Hello again and welcome to Safari West! Spring has arrived and with it, some much needed rains. Gentle showers have rinsed away the dust and brought our rolling hills back to vibrant life. Once again our herds graze on tender shoots of grass and the giraffes patiently await those few cottonwood leaves unlucky enough to grow within reach of their impressively long tongues.
Spring may be the most exciting season here at Safari West. As the days stretch longer and grow warmer, the property becomes increasingly busy. Enjoying the few short months between the chill of winter and the heat of the Sonoma summer, our animals are excitable and active. Courtships are happening everywhere, from the synchronized parading of the flamingos, to the head-tossing showmanship of the wildebeests. We’re seeing a great deal of nest-building from our many birds and in fact, we’ve already welcomed our latest crop of crested screamer hatchlings!
Come join us this March as we celebrate our traditional start of season. We’re opening up additional safari start times and reopening the tent-cabins for the year. We welcome you to join us in exploring the wonders of Africa and the enjoying the experience of a lifetime. Thank you and see you soon!
Peter & Nancy Lang
Founders of Safari West
Spring is Here! Let's Go Camping!
Winter is a strange and beautiful season here at Safari West. Everything slows down, calms down, grows a little quieter. The animals seem relaxed and tranquil as they cluster under the oaks to watch the morning mists come curling around the hills. When the winter rains come in, falling softly on earth parched by a long summer, we see the different species react in various ways. Some of our animals do as we humans do and stay inside. We find our rhinos, Mufasa and Aesha, peering out from their house, munching casually on a breakfast of hay and alfalfa as they watch their mud wallow swell with rain. The zebras on the other hand, like playful children, spend the days splashing through puddles; their normally sleek and shiny coats tousled and mud-spattered as they frolic in a very different, very wet world.
For us humans, winter at Safari West is a time to catch up on projects. This winter, we had two big projects, the large aviary and the tent camp. We decided to complete a total renewal and refurbishment of our glamping experience. One by one, each of our thirty luxury tent-cabins were stripped down to the floorboards. The handmade hardwood floors were sanded down and resurfaced and we worked up from there. Once all the features and furniture had been polished and perfected, we added a final touch, draping each and every tent-cabin in brand new canvas. We exchanged each aging tent with a custom-made replacement freshly delivered from Lobatse, Botswana. Our luxurious tent camp, first put up in 1999, is brand new all over again!
As that project was underway we also began a complete facelift on our large aviary. It’s only recently reopened with all new paved walkways and a stunning, many-tiered waterway. The birds have already made the freshly completed aviary their home and nest building is well underway. If you’ve been here in years past, you’ll no doubt recall the experience of walking through this tranquil sanctuary. We’ve named the upgraded aviary the Amani Oasis; a peaceful haven in the midst of our Sonoma Serengeti.
The first of March marked the passing of winter and the eagerly anticipated onset of spring. To celebrate this, each year we treat the first as our traditional grand re-opening. Starting in March, we see our crowds swell in size and enthusiasm and in response, we offer additional tour times: 9 and 10am as well as 1 and 2pm. School field trips arrive one after the other to clamber aboard the Nairobi or the African Queen for a scholarly trek experience. Most exciting of all, the first marked the reopening of the all new Safari West tent-camp!
Spring is in the air here at Safari West. Between our courting animals, the new and improved Amani Oasis and the stunningly upgraded tent-cabins, we are surrounded by beauty. We welcome you to join us this season and experience the wonder for yourself. Reserve a tour or camp site now through safariwest.com or by calling 1-800-616-2695 and be one of the first to enjoy an overnight adventure and the ultimate safari experience!
Tufani Junior: Son of the Storm
Tufani is the Swahili word for storm and once upon a time, a giraffe bearing that name ambled across the hillsides of Safari West. A massive, graceful creature, Tufani stood nearly nineteen feet tall and lived a life of celebrity here. Immensely popular with our guests, this darkly patterned giant of a giraffe had a habit of investigating every safari truck that came rumbling through his enclosure. Approaching the vehicles, Tufani would treat the crowds to an up close and very personal visit. Few experiences in life compare with coming face-to-massive-face with a full grown giraffe!
As a Masai giraffe, the most startling of the nine recognized giraffe subspecies, Tufani really stood out in the crowd. In America, we’re most accustomed to the reticulated giraffe with their blocky brown spots and light yellow lines. Masai giraffes like Tufani look somewhat different. Their spots tend to be more leaf-shaped than geometrical and they are often much darker in color. Some of our darkest Masai giraffes are so dark that they appear nearly black.
As the years went by and Tufani carried on about the business of being a large male giraffe, he courted and bred with our tallest Masai female, a long-necked beauty by the name of Jamala. As a result, back in April of 2014, we had the privilege of welcoming their firstborn, a beautiful baby boy named Phoenix. With the addition of this six-foot newborn, we suddenly found ourselves living with a nuclear family of Masai giraffe. People turned out in droves to witness the amazing sight of our sky-high Masai family. It was a beautiful time.
Then tragedy struck. In November of 2014, Tufani very suddenly passed away. We were devastated by his loss and continue to miss his enormous presence to this day. Over a year after his passing, we continue to have guests on safari asking about Tufani. It always hurts to break it to his fans that our gentle giant has passed on.
It’s been said that every cloud has a silver lining and the silver in this story showed up only recently. On January 20th, some fourteen months and nineteen days after Tufani’s passing, Jamala went into labor again. A short time later she gave birth to another Masai male! As it turns out, the average length of giraffe gestation is thirteen to fifteen months. Apparently in the week or two before his passing, Tufani and Jamala came together one last time to produce this miraculous final scion; the last son of Tufani and Jamala and a baby brother to Phoenix!
Every baby is exciting here at Safari West, but this one is special. A bright, beautiful gift by which to remember his well-loved father. Please join us in celebrating the birth of Tufani Junior! Little TJ is just over a month old and while he has a long way to grow before he reaches the lofty heights of his famous parents, he’s off to a great start.
Come by Safari West this spring and watch TJ (alongside Nikki and Dubs, our other giraffe youngsters) as they make their start out here in the wilds of Sonoma County.
Conservation Corner: Stepping Back from Extinction
By: Jared Paddock
Of the many endangered species represented in the collection at Safari West, only one has the dubious distinction of carrying the label “Extinct in the Wild”. Most of our visitors are familiar with the idea of endangerment and understand that when we point out an animal as being “critically endangered” they are looking at a species in crisis. What comes as shocking news to many is that the word “extinct” doesn’t only apply to dinosaurs and wooly mammoths. Extinctions are going on every year and at an alarming rate. One of the great benefits of zoos and wildlife parks like Safari West is that when we can see it coming, we can sometimes act as life preserver for these fragile species.
Among the 800 or so animals making their home at Safari West, you can find seven beautiful scimitar horned oryxes. The scimitar horned oryx is an incredible desert antelope. Typically white in color with sandy colored necks and incredibly long, backwards curving horns, the scimitars are startling on first look. Some estimates claim that there were once over a million scimitar horned oryx ranging across north Africa. A sad convergence of factors drove the oryx from that population high to the point of eradication. Resources are limited in the desert and so the oryx proved especially vulnerable to competition with livestock and the constant encroachment of human habitation. These beautiful antelope have also been hunted extensively. Historically they were hunted as a food source, a fact which makes a great deal of sense as they are a large, heavy-bodied antelope occurring in an area otherwise mostly devoid of protein sources. In modern times, they’ve also been targeted as trophy animals. One look at the graceful curve of those long slender horns should give a clue as to why.
The combination of these factors led to a string of localized extinctions. By the end of the 1800s, the oryx were extirpated from Egypt. Shortly thereafter they disappeared from Senegal and Burkina Faso. The belief is that the very last wild scimitar horned oryx was shot in Chad in 1998. In the year 2000, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) declared the scimitar horned oryx extinct in the wild.
In the 16 years since then, places like Safari West have done what we can to keep the captive members of the species healthy and successfully breeding while outfits like the Sahara Conservation Fund (SCF), the Zoological Society of London, and the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi (EAD), have worked at finding ways to re-establish wild populations.
The Sahara Conservation Fund may sound familiar to you. If you happened to visit Safari West last fall, you’ll have wandered through our conservation pumpkin patch where our hoofstock department raised funds for the SCF. The fund has been doing incredible work for years including a partial introduction of scimitars in Tunisia. Starting in March however, conservation efforts surrounding the scimitar horned oryx are stepping up to a whole new level.
Historically, reintroducing extinct species has been a complex and frustrating endeavor. Typically these efforts amount to limited introductions in fenced off reserves encapsulating fairly small areas. For example, a previous introduction project involved releasing 8 scimitars into the North Ferlo Wildlife Reserve in Senegal. The population grew to 120 animals over the course of a decade. An impressive recovery to be sure. It is important however to bear in mind that the Ferlo reserve is only 3,000 acres in area and is entirely fenced and patrolled. The scimitars making their home in the Ferlo reserve are protected from human interaction and any interloping cattle or sheep are quickly escorted off the premises. Not only that, but the vegetation in Ferlo is significantly different from what can be found beyond the fences. If the scimitars were to cross the fence line, they’d find themselves competing with millions of cows, sheep, and goats for a much more restricted supply of nutrition.
The Senegalese scimitar reintroduction project (as well as similar projects in Morocco and Tunisia) has been successful but with severe caveats. These populations do not qualify as truly wild and are most definitely managed by humans even if their interaction with their managers is limited. These reserves are in many ways Safari West writ large.
Beginning in March, the government of Chad, in concert with SCF and EAD will begin a grand experiment. They have selected the Ouadi Rime-Ouadi Achim Game Reserve in central Chad as the new home for 500 captive bred scimitar horned oryx from Abu Dhabi. This reserve spans nearly 19-million acres as opposed to Ferlo’s 3,000. Not only that, but it is unfenced and straddles the oryx’s historical range in the Sahel grasslands. This area is large enough that the oryx will be able to engage in more natural behaviors than are possible in fenced reserves. In part this means that the highly nomadic and migratory species will finally regain the ability to truly stretch their legs.
SCF and the Chadian government will not release all 500 animals en masse. They are beginning with a small population, 25 individuals to start, and at the outset there will be temporary fencing in place. This will help protect and contain the animals as they acclimate to their new home. As the animals acclimatize, the fences will expand to encompass new territory and with time, will disappear altogether. When that happens, the Chadian population of scimitar horned oryx will become the first wild population the planet has seen in nearly two decades.
This is a huge reason to celebrate. It’s not often that we get to see extinction run in reverse and a species on the edge begin to regain a toehold. Beyond the excitement for the species in question, there is also a great deal of evidence that these animals will have a beneficial impact on the ecosystem. This has been the case with wolf reintroductions in Yellowstone. Ecosystems tend to be thrown out of balance when pieces of them are lost and re-balanced to some extent when they are returned.
But is that the whole story? It’s important to note that the success of this project is in no way guaranteed. There have been reintroductions in the past that were less than successful. The Arabian oryx was once incredibly endangered to the point that it too was considered extinct in the wild. A successful reintroduction of the species in Oman eventually collapsed as the species suffered untenable pressure from poachers. The few remaining individuals had to be recaptured and relocated. Luckily for the Arabian oryx, reintroductions in other parts of the Middle East saw better results and on the whole the population has now recovered to the point of being classified as “vulnerable”.
Likewise, the Northern Bald Ibis (5 of which make their home at Safari West) has been making a bit of a comeback of late. The last wild population of these mid-sized black birds has rebounded in the last year or so. Though their numbers are climbing, this Morocco based population doesn’t migrate as it once did. Likewise, a satellite population in Yemen is captured each year to prevent them from migrating, mainly because the birds don’t often survive the trip. They simply encounter too many obstacles, some manmade, some natural along the way.
The question has to be asked, at what point does it no longer make sense to expect a species to compete with humanity when the scales are so heavily weighted? We like the idea of these animals existing in a wild state. They have a documented impact on the welfare of the environment, and the environment has a direct impact on us. On the other hand, even the wilds of Ouadi Rime-Ouadi Achim are no longer truly wild. A pre-release survey study noted that vegetative cover was diminished in the west of the park, an area in which the survey team had the most encounters with domestic livestock. Markus Gusset, chief conservation officer at the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums made this concession in a discussion with PBS;
“Every ecosystem on earth is somehow impacted by human activities and most wildlife populations will need to be managed in the future.”
At some point, what we are doing is not bringing back an animal to an ecosystem from which it’s been lost, but introducing a novel organism into an ecosystem to which it no longer belongs. The scimitar horned oryx reintroduction in Chad presents a remarkable and unprecedented opportunity to find out whether or not we’ve crossed that line.
Safari Spotlight: Sulcata Tortoise
Easter is nearly here and with it, that adorable little bunny who scampers about hiding easter eggs and trinkets for children to find. It would make sense then to focus this month’s Safari Spotlight on a rabbit or hare. Alas, the Safari West collection focuses much more on monkeys and hyenas than on the ubiquitous lagomorphs (the taxonomic order Lagomorpha contains rabbits, hares, and the mouse/rabbit-like pika). That being the case, for this round of the Spotlight, proudly standing in for the speedy hare will be its slow and steadfast companion, the tortoise.
More specifically, let’s discuss the sulcata tortoise. The sulcata tortoise, also known as the African spurred tortoise or spur-thighed tortoise (there are a lot of common names for this species), is a desert tortoise. They are found all along the southern edge of the Sahara desert in north Africa, an arid and inhospitable grassland that runs for thousands of miles across the span of Africa. We call this transition zone the Sahel. The sulcata is well adapted for life in the dry Sahelian climate. They are capable burrowers; a skill which allows them to dig down into cooler soils during the heat of the day. They are also able to survive with severe water restrictions. By capitalizing on the moisture content in their favorite food, grass, the sulcata tortoise is able to stay alive and hydrated in the absence of drinkable water.
Interesting for an animal living in an environment of limited resources, sulcata tortoises are large; very large. In fact the sulcata tortoise is among the largest tortoises on the planet, capable of reaching over two and a half feet long and more impressively, weighing up to 230 pounds! With this great size comes a great deal of aggression as well. When you think aggressive, I doubt the tortoise is an animal that comes charging to mind, but in the sulcata’s case, it’s undeniably true. Male tortoises are known to fight viciously during the mating season, ramming one another repeatedly to the point of injury. If they can, sulcata males will try to flip over their opponents for a most humiliating defeat.
We have quite a few sulcata tortoises here at Safari West and they are a somewhat unique piece of our collection. For one, they are among the only reptiles we currently house. For another, they make up one of the few species who came to live here as part of a rescue program. By and large, Safari West is a breeding preserve focused on the conservation of endangered species. Sulcata tortoises are considered vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in large part because of increasing desertification and fragmentation of their natural habitat. We are not however breeding sulcatas at this time. The individuals who’ve made their home at Safari West are largely former pets, relinquished by their owners when they grew too large or became too sick.
Sulcatas do not make good pets for those two very legitimate reasons. As large, strong, willful animals, sulcatas can rapidly destroy a yard and are adept escape artists. Beyond that, they also require strict care, including a temperature appropriate habitat and a high-fiber diet consisting mainly of grasses. Well-meaning pet owners often unwittingly poison their tortoises with inappropriate local plants or else make them sick by feeding them soft fruits that we humans find delicious and nutritious. These dietary mistakes can result in tortoises with scars in the form of misshapen shells.
Happily, our sulcatas are hale and hearty and on warmer days, can be found rambling around many enclosures here in the preserve. Come to Safari West this Easter and join us in the Hunt for the Hare. If you’re lucky, you may just turn up some tortoises too.
Safari West Goes to Africa
Visitors to Safari West see many things when they come here. They see the guides decked out in khaki and caps in their M37 Power Wagons, rumbling up and down the oak-studded hills. They see the sumptuous tent camps, the savory-smelling restaurant, and probably some hard-working keepers, well-dusted with alfalfa and mud. Oh, and of course they see the animals; several hundred of them, representing nearly 90 individual species.
What the average visitor may not see are the many researchers and dedicated scientists working diligently behind the scenes. Safari West is not only home to lemurs, flamingos and giraffes. It’s also home to something we call the REC department. Standing for “Research, Education, & Conservation”, the hard working REC Department team-members have several interconnected but very different responsibilities.
Firstly, the REC Department is our research division. Tucked away in one corner of the property, we find the heart of this division, the Osteology Lab. Osteology is the study of bones; a useful field of exploration. A tremendous amount of information can be garnered from the study of bones. After all, how do you think we learned about dinosaurs? Beyond the study of skeletons, the osteology lab scientists also conduct extensive inquiries into animal behavior, reproductive physiology, and parasitology.
The animals of Safari West live out their entire lives here, often times from birth. While death is an unpleasant subject, especially the death of an animal we’ve been working alongside for years, it is nonetheless a reality that must be confronted. Zebras are no more immortal than we humans are after all. If a zebra passes away here on property, we are lucky in that we can glean something positive from the tragedy by studying the bones that remain. By conducting postmortem investigations, our team can learn about the life of the individual animal. This allows us to expand our knowledge of potential illnesses or traumas that may affect the species in our care. Furthermore, by studying the characteristics that make each individual bone unique, we benefit the fields of paleontology and archaeology. In these ways, the tragedy of an animal’s loss is in a small way brightened by the opportunity to further our understanding of that species.
The second letter of the REC department stands for education. Educating the public is of paramount importance to the REC department and its members. For example, while much of the Osteo lab’s work happens behind the scenes, October visitors to Safari West enjoy a unique opportunity to take a peek behind the curtain. As we celebrate Halloween and the Day of the Dead, the REC department brings out examples of their osteological specimens. These displays provide amazing demonstrations of the work the researchers do and it’s incredible value to the scientific world at large. In the Osteo lab’s Walking with the Dead exhibit, guests are invited to explore many of the skeletons in the collection. Likewise, in celebration of World Giraffe Day, the Osteo lab brings out their giraffe specific material. Examining the complete skeletal structure of an adult giraffe like the one you just saw on tour adds a completely unique level of understanding to the safari experience.
Lastly, we come to the conservation component of the REC Department. Conservation efforts touch nearly every aspect of daily life at Safari West. Conservation comes into play in the propagation of endangered species and the management of genetic diversity in our collection. It is also a factor influencing which conservation advocates and scientists we invite to present to our guests throughout the year. If you’ve been reading the newsletter, then you’ve likely seen the Conservation Corner articles we produce. They are also a part of our conservation outreach.
Daniel (Danny) Cusimano is the Director of the Research, Education, and Conservation Department. As you may imagine, he’s a pretty busy guy. He directs the operations of the osteology lab and is the driving force behind the many research projects happening on property. Research interns and graduate students embarking on studies work closely with Danny as well.
Recently, Danny became involved with the Kesem Kebena Project; a paleontological salvage operation taking place in Ethiopia. The Kesem and the Kebena are two rivers in the process of being dammed. As a result of the damming, large areas of land will become inundated with water and any paleontological material in those areas will be lost. Thanks to the sponsorship of the Ethiopian Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage (ARRCH), the Kesem Kebena project has been collecting and cataloguing as much material as possible and moving it to the National Museum of Ethiopia in Addis Ababa. Rarely are these fossils complete skeletons, or even complete bones. More frequently this material shows up as a chaotic collection of intermingled fragments. The project needed scientists adept at piecing together animal bones and thanks to his work as director of the Osteo lab, Danny fit the bill perfectly.
Safari West is sponsoring Danny’s work in Ethiopia. The Kesem Kebena Project represents a worthy undertaking and something Safari West is proud to support on principal. We do however have an interest beyond mere nobility. Several species from our collection originate in the area the project is studying. The fossils Danny and his cohorts are piecing together represent the ancestors of animals we interact with on a daily basis.
This project perfectly bridges the three primary responsibilities of the REC Department. By collecting and cataloguing these fossils this research project adds valuable data to the library of human knowledge. The project also supplements our education component beautifully. The Safari West guide department prides itself on constantly refining our information and techniques so that visitors to our preserve get the most accurate and informative presentations possible. The new finds unearthed by the Kesem Kebena Project are already revealing novel data about the species in our collection and their evolutionary history.
Perhaps most exciting of all is the way in which this kind of paleontological work is beginning to influence the world of conservation. For a long time conservation has been focused largely on mitigating human factors. If we’re overhunting a species, the conservation message is to limit hunting pressures. If we are fragmenting a habitat either through deforestation, urbanization or some other means, the immediate conservation response is to establish protected areas.
These are all valid responses but they are fundamentally reactionary. We pursue a behavior until we recognize a consequence and then attempt to mitigate the behavior. Conservation is slowly turning proactive instead of reactive and a novel scientific approach is aiding in that transition. It’s been called conservation paleobiology and it’s the result of paleontologists like Danny taking an interest in the modern conservation situation. Human factors are undeniably critical to the current state of wildlife conservation but humans have only been around for the last 200,000 years. Up until the advent of civilization some 6,000 years ago, we couldn’t have had the kind of mass impact we do now and arguably even then we didn’t start to exert global pressure until after the industrial revolution.
What conservation paleobiology allows us to do is take the long view. We are increasingly able to look beyond the last few hundred years. The interplay of ecosystems is subtle and if you take bullets and freeways out of the equation, there are still innumerable factors related to the success or failure of a species. By sending Danny to Ethiopia, we are placing ourselves at the forefront of this branch of research.
Safari West is more than just a wildlife preserve. If our aim were simply to show you the animals that once roamed the wild, we’d be doing a disservice. Instead, our goal is to show you to the amazing creatures who continue to inhabit the wild today and hopefully, to inspire you to join our fight to keep it that way.