Happy New Year from all of us here at Safari West. It’s been incredible to spend the last twenty-two years with you!
May 2016 be filled with generosity, compassion and love. – Nancy and Peter Lang
Safari West...Our Story
Out of Africa, into Sonoma County
Welcome to a new year; a time of remembrance and reflection, a time to look back on where we’ve come from and forward to where we’re going next. To celebrate the beginning of the adventure that will be 2016 we’d like to pause a moment and reflect on the path we took to where we are now.
Founded in 1993 by both Peter and Nancy Lang, the story that would one day become Safari West was born in the imagination of one man; Peter Lang. Peter is originally from Los Angeles where he spent his formative years romping around the television sets shows like Daktari and Sea Hunt among others. Peter’s father, Otto Lang, was a Hollywood director and young Peter’s childhood included a lot of time on sound stages populated by lions and chimpanzees and the people who cared for them. “I was always hanging around the trainers and the animals,” A grinning Peter once said. “I guess I just never grew up.”
While Peter brings an entrepreneurial sense of adventure and artistic creation to Safari West, it is Nancy Lang who is responsible for spearheading the preserve’s dedication to education and conservation. Previously the General Curator of the San Francisco Zoo, she holds a Ph.D. in Biology. When they met, Nancy was the general curator at the San Francisco Zoo where she’d already established a reputation as an avian biologist and founder of the Avian Conservation Center. Before long, Peter and Nancy were married.
When Peter was 13 years old a film company asked him to raise lion cubs, so he cared for them from Easter through summer vacation for years, even taking them on the bus to go to the beach in Los Angeles. His father was ski pioneer and ski pioneer and film and television director Otto Lang, who exposed Peter to magnificent animals while working on television programs such as “Daktari, ”Snows of Kilimanjaro”, “Flipper,” and “Sea Hunt”. “I was always hanging around the trainers and the animals, and I guess I just never grew up,’’ Peter Lang says with a crooked grin.”
In 1978, Peter discovered his passion for African hoofstock when he developed “the last working cattle ranch in Beverly Hills’’. He imported three African eland, the largest of the African antelope, “to “eat away some of the higher shrubs so grass would grow””. Lang also designed and built his own line of wood furniture, many pieces of which are now found in Safari West’s tent cabins. Lang keeps his hands in the wood business with sculpture (intricate antelope skulls and horns are his specialty).
It was during Peter’s time as a cattle rancher that the seeds of his childhood with lions took root in his professional life. His herd of cattle came to contain Watusi cattle, an African breed we still keep at Safari West today. For a time, this herd lived in Franklin Canyon, the last operating cattle ranch in Beverly Hills. Around this same time, it occurred to Peter that his Franklin canyon ranch would also make an excellent place to raise African eland, the largest species of antelope in the world. The eland were Peter’s first antelope, but by no means were they to be his last.
Over the next several years, Peter’s collection grew. Eventually he sold his Franklin Canyon ranch to the National Park Service and it became part of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. Peter and his expanding collection began a slow but inevitable migration north. In 1989 he purchased 400 acres of rolling, oak-studded woodland between Santa Rosa and Calistoga in Sonoma County. In a short time, this ranch would open to the public and known as Safari West.
In the meantime, Peter continued to manage his collection, working with various zoos and wildlife preserves in the process. It was through his working relationship with the San Francisco Zoo that he met our other owner, Dr. Nancy Lang.
Around this same time, the newlyweds began repositioning the preserve. It had been operating as a private facility for the breeding and propagation of endangered species. Peter and Nancy’s updated vision would open the facility to the public. The Lang’s would invite the world to see the conservation work being done and to learn about these fascinating animals that few people on this continent ever get to see. After months spent building our initial fleet of safari vehicles and organizing an educational curriculum, on July 4th, 1993, Safari West opened to the public for the very first time.
It was a slow build at first. In fact on that first day, according to Nancy, “We were so excited to start these tours. We waited for visitors all day. And no one came!” Rather than turn the property into some kind of amusement park, Peter and Nancy stayed dedicated to the idea of creating a meaningful, informative experience. This focus has paid off and today Safari West has become of “Must See” in Sonoma County.
In 1999, Peter and Nancy embarked on a new project; one designed to deepen the already immersive experience we offer here at Safari West. That year, the first of our tent-cabins came in. We now have thirty of them, offering a luxurious camping experience to Safari West visitors. Not only can you come enjoy our three-hour classic safari tours and learn about the hundreds of animals in our collection, you can spend the night among them as well.
Today, Safari West is an internationally known and respected facility. Our entertaining and educational safari tours are second to none and our overnight safari accommodations have been ranked among the best in the world.
Generation Kids: Mercedie
In last months newsletter, we spotlighted young Teylana Jenkins, a conservation advocate and one of the youngest donors we’ve ever come across. To say we were excited to see such passion in the up and coming generation is a tremendous understatement. As excited as we were about Teylana, we knew she couldn’t be the only one of her kind and amazingly, before we even published her story, another equally impressive young cheetah conservationist arrived on our doorstep.
In this months issue, we’d like to spotlight Mercedie, who came to Safari West with her family in late December. Like Teylana, young Mercedie is a cheetah fanatic and huge conservation advocate. Her love of cheetahs developed when she was only three years old and has grown with each passing year. A few years back, she came to Safari West and met Cheetah Conservation Fund founder and executive director, Dr. Laurie Marker. Around this same time, she began fundraising for cheetah conservation.
When Mercedie came to Safari West for this recent visit, she and her cousin A.J. experienced one of our Fast Cat Alley tours and got up close and personal with our cheetahs. With a huge grin on her face, Mercedie also presented a sizable donation to Megan and Marie of our Carnivore Department. The money she collected went by way of the Wildlife Conservation Network to Rebecca Klein at Cheetah Conservation Botswana.
Now, We here at Safari West applaud any young conservationist. In a world of diminishing ecosystems and increasingly endangered wildlife, the dedication of today’s youth is perhaps our greatest source of hope. We love to hear about the kids who aren’t waiting until adulthood to get to work; the kids who are making strides here and now toward saving what can’t wait to be saved. In addition, it goes without saying that underfunded conservation organizations around the world are ecstatic about every dollar they receive. All that aside, Mercedie is doing something beyond fundraising that has us truly excited.
Mercedie and her school friends have established a “Kitty Club”. No mere fan club, the terms of admission to Kitty Club include require researching a cat of your choice and presenting a poster or paper to the club membership. Mercedie and her club mates make and sell crafts to raise money. The funding Kitty Club brings in goes to the Barry R. Kirschner Wildlife Sanctuary in her hometown of Chico. More important than the fundraising here is the emphasis on education and research. These kids aren’t just trying to save something they find cute, they’re working to save something they understand. Responsibility, initiative, curiosity; these are traits that should be encouraged in all kids, but they are especially valuable in the world of conservation.
Thank you Mercedie, as partners in your work, we appreciate what you are doing and are truly excited to hear what projects you take on next.
At Safari West, it is our hope that we’ll continue to see this kind of commitment and dedication to conservation from the up and coming generation and if the visitors we’ve had in the last few months are any indicator, we surely will. If you or a youngster you know are die-hard rhino advocates, focused lemur-conservationists, or planet-savers of any type, send your story along to firstname.lastname@example.org. We love hearing from you and are always on the lookout for another amazing story to spotlight!
Safari Spotlight: Guineafowl “What’s the fat, blue-headed bird?”
“Some of your speckled turkeys got out.”
“Why do you let your weird chickens run loose?”
This is a small sampling of the questions and comments we get here at Safari West every day. While our guests typically travel here to see our towering giraffes or sleek cheetahs, everybody who visits this property experiences at least one run-in with our roving flocks of guineafowl.
If you’ve been here, you’ve seen them; a small army of round, speckled birds sprinting and cackling all around the property. These are our helmeted guineafowl and they do look a bit like pudgy chickens except that their bare-skinned heads are blue and they sport vibrant red mutton-chops. Atop their naked heads the helmeted guineafowl has a protrusion that looks like a single horn or perhaps a yellowish shark’s fin. This is the “helmet” they’re named for.
These birds spend most of the day scratching in the dirt and sprinting on the lawns. True they can fly but only explosively and for short distances; again a bit like chickens. More often than not, when threatened, the helmeted guineafowl simply run. With their clawed feet, powerful legs, and eerily bobbing heads, a guineafowl on the run looks like a comedic version of Jurassic Park’s velociraptors.
The guineafowl at Safari West are startling not only because of their appearance and behavior but also because they are some of the only free-roaming animals we have on property. Our flock of helmeted guineafowl is expansive and ever-growing and they seem to be everywhere. They duck and weave among the crowds, scamper under the tour trucks, run along the enclosure fences, and on occasion within the enclosures themselves. And they chatter constantly. Absolutely constantly. The helmeted guineafowl is known as a great guard animal thanks to its tendency to sound the alarm when perceiving a threat. It should be noted however, that guineafowl seem to have a pretty low threshold for what qualifies as “threatening”. Chicken Little and “The sky is falling!” comes to mind when considering helmeted guineafowl.
Helmeted guineafowl are often described as “ubiquitous” and this is an apt description. They are found nearly everywhere in Africa, from the southern edge of the Sahara to the southern tip of the continent. They are only absent from the true deserts and the deepest jungles. They’re even found on mountainsides as high as 3,000 meters (nearly 10,000 feet)! These are some profoundly adaptable little birds.
Helmeted guineafowl do well in such a wide variety of habitats in part because they are voracious generalists, able to scrounge a meal just about anywhere they go. They seem to prefer vegetation, especially seeds, but are known to eat berries and flowers and to dig up all manner of tubers and roots as well. This diet coupled with their prevalence throughout most of Africa has led some in the farming community to view them as pests and to drive them from their fields.
Interesting to note however, is that the helmeted guineafowl is an omnivore and also an insatiable consumer of invertebrates. It has been widely suggested that the farmers who drive guineafowl from their fields should instead be welcoming the marauding flocks. They’ll certainly eat some grain on their way through a field, but they’ll devour thousands upon thousands of pestilential insects as well. This is not an exaggeration. In one post-mortem dissection, roughly 5,100 harvester termites were found in the crop of a single helmeted guineafowl.
This behavior in particular is of key import when it comes to why our flock of guineafowl is on the loose. These very common African barnyard birds provide incredible pest control. As they roam the property, they are devouring fleas and ticks by the thousands. Blood-sucking parasites love deer and coyotes but can you imagine the jackpot a giraffe must represent to the flea that stumbles across it? Safari West houses massive herds of warm-blooded mammals. Luckily for us, we have an army of helmeted guineafowl defending our animal friends.
If you were to step into our large aviary, you’d discover a second species of guineafowl here at Safari West. Called vulturine guineafowl, these are larger than the helmeted guineafowl outside and are in fact the largest of the six guineafowl species. They are very flashy birds with a startling cape of white and cobalt blue hackles spreading from the base of the neck. The vulturine’s name derives from its bald head. In spite of the look and the name, vulturines aren’t known to be scavengers and in fact share the omnivorous habits of their helmeted cousins.
Of particular note with the vulturines is that they are far less water-dependent than any other guineafowl species. They are found in more arid regions of east Africa and do not appear to require drinking-water. There has been some suggestion that even when water is available in their natural habitat, they rarely drink and instead gain all their moisture through food intake.
Now, until recently, Safari West housed not two, but three of the six species of guineafowl and we’d like to take a moment to remember Elvis, our Kenya crested guineafowl. The Kenya crested guineafowl is a truly beautiful animal. They have the rounded body and speckled plumage typified by the helmeted guineafowl. The skin on their heads is bare and blue in coloration with a great deal of vibrant red surrounding the eye. Crested guineafowl also bear a luxurious crest of fine black feathers. This stylish pompadour is where our Elvis got his name.
Elvis spent almost all his time in the company of one of our male great argus pheasants. While it’s tempting to say the two were friends, it’s almost never a good idea to anthropomorphize an animal like that. It is interesting to note however that crested guineafowl in the wild frequently follow around troupes of monkeys or other birds hoping to scavenge dropped fruits and seeds. Could this tendency toward extra-species association account for the companionship of our argus pheasant and crested guineafowl? Perhaps. Either way, it was always interesting to watch those two pal around the aviary.
We don’t know his exact age, but Elvis came to us back in 2000 making him 16-years-old at the least. Thanks for these many years Elvis, we miss you.