What does the word safari mean to you? To us, safari means adventure, excitement, and opening your eyes to a larger world. When we first dreamed up Safari West, we imagined a place where people could experience wildlife as it exists on the hills and plains of wildest Africa. We didn’t want our guests shuffling from one small enclosure to the next. We didn’t want people peering between bars at a lone zebra and trying to imagine the herd. Our hope has always been that instead of one zebra, our guests would adventure out in search of the whole stamping, snorting mob. When it comes to these big social animals, you really must see the herd to understand the species. To try and grasp the majesty of the Serengeti’s Great Migration while staring a single wildebeest is like trying to imagine the beauty of a forest by looking at one lonely tree.
The majesty of the wild is in the interactions. It’s in the way the animals move as one; clouds of dust rising off hundreds of hoofed feet. It’s in the way cape buffalo posture and pose, vying for rank within the herd. It’s in watching smaller antelope gather near the giraffes as they do in the wild; trusting the “watchtowers of the Serengeti” to warn of approaching danger. Whether it’s on the hoof or on the wing, the chance to witness large populations living together is what makes Safari West special.
When we created Safari West, we wanted something more than a zoological collection. By coming here, our guests get to see the wonders of Africa even if they can’t get there themselves. At Safari West, we don’t just walk up to the fences, we go through them. We quest for some of the most magnificent creatures in the world; thrilling when we crest a hill to find the elands relaxing beneath a tree or one of our rhinos bathing in a mud-wallow. Come to Safari West and let the adventure begin. We’re not strolling around a zoo. We’re going on Safari!
Nancy & Peter Lang
Founders of Safari West
At Safari West, every experience is an adventure! Whether you’re exploring our vast herds of African wildlife, or tucking into a delicious dinner prepared over our custom-built barbecue pit, a trip to Safari West is an experience to be had. While dinner at the Savanna Cafe has always been delightful, we’re excited to offer two unique and exciting ways to take your safari experience to a new level in luxury!
The first is our Serengeti Private Twilight Safari and Dinner in the Bush. This experience is a fan-favorite and a long-time offering at Safari West. It includes an early evening safari in your very own privately reserved truck. During the safari, one of our experienced guides will explore the property with you, seeking out wildebeest, rhinos, and more! As the day begins to come to a close, you’ll pull up near scenic Watusi Lake to find that your table is ready. Sit down and enjoy a specially crafted meal prepared by chef Rob Kubacak. Sip a glass of wine as you are treated to five-star service and scenic views of wildest wine country. It is truly a once in a lifetime experience.
Our newest dining experience is dinner in the bush with an avian twist. As you may have heard, last year we debuted the gorgeous Treetops Aviary and we recently opened a dining patio with a truly birds-eye view of that magical place. The Serengeti Private Twilight Safari and Dinner at the Treetops Aviary is an experience not to be missed. On this adventure, you’ll enjoy a private twilight safari that concludes with a sunset stroll through the Amani Oasis aviary where birds of every color soar overhead. Then we go up to the Treetops! There, your every need will be tended to by our dedicated service staff as you watch beautiful violet turacos and trumpeter hornbills flit and flutter in the warm, evening light. It’s dinner in paradise.
For details and to reserve either of these truly magical experiences, please contact Safari West Reservations directly at 1-800-616-2695. Book your next adventure today!
Conservation Corner: Engineering an Ecosystem
By: Jared Paddock
High in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and just outside my backdoor there is a trailhead. With a few steps through my backyard I can set out on a looping route that winds lazily through a pine forest and around a busy beaver pond. Once I step onto the dusty path, the trail takes me north, twisting through upland brush pinned between the eastern shore of the pond and the main road through my neighborhood. The vegetation along this stretch is typical of quick draining and hilly chaparral areas. As I walk, I brush up against red-wooded manzanita, fuzzy mules ear, and a few species of hardy wax-leaved ceanothus. After nearly a mile, the trail bends left and enters a dense grove of lodgepole pines. In their shade the shrubby vegetation thins out; unable to survive in this darker space. Before long, I find myself crossing a small footbridge over a narrow brook. No more than a few inches deep, it babbles away, running quickly over jagged mountain stones. Flowers and tall reeds sprout from the muddy banks. The trail continues to bend, tracking the brook and taking me back toward home again and that’s when something surprising happens. The waters I walk beside begin to swell, flooding out among the trees and flowers. Eventually, the rising waters necessitate a change in the trail and the dusty path becomes a wooden bridge winding its way through a sea of tall, green grasses. Slowly running water gurgles beneath the boards and in the distance the beaver lodge, a mound of interwoven limbs, rises above the waves of greenery. Every few feet, a channel cuts through the vegetation, criss-crossing back and forth under the footbridge. These are the beaver highways; canals they use to reach the saplings growing on the ponds periphery. Using little more than the wood at hand and hours of determined construction, the local beavers have transformed this stretch of high sierra forest into something altogether different. They have engineered an entirely novel ecosystem.
The term “ecosystem engineer” seems to have been coined by Clive G. Jones, John H. Lawton, and Moshe Shachak in a 1994 paper entitled Organisms as Ecosystem Engineers. In this paper they used beavers as the landmark example of a species that has impacts beyond their physical form. That is to say, while all species impact their ecosystems by eating some things and being eaten by others, some special species live and behave in ways that cause widespread changes. In some cases this results to major modifications to the original environment. In others, like my backyard beavers, their actions actually generate new ecosystems within the larger environment.
When they first move into an area and bring down trees, beavers are selective. They tend to choose certain species over others and this serves to change population dynamics in the surrounding woodland. The large rodents then turn their cut timber into water blocking dams which convert swift running streams into still and tranquil ponds. This change drowns some plants while watering others. My own beaver pond is filled with the still standing skeletons of drowned pines while those growing around the ponds edge reap the rewards of an elevated water table. Swift-current specialists who are of no concern to the beavers abandon the tributary blocked by the dam. These effects can be shockingly far reaching. Migratory salmon for instance, returning to their natal tributaries from a life at sea stop using rivers with upstream beaver dams and in the Arctic at least, beluga whales who specialize in hunting those salmon stop entering the dammed rivers as well. The ecosystem modifications don’t stop there. A host of subtle and varied changes begin to take place. Still-water specialists move into the niche abandoned by the swift-water specialists. Sediment brought downstream begins to collect in the pond, bringing with it a rich supply of nutrients. Grasses and brushy plants take advantage of the lack of competition from trees and the newly fertilized soil. It is a vibrant cascade of changes as life adapts and shifts to capitalize on the novel environment.
Beavers are the gold standard by which we understand ecosystem engineers, but they are far from the sole example. When the concept was originally proposed, it was suggested that ecosystem engineers fall into two distinct categories, allogenic and autogenic. The distinction is fairly simple. Allogenic engineers, like the beavers, shape the environment through their actions. The goals of their actions are the attainment of food and shelter but the results of these actions are far-reaching, dramatic, and exist on a scale far beyond what is considered normal for a species of their general size and population density. As for the autogenic engineers, they are the species that modify the environment simply by existing. The simplest autogenic examples are trees. The primary factor that makes a forest ecosystem a forest ecosystem is the presence and persistence of trees. The diverse and interconnected life of a forest ecosystem is intrinsically dependent upon the existence of the trees. A forest quite literally cannot exist without trees. As with the beavers, the impact of the pines in my backyard stretches far beyond the nutrients they consume and those they supply. Their massive structures provide shelter for animals, many of which the trees are completely oblivious too. The leaf litter of fallen pine needles and sloughed bark provides cover for innumerable insects and smaller animals while also providing a nutrient source and seed bed for germinating plants. The vast shaded areas they create prohibit colonization by some shade-intolerant plants and provide ideal living conditions for others. As with the beavers, the list of effects to an ecosystem generated by trees is both lengthy and subtle.
As it turns out, many of the species in the Safari West collection qualify as ecosystem engineers as well. In that initial paper published by Jones et al, they mentioned crested porcupines as allogenic engineers. The two species of crested porcupine are found throughout much of subsaharan Africa and into the Indian subcontinent. Like beavers, they are large rodents with industrious attitudes. Crested porcupines aren’t builders however, they’re excavators. They dig large holes in their constant quest for edible tubers and roots and over time, those holes accumulate runoff and organic matter, which turns them into ideal spots for germinating seeds. Studies have shown vastly increased plant diversity in porcupine pits as compared to control plots.
The many hoofed animals that make their home at Safari West have also been called ecosystem engineers although their engineering contributions are less friendly toward humans than others we’ve considered. In Africa, heavy-bodied hoofed animals congregate around water holes and rivers across the continent. As they do, their hooves create deep impressions in the mud that then fill with warm stagnant water; the ideal breeding ground for mosquitos. It has been argued that without the abundance of larval nurseries inadvertently constructed by thirsty ungulates, the mosquitos of Africa would be far less ubiquitous than they are. In a less itchy example, it has also been suggested that massive herds of ungulates, like our zebras and wildebeest have the additional engineering impact of widespread fertilizing and tilling action on the soil. Essentially, as these large migratory herds move, they transfer nutrients from where they cropped a mouthful of grass to where they dropped their dung. The action of literally millions of hooves on this fertilized soil tills and turns it, preparing the land for new growth; an effect similar to how we humans plow and fertilize our fields. These actions have little to no direct impact on the herds but indirectly impact available resources for other organisms within the ecosystem.
These few examples are interesting but they also hint at a potential problem with the idea of ecosystem engineers. If we look closely enough, won’t we find that all organisms shape their environment in some form or another? After all, hoofed animals aren’t the only things to leave footprints in the mud and shrubs also produce leaf litter and shade. In point of fact, this idea has long been a major point of contention in the academic community. The general consensus now is that in order to qualify as an ecosystem engineer, an organism must make a substantial impact on its environment, on par with or exceeding the impacts of purely physical forces (erosion, wind, fire, etc). This makes for a vague and readily contested definition but it doesn’t diminish the primary point which is this: we humans and the other forms of life crawling, swimming, and flying around this planet are not mere occupants on this world. We are equal parts inhabitants, destroyers, and ultimately, builders of the ecosystems in which we live our lives.
Now that we’ve established the role that these ecosystem engineers play, it’s appropriate to wonder: what does this have to do with conservation? I believe that part of what makes the fight to save the endangered species and ecosystems of this world so difficult and frustrating stems from a misconception in how the world works. Species are born, evolve, succeed, fail, and go extinct all the time. These ongoing processes are part of the natural pattern of life and came into play the moment the very first single-celled organisms bloomed into existence. Just as children are meant to grow into adults, so species are meant to develop and change as they interact with each other and their environment. Likewise, the ecosystems these interacting species make up will shift and transform, grow and recede, ebb and flow as the underlying interactions governing their existence vary.
For example, once not all that long ago, my backyard was an unbroken stretch of forest. The pines and the aspens struggled with one another for their place in the sun. Some thrived, others starved, and the forest remained healthy and strong. Then a pair of beavers moved in and started logging. Had I lived here then, I may have viewed those beavers as an invasive species, a destructive pest wreaking havoc on the stability of the forest. They cut down some trees and drowned others. They flooded the forest floor and in their wake other species of plant and animal, alien to that stretch of forest moved in. The system changed.
Now my backyard contains a luscious pond. Greenery abounds and with it I get to enjoy the chirping and trilling of many species of bird. I get to watch the deer wading in the shallows. I get to watch the corn lilies and ranger’s buttons and wolfsbane blooming in the bright springtime sun. It’s a healthy and vibrant ecosystem and one which never would’ve existed under a paradigm of conservation focused on the idea of preserving what is right now at the expense of what once was or potentially could be.
Eventually the beavers will leave. Maybe the primary pair will die and none of their offspring will take their place, or we’ll have an exceptionally wet spring and their dams will fail and wash away, or maybe one of the local coyotes will catch them unaware someday. One way or another, at some point, the time of the beavers in this location will come to a close. When it does, the dams will break down and the pond will drain. The stream will cut a new course across a swath of open land rich with accumulated sediment and sunlight. A meadow will form filled with tall grasses and the herbivores that graze on them. The entire habitat will shift from what it is now into something new. To be honest, I do not look forward to that day. In time, the aspens and pines that wait patiently on the edge of the pond will drop seeds in that someday meadow. Over time it will be recolonized by the forest. The ecosystem will change yet again. The key to a healthy ecosystem isn’t stasis but stability. The pond isn’t permanent and the meadow that replaces it won’t be either. The important thing is that when one of those habitats fade, something must arise in its place.
Too often, those of us who care about the natural world focus on how it is in the now. We want to preserve the world as it exists in the brief moments in which we are lucky enough to experience it. Alternatively, we want to turn back the clock to some idealized and Edenic past. This is a false paradigm. The idea of “ecosystem engineers” may be a bit vague and scientifically problematic, but it is real enough to demonstrate the flaw in that idealized way of viewing the world. We should not, and in fact, cannot preserve the world in amber. When we focus our efforts on an endangered plant or animal, the question should be asked; is this species failing because of a breakdown in the system or is it failing because of the system itself?
Instead of frantically trying to catalogue and preserve every rarefied or declining species, or repopulating them to an arbitrarily established historical norm, perhaps we should instead focus our attention on understanding the mechanisms that drive these changes. They won’t always stem from something that needs to be “fixed”. Our tendency is to view any loss as inherently negative, but when we do that, we neglect the reality that when one species fails, another succeeds. We may lament the loss of the dinosaurs, but we should do so while remaining aware that if they were still here today, we probably wouldn’t be. The beauty of life is not that it stays the same, but that it is always changing, always trying new things. We can mourn the changing of the world, but as we do, we should also be excited to discover what it will become next.
Safari Spotlight: Aoudad
The aoudad, or barbary sheep, is one of the more unusual hoofed animals found at Safari West. Their latin name, Ammotragus lervia roughly translates as sand-goat and that pretty accurately describes the creature. The aoudad (OW-dad or aOO-dad) is the only sheep species housed in our collection and one of very few native to Africa. In appearance, the aoudad looks very much like the North American bighorn sheep with a stocky brown-furred body and thick backward curling horns. Both males and females present with these large horns although they are significantly larger on the rams.
While both genders have tufts of longer hair sprouting from their throats, these are also exaggerated on the rams. The male aoudads grow long bushy beards that extend down onto their chests and forelegs once they reach maturity. Our biggest males look a bit like they’re sporting 1970’s era bell-bottoms as they move up and down the steep hillsides and ravines of Safari West. Within the population, the males are significantly larger than the females (up to twice the body mass in fact) and have a remarkable ability to appear out of nowhere and then rapidly disappear once spotted.
Aoudad were once found throughout much of North Africa. They specialize in rugged mountainous areas ranging from true deserts to semi-deserts to open forests. They can survive without access to standing water as long as they have an adequate moisture-containing food supply and they are highly adaptable in terms of the plant life they will consume. In spite of these beneficial adaptations, the aoudad have suffered a steep and ongoing population decline over the last several centuries. Today there remain scattered and fragmentary populations in many nations including Egypt, Chad, Tunisia, and Niger although the last major strongholds of the species seem to be found in Morocco and Algeria.
It should be pointed out that the countries mentioned above are within the aoudads native range. As it turns out, aoudad have become something of an invasive species and there are now wild populations of this large African sheep in much of the American southwest as well as in parts of Spain. One of the factors that has led to aoudad decline in Africa also explains their healthy populations overseas; hunting. Historically, the aoudad had few predators, essentially leopards, lions, and caracals, but in modern history the only consistent threats they face come from humans. Aoudad have long been hunted for food by many north African cultures, but in recent centuries, the appeal of those large curving horns has made the animals the target of trophy hunters as well. Many countries with native populations of aoudad have instituted strict regulations in an effort to preserve the viability of their remaining herds.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimates somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 remaining wild aoudad and classify the species as vulnerable (one step above endangered) and declining. It is important to note that the IUCN makes explicit that their estimates are based on wild populations in the animals’ historic range. They do not account for any of the introduced animals now thriving in the southwestern US, northern Mexico, Spain, or the Canary Islands. These populations, though introduced by humans and implicitly invasive, are flourishing. One estimate places the Texas population alone at around 25,000 animals.
While not an unprecedented situation, this bizarre contradiction between declining native populations and burgeoning introduced populations highlights the extreme impacts human development and the game hunting industry can have on a species (and its associated ecosystem). The apocryphal story of aoudad in America starts with American soldiers in the African theater during World War II. Some soldiers encountered wild aoudad and noted the potential for the species as a game animal. During the post-war 40’s and 50’s, some aoudad were shipped to the US. Avid mountain climbers and talented jumpers, aoudad quickly demonstrated the ability to clamber over or jump a six or seven foot fence and before long wild populations were exploding and competing with (possibly out-competing) our native bighorns.
The aoudad at Safari West are reclusive animals and among the more challenging individuals to find on tour. When you come visit, make sure to keep your eyes peeled any time your truck rolls past a steep ravine or especially wooded hillside. On more than one occasion these animals have surprised guests and guides alike by appearing not only on the steepest of cliff-sides but even up in the branches of some of our sturdier old oaks!
Jr. Keepers: Bearded Dragons
Safari West is home to over 90 fascinating species and nearly 900 individual animals. Not long ago, the number of creatures calling this place home went up by 2. Safari West recently adopted two bearded dragons; Reptar, a male, and Misha (also called Pancake), a female. If you’ve never seen a bearded dragon, the name says it all. They are large, sand colored lizards with spiky scales running across their heads and down their wide, flattened sides. They sport prickly beards of pointed scales and in spite of their fierce appearance, are generally fairly amiable creatures.
For this reason, the Safari West keeper department has added the bearded dragons to the Jr. Keeper curriculum. Our Jr. Keeper program is a product of the Safari West Wildlife Foundation, a non-profit foundation associated with the Safari West Wildlife Preserve. Kids in the Jr. Keeper program come to Safari West to experience what it’s like to work with exotic wildlife. They learn general husbandry and how to feed and care for many of the species in our collection. Before the arrival of these two beardies, the Jr. Keepers were dealing mostly with small mammals and birds. Thanks to Reptar and Misha, we can now include reptile care in their curriculum!
Each day that the Jr. Keepers work with the two lizards, they carefully prepare diets, keeping a close eye on maintaining a nutritional balance and appropriate intake. They’re also learning to keep the daily records that professional zookeepers rely on to maintain the health and vitality of their charges. Our Jr. Keepers don’t just learn to care for the creatures though, they are also gaining experience in what we call “interpretation”. Like keepers and guides throughout the world, the Jr. Keepers are discovering the joy that comes from teaching others what you know. Several days a week, visitors to Safari West get to see our young up-and-comers strolling the property with one or both bearded dragons on their shoulders. If you see them on property, please feel free to approach them. They’re excited to show off their new charges as well as answer any questions you may have.
The Jr. Keeper program is a valuable ongoing project at Safari West. Not only does it add to the experience of guests on property, it is also a critical resource in the development of future advocates for wildlife education. The Jr. Keeper program is open to children ages 12-16. For further details or to submit an application, please visit www.safariwestwildlifefoundation.org or contact Kimberly Robertson at (707) 541-7340 or Corrine Bishop at (707) 566-3613.
Join us in Celebrating National Zoo Keeper Week!
The third week of July is National Zoo Keeper Week. This annual celebration of the hardworking professionals who make zoos, aquariums, and conservation preserves like Safari West possible takes place from July 17th through the 23rd.
In an age when habitat loss is accelerating and each year more and more species are classified as endangered or extinct, our zoos and aquariums are more important than ever. Only a small percentage of us will ever have the chance to visit elephants in Africa, pangolins in Vietnam, or any of the at-risk tropical coral reefs. For the rest of us, the window onto those fragile ecosystems comes in the form of the exotic animals found in our hometown zoos and aquariums. We owe a debt of gratitude to the passionate and dedicated army of caretakers who keep these ambassador animals alive and healthy.
The zoo keeper’s workday has its share of standard responsibilities; feeding, cleaning, monitoring behavior and the like. It can also include a more than healthy dose of the unexpected. Animals get sick or give birth or surprise you with something totally new. At a moment’s notice, our keepers may have to switch gears from setting up an enrichment activity for a troupe of monkeys to helping a fledgling ibis that’s fallen from a nest. Other times they’ll be out feeding the zebras when suddenly a giraffe begins to calve. A day in the life of a zoo keeper can certainly be crazy, but it is never boring. Throughout the course of their complicated, messy, and fascinatingly beautiful lives, the animals of our zoos and aquariums live side-by-side with some of the most committed and hardworking people in the world.
From July 17th to July 23rd, please join Safari West in appreciating and thanking the dedicated humans who care for the animals of your local zoo or aquarium.
Special thanks to our Safari West keepers:
Noa Albert, Amber Anderson, Jen Bates, Jessica Bella, Holly Bovey, Jake Brotsis, Megan Brown-Herrera, Donna Compton, Jeff DaSilva, Sam Delzell, Daniel Flores, Cassie Gavazza, Victoria Harris, Jane Haught, Beverly Kerbow, Ernie Lopez-Ponce, Marie Martinez, Erika Mittelman, Marie Barbera, Joanne Panizzera, Rose Pattenaude, Kaitlyn Phillips, Kimberly Robertson, Athena Rushka, Chris Scheetz, Brittany Shelton, Jenny Sloat, Nikki Smith, Marilyn Sutton, Leslie Thalman, Haley Vincent, & Danielle Wegner!
… We love you and appreciate all that you do. THANK YOU.