A wildlife park, linked to the conservation charity which employs Carrie Johnson, has launched an investigation after two antelopes were shot dead after escaping from their enclosure. 

The waterbucks, a type of antelope found in sub-Saharan Africa with long, spiralled horns, got onto a public footpath after escaping from their pen at Port Lympne Reserve, near Hythe, Kent.

The Aspinall Foundation runs conservation work at Howletts Animal Park, near Canterbury, Kent, and Port Lympne Reserve, which opened in 1976.

Mrs Johnson has been head of communications for the foundation since January.

It is the latest incident where animals have escaped from their enclosures at the park.

The adult waterbucks were euthanised in the interest of public safety, a spokesperson for Port Lympne Hotel and Reserve said.

A witness said they were walking the Hythe Loop, a public footpath which runs near to the reserve, when they saw keepers with “tranquiliser guns”.

“We were stopped and told to go back,” they said.

"We heard three gunshots and were told several different stories by different members of staff, then we were told that they had to kill the animals and not to go one way because it would be upsetting to children."

Damian Aspinall and Carrie Johnson with cheetah brothers Saba and Nairo at Howletts last year before their rewilding to South Africa

Credit: Carrie Symonds 

Port Lympne Reserve is a wildlife and safari park which also acts as a breeding sanctuary for rare and endangered animals.

The spokesperson said: "Late on Saturday afternoon, two waterbuck escaped from their enclosure and managed to access a public footpath.

“After concerted attempts to get the animals back into their enclosure, it was deemed that, as a category one animal, they could become a danger to the public and the decision to euthanise them was made.

"All of the necessary authorities have been kept fully informed and an internal investigation will take place in due course."

In April it was revealed five animals escaped from their enclosures in as many months in 2020.

An inspection report of the park, obtained through a freedom of information request, said two female hog deer escaped after a fence failed on March 5. One was hurt and the other was put down.

A South American jungle cat left its enclosure last May after it climbed out, while a rusty-spotted cat, native to India, has not returned to its enclosure after disappearing last July through a hole made by a rat.

On Aug 9, a bear escaped and was coaxed back with food. It escaped into an area that is not accessible to the public. A gate to the pen had been left open by a keeper who was later disciplined.

There have been other animal escapes and keepers have also been killed. In Feb 2000, Darren Cockrill, 27, a keeper, was killed by an elephant at the park.

The zoo has insisted it runs with high levels of animal care despite the escapes and deaths.

Earlier this year the Charity Commission launched a statutory inquiry into the Aspinall Foundation to investigate “serious concerns” about its governance and financial management.  

The regulator said it began examining the charity in July 2020 amid “concerns about the management of conflicts of interest and related-party transactions”.

A spokesperson for the charity said at the time: "Our trustees will continue to work openly and transparently with the Charity Commission to ensure best practice governance and compliance.”

Mrs Johnson previously worked as the Conservative Party communications chief and for Oceana, a marine conservation charity.