Happy April and happy Earth Day! Spring is finally in full swing here at Safari West! It’s such a joy to walk the property and see the families coming and going from the tent cabins, sitting down together at the Savannah Cafe, and loading up in droves to go meet and mingle with the wild creatures who make their home here in the hills of Sonoma County. Every day at Safari West is an adventure and this time of year, it feels like things may never settle down again!
We just reopened our Amani Oasis, the large walk-through aviary that sits right in the heart of Safari West. Already the nesting tree is full of squeaking and squawking birds building nests and tending to eggs. We have at least a few sacred ibis chicks crying for food from their sky-high nursery. Beneath another tree in the oasis we have a pair of ground-nesting demoiselle cranes carefully tending to their own egg as we and our safari guests watch from the brand new paved walkways.
Outside the oasis, life is just as crazy. Our three giraffe babies are growing like weeds and tacking on inch after inch to their already impressive heights. We’ve also had recent births in our antelope herds, including several adorable, elf-eared young roan antelope out in the twelve-acre enclosure visible from the tent camps.
If you spent this winter waiting out the weather before coming to see us, then your time has arrived. We welcome you to Safari West. Come meet our ever expanding family and learn about the incredible diversity of wildlife living with us on this big beautiful planet. Happy Earth Day!
Peter & Nancy Lang
Founders of Safari West
Welcome to the Amani Oasis
Safari West is a 400-acre wonderland of African mammals and birds from around the globe. Most of the property is made up of massive enclosures through which herds of zebra and cape buffalo roam. The lower grounds surrounding the Savannah Cafe contain all the winged, climbing, and carnivorous creatures that wouldn’t be secure in the large enclosures. Between these two regions sits the spiritual center of Safari West; the Amani Oasis.
This massive walk-through aviary has been the centerpiece of Safari West for two decades now and no safari tour is complete without a leisurely stroll through the environs contained within. You’ll never feel closer to nature than while standing beside a babbling brook as scarlet ibises soar overhead. Look in the branches of the trees spreading across the water and find African spoonbills busily at work constructing their nests. Gaze down to where the stream spills into a tranquil pool and watch the courtship antics of several duck species, each more iridescent and beautiful than the last.
Demoiselle cranes, long necked and long legged strut alongside ambling knots of visitors while gloriously plumed pheasants and impossibly long-toed purple swamphens scurry through the undergrowth. There are even a few mammals to be found in the aviary; a family of blue duikers. These chihuahua-sized antelope are frequently found lounging in the shade of a thick clump of bamboo.
The Amani Oasis has never looked more beautiful than it does right now. At the tail end of 2015, the original aviary was dismantled and rebuilt from the ground up. Gone are the worn and pitted gravel trails, replaced by comfortable paved walkways. The old pond has been updated. In its place we now find a winding water feature that wanders down several tiers to the clear pool below. Waders of many colors spend their afternoons foraging for treats in the cool waters. Nesting platforms abound in every corner and crevice of the aviary; a fact the birds are taking full advantage of as the spring season unfolds. This new incarnation of the aviary is bigger, better, bolder, and more beautiful than ever before.
Truly, there has never been a better time to come explore our global collection of birdlife as they strut and soar through this grandiose aviary. The scenery is pristine, the nest building is underway, and before long the peeping and piping of a whole new generation will fill the air of the Amani Oasis.
The Rite of Spring: Celebrate Earth Day with Safari West
Spring is finally here! As the rain showers come and go and greenery erupts across our hills, we look forward with excitement to the sunny season ahead. Spring is the season when many of our animals begin to nest or give birth. The number of animals on property blossoms in time with the scenery and the number of visitors grows as well. Appropriately, we celebrate Earth Day during this season of growth and birth and this year, Safari West is the place to be as we welcome both the season and the holiday.
But what is this season exactly? What are we talking about when we talk about spring? In this country, on this coast in particular, the coming of spring marks a transition from cold and dry to warm and wet. It means the days are getting longer and the world is coming to life. Not everywhere on this planet experiences seasonal cold and heat the way we do, but nearly everywhere (except directly on the equator) experiences wet and dry. So this then is the best way to describe spring; the season when what was dry and dormant becomes wet and thriving. This season takes place in different ways and at different times depending on where you’re standing on the globe, but the results are essentially the same; plants bloom and blossom, birds court and nest, many mammals give birth. It’s a season of life and growing.
Many organisms, both animal and vegetable have evolved to capitalize on the seasonal bounty brought about by the wet season. For plants this means timing the appearance of flowers and fruit to coincide with maximum rainfall. For herbivorous animals this means timing births to coincide with all that readily available vegetable matter. Carnivores will also take advantage, timing the arrival of their own young to coincide with the sudden appearance of all those vulnerable new babies.
For migrating creatures, springtime also marks the conclusion of one leg of their ongoing travels. Take birds for instance; in this country we lose many of our birds in the fall as they head toward warmer southern climes. As spring comes around, the birds return, hopefully timing their trip so that they arrive just as the food supply (whether animal or vegetable) is reaching its seasonal maximum. As humans, we tend to notice that as the cold fades and the warmth increases, so too do the flies and mosquitos. Convenient isn’t it, that so many winged insect-eaters reappear at the same time?
Many of the mechanisms driving springtime changes take place unnoticed. Animals like turtles, bats, and bears come out of hibernation and begin to impact their surroundings, for the most part, sight unseen. Likewise, as deciduous forests once again adorn themselves in leaves, the photosynthetic process steps up and all those new leaves get to work sequestering carbon and releasing precious oxygen into the atmosphere. The season of bounty is critically important to the wellbeing of the natural world and should be protected and honored. That is one of the many reasons why in 1970, we began to celebrate Earth Day.
Earth Day is an important event for every inhabitant of this planet, but resonates even more critically with Safari West and its staff and supporters. This is a day to quite literally stop and smell the roses; to take just a moment to think about the complex web of systems that allow our species to continue to thrive on this dynamic and ever-changing globe. This year, we are doubling down on Earth Day and turning it into a proper holiday here at Safari West.
Come join us on April 22nd and experience Earth Day from the perspective of a conservation breeding facility and African safari park. You’re invited to attend our Earth Day event and wander our lower grounds, taking in our carnivores, primates, and many birds. We’ll have our specially outfitted Nairobi bus up and running, offering forty-five minute trek loops through some of the larger enclosures as well. Just climb aboard and tour through our collection of rhinos and giraffes. Experience the Sonoma Serengeti and learn about the magical season of spring, both here at home and in the world at large, all while celebrating Earth Day. We can’t wait to see you there!PS- Keep in mind that it is Spring we’re celebrating and the threat of rain is always just over the horizon. Please come prepared for the possibility of inclement weather.
Conservation Corner: Life Finds a Way
By: Jared Paddock
The monarch butterfly is a delicate and ethereal seeming creature that nonetheless manages the longest and most grueling migration in the insect world. During the spring season, these famously beautiful orange and black Lepidoptera can be found throughout the lower 48 states and even as far north as southern Canada. Monarchs are vulnerable to cold weather and so flee to warmer climes as winter approaches. West of the Rocky Mountains, monarchs head to the coasts of central and southern California where they ride out the winter in relative comfort. The butterfly population east of the Rockies heads south and for decades, the final destination of this population remained a mystery. It wasn’t until 1975 that a group of researchers finally stumbled across the monarch overwintering grounds high in the Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico. That area is now a World Heritage Site called the Santuario Mariposa Monarca (or the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve). Within this winter hideaway, monarchs congregate by the millions, completely coating the pine and oyamel fir trees that constitute much of the flora of the high-altitude forest. With the advent of spring, the butterflies return north, dispersing across the East coast and midwestern United States. As recently as the early 1990s it was still possible to find trees rooted in American soil that were completely coated in a fluttering garment of black and orange. In this day and age however, monarch sightings have grown increasingly few and far between.
It has become undeniably apparent that butterfly populations are plummeting. The drop has been so precipitous and so quick that the charismatic insect hasn’t yet been granted endangered species status. Both the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the US Fish & Wildlife Service are scrambling to review the data related to monarch population collapse. The catastrophic decline in butterfly numbers has been severe enough however, to warrant immediate conservation action even as those agencies work through the data. In June 2014, President Obama issued a Presidential Memorandum that established a Pollinator Health Task Force. This was partly in response to the epidemic of colony collapse disorder decimating honeybee populations, but the memorandum also focused on butterflies as another important pollinator. The memorandum states that, “[t]he number of migrating Monarch butterflies sank to the lowest recorded population level in 2013–14, and there is an imminent risk of failed migration.”
This concern over pollinator decline also lead to the filing of a petition with the US Department of the Interior to have the monarch declared an endangered species. If granted, the monarch would obtain further legal protections under the Endangered Species Act. Unsurprisingly, this petition was sponsored by the Center for Biological Diversity, based in Oakland, California. What is more interesting is that it was cosponsored by the Center for Food Safety, an agency concerned with the sustainability of our farming practices. The plight of the monarch isn’t simply a matter of a pretty insect at risk; their decline has ramifications that impact our entire agricultural industry.
The increased attention being paid to endangered wildlife and ecosystems originating from commercial and industrial interests is a signal. It demonstrates that we as a species are beginning to understand two key points: one, that our habits and attitudes have major effects on the life forms we share the planet with and two, that the struggles of these lifeforms impact us in turn.
Monarch butterflies are suffering from a barrage of human-sourced issues. Monarchs lay their eggs on milkweed, a weed that is targeted by agricultural herbicides. The poisons we use to benefit our crops kill not only the nursery plant of the monarch, but huge swaths of wildflowers that the butterflies depend on for food as well. The monarchs lay on milkweed because their larval young will feed on it, ingesting toxins as they go. These toxins, while harmless to the caterpillar, make it distasteful and poisonous to potential predators. Unfortunately, this clever adaptation, quite effective against native predators, has proven to be ineffective against at least two invasive species; the asian lady beetle and the Chinese mantis. Other invasives, plants this time, further complicate the problem. Monarchs on the quest for a nesting site, often confuse black swallow-wort and pale swallow-wort for their preferred milkweed. The invasive European plants are poisonous to monarchs and the caterpillars unfortunate enough to be born on them invariably die.
As winter approaches and the monarchs begin their flight south, the situation worsens. All of their issues with finding food and avoiding predators are compounded by the exertion required to cross the many hundreds or thousands of miles between their northern range and their southern range. Monarchs are unwilling or unable to cross the Gulf of Mexico and so must make the long trip around before heading to the Sierra Madres. The result of these many factors has led to a 50% decline in the butterfly population west of the Rockies since 1997 (these are the butterflies headed to the California coasts) and a 90% decline in the population east of the Rockies since 1995 (this is the population that winds up in Mexico). Truly, the situation looks grim.
Typically, this is where the discussion ends. We conclude with the understanding that human beings are the apocalypse, that our agriculture, our industry, and our rampant consumption serve to push our neighboring wildlife inexorably toward the cliff of extinction. Quite often an article like this ends by bemoaning our cataclysmic ways and putting forth a call to action, a plea to open our eyes and take a hard look at what we’re doing and how to change. These are critically necessary conversations that must be had. Certain aspects of human industry and development are having dramatic effects on the world at large, but in this edition of Conservation Corner we want to use the situation to illustrate another point entirely.
Throughout the long history of life on this planet the evolution of species has been driven by the process of natural selection. On a constantly changing globe, every species is exposed to changing situations; glaciers form and melt, volcanos erupt, the climate grows a few degrees cooler, then warms back up again. The animals that can survive these changes breed and subtly shift the nature of their species one way or another. The generation descending from the last is slightly modified and the modifications that yield the best results typically persist. It’s a slow moving and granular process occurring over millions of years and so we don’t expect to see much evidence of it over the limited span of time in which we humans have been around to influence it.
Humanity now applies seemingly unprecedented pressures on the environment. Utilizing dams and pipelines, we have diverted the flow of rivers the world over. A process which would have taken centuries through the slow processes of sedimentation and erosion can now take place in a geological blink of the eye. Likewise, we are tapping oil reserves and releasing sequestered carbon at a pace many thousands of times faster than the rate by which it was initially pulled from the sky. These changes and others, taking place over a compressed period of time constitute daunting challenges to many species and have undoubtedly led to extinctions. The situation is growing increasingly dire, but what’s important to bear in mind is this; the flora and fauna of this planet have always had to surmount obstacles to survive. What we humans have brought to bear may be impressive, but it is not unprecedented. Humanity and the pressures we bring with us are merely the latest variation on the theme of dynamic change. A theme which has driven natural selection since the first single-celled organism appeared in the primordial sea.
This point is not made to absolve humanity of our responsibilities but rather to highlight the incredible resilience of life on this planet. As Dr. Ian Malcolm proclaimed in the oft under-rated Jurassic Park, “Life breaks free, it expands to new territories and crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously, but… life finds a way.” To take it back to the monarchs, as the milkweed declines, they’re laying eggs on the swallow-worts. The swallow-worts are killing them so that experiment has failed but the point is that they’re adapting to changed circumstances rather than giving up en masse and falling down dead.
A more interesting and potentially more successful adaptive behavior has recently become apparent. While human-caused decline in milkweed and the invasive predators we’ve unwittingly introduced have created potentially insurmountable problems for the monarchs, our dependence on oil has surprisingly, offered them an opportunity.
The southbound monarchs fly around the Gulf of Mexico rather than over it; a journey that exposes them to increased risks and requires far more energy. Since we have peppered the gulf with oil rigs, some monarchs have begun to use the industrial platforms as stopover points. With the sudden appearance of artificial rest stops, a journey across the gulf becomes difficult rather than impossible. We’ve unwittingly created problems, but we’ve also unwittingly created opportunities and the monarch butterfly is not alone in taking advantage.
The novel migratory path of monarchs is just one example of the innumerable species that have found ways to adapt to human wrought change. For decades, if not centuries, we have endeavored to bring about the extinction of a whole host of parasitic and infectious species. We may crow about the annihilation of smallpox, but what about the flu, or the common cold, or salmonella? Every time we use our vaunted human intellect and technological advantage to attack these species, they rally, surviving not just in distant isolated crevices of the world, but in our very bodies. Likewise, few stop to consider the ecological value of rats, mice, or roaches because the possibility of their extinction is laughable. We have taken every possible measure to destroy or drive off these incredibly resilient species, but have never come close to achieving that goal.
Perhaps the most surprising example of animal adaptation to human advancement to appear in the last few years is that of the coyote. Coyotes have long proven resilient in the face of human antagonism, not only surviving in rural areas where they are almost universally classified as pests, but readily colonizing our suburban neighborhoods as well. These creatures have proven so malleable in behavior, so adaptable to changing conditions that recently it’s been discovered that coyotes have colonized metropolitan Chicago. There in the heart of the third most populous city in the nation, as many as 2,000 coyotes are living fairly comfortable lives right under our noses. They have transitioned from a life in daylight to a largely nocturnal lifestyle. An animal adapted to life in the forests and plains is now learning to follow traffic patterns and avoid vehicles. They’ve become so adept at living without conflict among millions of human neighbors that one coyote pair managed to raise a litter of pups in the parking lot of Soldier Field Stadium.
We live in an era in which the evidence of human progress and habitation can be found on every continent, in every ecosystem, and even orbiting the planet. Some scientists are arguing to rename this geological epoch the Anthropocene to reflect the possibility that we’ve entered the age of man. Our influence on this globe is immense and we as a species must be aware of what we do and how we go about doing it. We should care about the organisms that are declining in the face of our advancement and for the large part, we do. We should take measures to mitigate our impact on the world at large, to learn to live in balance with our neighbors. As we take on these noble goals however, it is important not to exaggerate our power. We are not the lords of this planet, we are merely a very large and influential population on it.
Early life enjoyed a methane rich atmosphere and died off in droves when photosynthetic cyanobacteria flooded the skies with toxic oxygen. Life adapted to the new order and now most organisms on this planet actually require oxygen to survive. When the Earth cooled and sheets of ice covered nearly the entire globe, many species died out, but life carried on, adapting, changing, and thriving on a frozen world. When a massive meteor struck the planet, it brought about the end of the dinosaurs, and as they died, other creatures hunkered down and survived. Now the mammalian descendants of that small shrew-like species dominate the globe. No matter what force for change rolls across this dynamic planet of ours, life finds a way to adapt to it. In the face of a changing world, life will continue to modify and thrive. Whether we humans are the agents of change or not is largely irrelevant, life will find a way.
Safari Spotlight: Southern Ground Hornbill
This edition of the Safari Spotlight focuses with great excitement on the southern ground hornbill, a bird we’ve had on property for some time and almost exclusively behind the scenes. Very recently, that situation has changed. In the past few weeks, a juvenile hornbill has been taking day trips out to an enclosure directly across the road from Delilah’s Snack Shop. She’s still growing accustomed to her new home and returns behind the scenes at the end of each day, but so far she’s adjusting well and it is our hope that the enclosure will eventually become her full-time home.
The hornbill family is so named because of their very long, downward curving and heavily built bills. The southern ground hornbill is the largest species in the family and one of the few that spends the majority of its time on the ground. These birds are startling for a few key reasons not the least of which is their impressive size. They are roughly equivalent to geese or turkeys but with considerably less bulk. They are almost completely black in color, beginning with their impressive bills and extending all the way down to their stocky legs. There are two exceptions to the glossy onyx of their plumage, one being the bright white primary flight feathers tipping their wings. The other exception is a splash a vibrant red on their faces. If you haven’t seen these birds, it may come as some surprise that the red color doesn’t come from feathers but rather from a leathery inflatable sac of bare skin. It begins around their eyes and continues down onto their throat and can inflate just like a balloon when the birds make their deep and resonant call.
The southern ground hornbill isn’t a particularly vocal bird at most times but they are known to sing duets during the mating season. We have two mated southern ground hornbills on property and they can often be heard hooting to one another in sequence. The notes are so rhythmic and low in tone that it’s easy to mistake the song for the sound of somebody’s stereo blasting in the parking lot.
The hornbill currently coming out on display is a juvenile and so her color is still coming in and nowhere near as vibrant as it will eventually be. Generally it takes approximately three years for the full color to come in. If the bird in question is male, the throat sac will be mostly or entirely red, while if the bird is female, the sac will largely turn a deep, lustrous blue below the beak.
The southern ground hornbill was reclassified as “vulnerable” in 2010 as wild populations appear to be in a state of steady decline. This decline is due to several factors, not the least of which is the slow reproductive rate of the species. The birds generally aren’t sexually mature until age three or beyond. Even then, not all birds will reproduce. The hornbills tend to gather in flocks of two to eight birds and only the largest or alpha male and female will breed. The other birds serve as helpers, gathering food for the nesting female and helping to guard the nest. The female may lay as many as three eggs in a season but rarely will more than one make it past the fledgling stage. After leaving the nest, the juvenile bird will still require a great deal of care from its parents for the foreseeable future. In some cases these juveniles remain dependent on their parents for as long as nine years.
While the birds can occasionally live as long as 70 years, they still rarely produce more than one viable offspring in any three to nine year period, a shockingly low reproductive rate. On top of this extremely slow rate of reproduction, hornbills are also facing a tremendous loss of habitat. They are cavity nesters, raising their young in crevices in trees or cliffs and the clearing of land for agricultural purposes often results in the removal of these cavities.
The birds are omnivorous, favoring insects, small mammals, amphibians, and reptiles, but they will also eat fruits, seeds, or carrion if the situation becomes necessary. Being more or less generalists in this regard affords them some degree of adaptability in an environment undergoing rapid change.
The southern ground hornbill is a beautiful, captivating, and very charismatic bird. Our youngster is very curious about people and will often hop over to give our guests a looking over before returning to playing with her enrichment items or stalking the bugs in her enclosure. Come to Safari West and meet this enchanting juvenile hornbill, she’ll show you just how variable and fascinating the bird world can be.
Conservation Speaker Series in Full Swing
With the reopening of the Safari West tent camp, the Safari West Conservation Speaker Series is back in full swing. Just in the last month, our dinner guests have been invited to sit in on the presentations of three phenomenal conservation advocates. These talks are occasional events that take place after the dinner service at the Savannah Cafe. With bellies full and curiosities aroused, guests filter into the Elephant Room to learn from some of the world’s most active and engaged conservation agencies.
Patrick Freeman is a Stanford graduate currently working with Save the Elephants, a UK based conservation agency with a research station in Samburu, Kenya. Their work includes behavioral research and studies on elephant ecology. Thanks to the dedication of Save the Elephants, the elephants of Samburu are among the most well-studied in the world. Patrick relayed stories of his own experiences in the bush with these massive and still mysterious creatures. His talk was insightful and informative and left us all with a feeling of awe for these intelligent pachyderms.
The Andean Cat Alliance is at the very forefront in Andean cat conservation and research. The Andean cat is among the rarest and least well understood cat species on the planet. They make their homes high in the Andes and across the Patagonia steppe. The species is so reclusive that there have been only 10 confirmed sightings of wild Andean cats in the last 25 years. The Andean cat alliance is the first organization to capture and collar a wild specimen, leading to a huge increase in data about the species. Rocio Palacios enlightened an avid group of listeners about the plight of the Andean cat and the diligent work being done to learn more about and protect the species.
Norman Gershenz is the CEO and co-founder of SaveNature.org, a San Francisco based nonprofit dedicated to conservation education and the preservation of threatened habitats worldwide. Their operations include programs like “adopt an acre” and “adopt a reef,” which raise funds to preserve areas under threat. Mr. Gershenz’s visits to Safari West are always crowd pleasers as he never fails to bring along a collection of weird and wild live bugs! These creepy crawlers are a huge hit with our younger guests and offer a great opportunity to introduce young minds to the wider world of wildlife conservation.
The lineup of guest speakers appearing later this year continues to grow and grow. In the next few weeks alone we’ll be hosting Leigh Moyer from the Center for Biological Diversity, Peter Blinston from Painted Dog Conservation, and Michael Starkey of Save the Frogs. If you’d like to come experience one of the immersive talks for yourself, please consult our calendar for the latest.