That is to say, Welcome Friend, welcome to Safari West!
It is our great honor to invite you to our wildlife preserve and African campground. Please join us and experience the spirit of Africa, right here in wine country. We built Safari West to be a place of wonder and learning; a place where you can experience true African wilderness without needing to board a plane. Here you can go on safari and see animals roaming wild and soaring free, just like they do in the wilds of Africa.
Part of the wonder of a real African safari is experiencing a wilderness that doesn’t end when the tour does. A night spent in the bush will change your world as you lie down to sleep serenaded by the sounds of the African night. To let you experience this here, we built a luxury African-style camp right in the center of our preserve. To hear our guests talk about their overnight experience is a true pleasure. There is nothing quite like sinking into a plush mattress in a luxurious tent-cabin as our resident birds and beasts sing their wild lullabies. Our tents come from Lobatse, Botswana and were designed for the bush. Sturdy canvas walls and wooden supports make up the structure but you won’t be “roughing it” here. Each tent comes with full or king-sized beds, polished hardwood floors, custom furniture, a private viewing deck, and most exciting of all, en-suite bathrooms. That’s shower, sink, and toilet, right there in your tent!
We love that families come here to embrace the natural world. We love it that you take the opportunity to learn and explore together. We are all about forging personal connections between explorers and crafting authentic experiences in nature. This is our vision come to life.
Thank you letting us share our dream with you and again, karibu rafiki!
Peter and Nancy Lang
Founders of Safari West
Conservation Corner: Settling for Second. The Evolutionary Cost of Trophy Hunting
Now that Valentine’s Day is here and spring is upon us, that season when a young man’s fancy turns to love, is just around the corner. It seems with all this romance in the air, that we should focus this edition of Conservation Corner on the topic of sexual reproduction. Specifically, let’s talk about mate selection and the surprising way in which trophy hunting is affecting it.
There are millions of species on this planet that reproduce sexually. It takes two to tango as they say, and if an animal is going to have to select a partner, it pays to be picky. There are all kinds of sound scientific principles behind this, but it’s simplest to consider it this way; children tend to take after their parents. This is genetics in a nutshell. If dad is a bigger, stronger specimen, likely his kids will be bigger as well. If mom has unnaturally keen eyesight, there’s a good chance she’ll have eagle-eyed offspring. This is as true for lions and tigers and bears as it is for us humans.
When picking the best dance partner, there are two forces at play. One is natural selection, the other sexual selection. These ideas are closely linked. Natural selection covers the idea of “survival of the fittest” and describes a process by which some genetic traits get weeded out by the trials of life. Those traits that don’t cost an animal its breeding opportunities persist and are passed on to the kids. Sexual selection is a specific mode of natural selection. In the grand scheme of things, being able to survive predators and starvation doesn’t guarantee you a girlfriend. You still have to convince the lady to like you.
To illustrate this idea, let’s talk about the African greater kudu, a beautiful antelope we’re privileged to have here at Safari West. In the wild, kudu face all manner of naturally selective pressures. They have to find food and water in an often arid environment and make it a daily goal not to become someone else’s lunch.
If they survive these naturally selective pressures, kudu also face sexually selective pressures. Like us, kudu have an internal ideal for what they want in a mate. It’s a huge generalization containing a note of truth that women tend to be pickier than men and, in the wild, it’s easy to see why that might be. It costs the male kudu virtually nothing in terms of time or resources to mate with less than ideal females. If the kids he produces with one are less well-equipped to deal with the world, no big deal, he’s likely reproduced with another female anyway. For the boys, it’s often more about quantity than quality.
Not so for the female kudu. She faces an entirely different set of pressures. She’s going to have to carry a baby through an 8 to 9 month pregnancy and then nurse and protect it for another half a year at least. If she breeds with a less-than-stellar male and produces a weaker, less well-equipped infant, that can cost her hugely. In her case, being picky is critically important. The factors by which she judges a potential mate are often going to be indicators as to how well-equipped he is to survive naturally selective pressures.
Consider this, a female kudu can’t go out on a date with a male and ask him how many lions he’s outrun or how often he gets sick. She has to make do with outward signals. Is he big and strong? Then he’s a survivor who’s lived long enough to get that way. If he’s healthy he probably has a good immune system. Does he have big, beautiful horns? Then he’s likely to win dominance fights with other males, indicating overall vigor and ability. It’s an elegant system of encoded signals.
Now here’s where we come in. For nearly 200,000 years now, human beings have served as one of the many forces of natural selection. We’ve always been hunters and, just like lions and leopards, we’ve eliminated certain individuals from the gene pool. Historically, our role has been just like that of our companion predators. The kudu attentive enough to notice the approaching lion would likely also be attentive enough to notice the little guy with the spear creeping up on him. We have generally relied on being able to catch the young and vulnerable or the weak and old. We have helped weed out the less desirable traits and made the target species stronger for it. Our removal of the weakest links left the strongest to breed and thrive; fast, strong, and as heavily horned as ever.
Fast forward to the modern era and the situation has changed dramatically for a few key reasons. First, it’s no longer a fair fight. In the evolutionary arms race between hunter and prey, we’ve taken things to an entirely new level. When we invented projectile weapons, spears and bows and arrows, we changed the game. The kudu had always needed to stay out of a predator’s reach but now they had to learn to stay out of our range as well. Had we settled for bows and arrows for a million years or so, maybe the kudu could have evolved a response, but we didn’t. In a hilariously short period of time, we also invented snares, lures, firearms, camouflage, scopes, and a hundred other technological toys that tip the scales so far in our favor that there’s now nothing we can’t kill.
Alongside this technical prowess, we changed our targets. Now that we can kill any kudu we choose, why settle for the little guy, or the sickly one, or the old female with the scarred hide? Especially when there’s a big, beautiful male with an incredible rack of horns over on that hill? When we stopped relying on killing just any animal to survive, some of us became trophy hunters instead.
Big game and trophy hunters are not all that common. They are a small subset of the global population, but there are seven billion of us and even that small percentage is big enough to make an impact. There are of course concerns about over-hunting. In the past we have hunted some species completely out of existence. In many places in the world there are now strong networks of regulations in place to prevent that very thing. Deer hunting is incredibly popular in the United States, but our resident deer population is in no real danger of extinction. No, the effect caused by trophy hunting is something altogether new.
By targeting the best individuals in a species, we are applying a selective pressure that actively opposes that of other predators. The big male kudu with the long spiraling horns has proven he is a capable survivor. His weaker competitors have fallen to the lions or lost battles with him or starved in the dry season. His genes are exactly those that should be passed along to the next generation. And he’s the very animal we’re now looking to harvest.
This has a tremendous impact in the world of sexual selection. The hornless female kudus (or maneless female lions, or smaller-tusked female elephants) are now being courted by the B-team. The younger, weaker males who’d normally never get close to a fertile female are slowly becoming the only options in town. The females are making do, but this amounts to a degradation of the gene pool. The very animals who are more susceptible to lion attack and drought are the very ones contributing to the next generation.
There are several recent studies outlining the effect of this reverse pressure. Removal of the largest male big horn sheep in Alberta Canada seems to have reduced the overall size of the adult animals and caused them to reach sexual maturity faster. The logic here says that younger animals who can successfully breed before they find themselves in the crosshairs, or smaller-horned animals who are being passed over, are increasingly dominating the gene pool.
Likewise, data collected by Mark and Delia Owens in Zambia demonstrate that the incredible demand for elephant tusks has led to a stark increase in tuskless elephants. Historically, tuskless African elephants are genetic oddities accounting for less than 2% of the population. As their large-tusked herd-mates are harvested, these rarities are presented with unprecedented breeding opportunities. As of 1997, tuskless elephants made up 38% of the herd.
Our focus on the best and most idealized animals is fundamentally weakening many species. Millennia of weeding out the poorest genes has crafted these animals into the beautiful, strong survivors they are today. Our novel habit of taking only the best is causing cataclysmic reversals in population trends.
The so-called “unnatural selection” resulting from activities like big game and trophy hunting, is a relatively recent phenomenon. The effects of this type of selection have only come to light in the last century or so. Furthermore, there has already been some evidence indicating that when our pressures abate, the genetics tend to rebound. Not surprisingly, the process of recovery takes longer than the degradation, but recovery is possible.
We are now too many and too powerful to go charging through the world taking whatever we will, blind to the consequences. We are learning that the force of selection we exert is so strong that we’ve begun to take the reins of evolution. The question is what will we do now that we have them? Will we continue to weaken the species we hunt through apathy and ignorance; destabilizing the ecosystems they are a part of and putting them at risk of extinction? Or will we accept this unexpected challenge and learn to manage our practices responsibly?
Luckily, there’s quite a bit we can do to affect change. Our responsibility first and foremost is to make sure that our hunting practices are sustainable. A few changes to current hunting regulations would be a step in the right direction. The specific rules vary by species, but the driving logic is the same: identify the selective pressures we are introducing to the species and work out how to mitigate them. As a general example, this means less emphasis on size-based regulations and more on viability-based regulations. It’s one thing to mandate that a deer can’t be taken until it’s a certain size, but the overall population would be better served by a regulation based on breeding viability. Waiting to take strong males until they are past their breeding prime would make a tremendous difference.
There are numerous steps we can take to address this problem but they will all stem from the same basic truth. The animals walking this planet today are the result of millions upon millions of years of careful selection. If we want them to continue on that route then we need to apply the same diligence in our own selective practices. Our courtship behaviors have driven our own species relentlessly toward bigger brains and better cognition. Now that we’re being made aware of a problem we’ve caused through ignorance, let’s apply our evolutionary bounty toward finding a solution.
Animal Update: How's Gizmo?
Gizmo Jaxon the patas monkey; star of the Safari West Name That Monkey extravaganza! Remember that adorable little guy? You fans of Safari West helped name him back in August of last year when he was brand new and little more than a black puff-ball of fur. Few things could be more adorable than our tiny baby patas with his big peering eyes and cute little elf ears. For the first week of his life, Gizmo’s mom Izzi kept her new baby so close to her chest, we couldn’t tell if it was a he or a she. Hard to believe that was already six whole months ago!
Gizmo’s hesitant black-furred baby phase didn’t last long at all. Within a few short weeks of his birth he was tumbling and tottering around the enclosure. Over the course of the first two months, he became increasingly inquisitive and independent. He rarely ventured far however, and any scary noise or movement would make him squeak and sprint back to the safety of mom’s arms. Not only is the big outside world a bit scary to a brand new babe, but young Gizmo also had to contend with a jealous big sister; Jasmine.
Prior to Gizmo’s birth, Jasmine’s main playmate had been Izzi and once the newborn appeared, young Jasmine seemed to become a little frustrated by mom’s divided attention. She was pretty rough on little Gizmo in those early days; pouncing on him when he didn’t expect it and pushing him around roughly (in her defense, she’s not a mean monkey, she had just never had to share the world with a baby brother before).
Fast forward to February and boy-oh-boy how the little guy has grown. Young Gizmo is a completely different monkey now. He’s outgrown his black fur and become the same tawny golden color of the rest of his family. While still the smallest of the bunch, he’s already beginning to catch up to his big sister and when they’re racing around the enclosure, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to tell which blur is which.
He’s also managed to turn the tables on Jasmine a little bit and we frequently see him ambushing his sister from the cover of the trees. He’s a fan of the lightning raid; leaping on her while she’s eating and then sprinting away. Jasmine’s not normally content to let her bratty baby brother get away with this and the attack rarely goes unpunished. This makes for a great show and many a safari tour stalls when it comes within sight of our patas enclosure.
The nice thing about the raucous play of the youngsters is that it has given their parents a little more time alone. Recently we’ve been seeing a lot of grooming and canoodling between our patas parents.
Gizmo Jaxon has been scampering about Safari West for six months now. While past his infancy, he remains our favorite little ball of energy. This spring, swing on by Safari West and come watch Gizmo grow up with us. It’s a show like no other.
Safari Spotlight: Nile Lechwe
Have you heard the term sexual dimorphism? Don’t worry if you haven’t. Like most fancy science words, it’s a simple idea hidden in a confusing term. Basically, if a species is sexually dimorphic, the boys and girls look different. Human beings are sexually dimorphic. Differences in body shape, how much hair we have and where we grow it, how deep our voices are; these are all pretty good hints when sexing a human.
At Safari West, our Nile lechwe antelope are a master class in sexual dimorphism. Our herd of Nile lechwe are visible from the tour boarding area as they stroll among the giraffes and dama gazelles near the tent camp. Our male lechwe looks so strikingly different from the females that many people mistake them for two separate species.
When they’re young, male and female Nile lechwe look much the same. They are a golden-tan in color. Their coats are shaggy and greasy looking. As a group, the lechwe usually look like they could use a shower. As the females age, they grow into larger versions of their childhood forms; remaining hornless and tan. As the boys grow up however, they undergo a striking change. As they age, young males change color completely. Beginning when they reach a year or so in age, they’ll darken. When they’re mostly grown, they’ll be almost completely black with a little toupee and cape between their shoulder-blades that retains the youthful brown shade. Fully mature male Nile lechwe look even more striking as that tan colored patch turns to a brilliant white.
Another obvious feature that separates a male lechwe from the females is his enormous set of horns. They are lyre-shaped, meaning they curve in a gentle S-shape rather than sprouting straight out from his head. Heavily ridged at the base where they meet his skull, these horns actually give the Nile lechwe its Latin name; Kobus megaceros or Kobus big-horn (Seems a little messed up to give them a name that only applies to the boys though doesn’t it?).
The dark coat of the male lechwes makes them really easy to spot in open terrain and leads some guests to wonder how they survive in the wild. The answer to that question has a lot to do with the Nile lechwes’ habitat. They are restricted to a small area in southern Sudan and Ethiopia; a mostly inaccessible swamp called the Sudd. In the wet season, they range across grasslands where the water stands 4 to 16 inches deep and then retreat to the true swamps when the weather turns dry. Nile lechwe spend almost their entire lives in this watery world and very few predators choose to follow them into the muck. They are tempting prey for lions, leopards, and wild dogs but luckily, it’s difficult to sneak up on an animal when you’re wading through knee-high water (of course crocodiles don’t have the same troubles).
I mentioned earlier that our lechwe look a bit greasy. They do, and yes, some people have accused them of looking as though they need a shower. In truth, that oily coat is quite important to a lechwe. Like a duck, a Nile lechwe needs to be able to keep a barrier between itself and the water and its oily coat accomplishes that job beautifully.
Water comes into play in other areas of lechwe life as well. They are a lekking species. This means that rather than having a male who controls a large patch of territory, the boys squabble over little plots of land called leks when they’re in the mood to start a family. First they’ll fight with the other males over turf. These fights don’t usually last too long as often times, once they’ve locked horns, they wind up pushing one another’s faces underwater.
Once a dominant male has claimed his lek, he’ll occasionally allow in a satellite male to help him police the territory. This other guy is usually younger and smaller and is allowed in to help the dominant male defend his territory. What the little guy gets out of the deal is access to the best food resources. This will make him healthier than the other bachelors and increase his chances of eventually holding territory of his own. The trade-off is that he’s not allowed to mate with any of the females in the lek. Of course, the landlord can’t keep an eye on the satellite male all the time…
Whether dominant or sneaky satellite, once a male has suitably impressed one of the ladies, they will mate. This is often preceded by a very interesting courtship behavior. The male will duck his head between his forelegs and urinate all over his face and throat. Then, shaggy beard dripping with urine, he’ll rub his head on the females rump, smearing his eau-de-lechwe on her. The reasons for this behavior are somewhat unclear as of yet, but apparently the female lechwes view it as a very gentlemanly and chivalrous thing to do. Don’t get any ideas fellas, no human woman wants this for Valentine’s Day.
If you’re interested in seeing these beautiful and bizarre antelope for yourselves, our herd (featuring two brand new babies, by the way) is on display every day here at Safari West.