought of tarantulas and scorpions and snakes terrified me at home but now it's just second nature to see them every day."

While he has no telly on site, he does have internet access which means he has been able to see Netflix show Tiger King, about eccentric US animal owner Joe Exotic who kept tigers in cages for entertainment and bred them in captivity to make money - and needless to say, Mark is not a fan.

He added: "We're very hands off, we don't do public tours, we're not open to the public. So I see programmes like Tiger King and I just shake my head. It's just completely ridiculous.

"We try to keep them in a natural environment and keep their fear of humans as natural as possible, because if you release them and they run to the next-door neighbour's farm, it's all pointless.

"As far as the monkeys on site, our long term goal is to release them. We keep them in big large natural enclosures, basically indigenous bush with an electric fence around it. They know how to forage, we try to give them as natural food as possible.

"Most coming in are rescued babies and orphans that people can name for a fee of around £50 which goes to help pay vet fees and microchipping etc.

"But we do get emails every day from people wanting to buy monkeys off us."

n Work On The Wild Side has been made by a local TV company, Holywood-based Waddell Media, and is on Channel 4 at 4pm Monday to Friday. Episodes, including episode nine with Mark, are also available on All 4.

Belfast Telegraph