Famous Senegalese environmentalist Baba Dioum once said, “In the end we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.” At Safari West, we couldn’t agree more. Back when we started this place, one of the first things we did was to reach out to the schools. We have always hoped that by teaching children about our animals and their environments, we will inspire in them a sense of curiosity and compassion for the wider world.
We like to think that this idea is working out pretty well. Each year we see more and more schools putting together field trips to Safari West and each year we update our trek program to ensure that it stays current with the latest in conservation science. Right now we are in the heart of the 2016 trek season with two or more schools showing up every day of the week. It’s hard to overstate just how satisfying it is to watch our Trek vehicles (the African Queen and Nairobi minibus) rumbling around property loaded with grinning, inquisitive children. It’s even more exciting when we talk to the kids. The knowledge they arrive with is shocking, and their enthusiasm is infectious. We’re encountering more and more children making their second, third, or even fourth trips out into the collection and the sheer volume of what these kids learn and remember is simply amazing!
A visit to Safari West will expose you to many vulnerable and endangered species but perhaps surprisingly, the experience is almost always uplifting. The up and coming generations know a lot about wildlife and ecology and they care about it even more. The world seems to be passing into good hands and we’re incredibly honored if we can play even a small part in helping that to happen.
Nancy & Peter Lang
Founders of Safari West
Dub: Checking in with our MVP
The NBA Playoffs have officially begun and as our Golden State Warriors dribble and dunk their way to the championship, we thought this might be a good time to check in on a too-tall champion of our own. The Warriors were on a record-setting tear last November when a baby reticulated giraffe came tumbling into our world. Turns out when you’ve already got basketball on the brain and a brand new baby giraffe blinking down at you, it’s impossible not to name the little guy after your team.
Since taking his first shaky steps last fall, little Dubs has been tacking on inch after inch. He’s now about seven feet tall, pushing 250 pounds, and peers over the fences at us with ease. He and the other giraffes of his generation, Nikki and TJ, are spending these sunny spring days out and about in the giraffe lot. While they’re frequently found together, recently Dubs has also been introducing himself to the ever-growing preschool class of Safari West babies. Just the other day, a couple of safari trucks were treated to a display of momental cuteness as Dubs spread his long legs and lowered his head to get a good close look at one of our baby Nile lechwes. Little Dubs looked absolutely massive looming over the teensy-tiny antelope but only moments later he wandered back over to mom and looked like a tiny toy giraffe once more.
It’s not all fun and games being a baby giraffe at Safari West and Dubs is currently learning chute training. We have a tall chute that all our giraffes have to be comfortable going in and out of. This is so they’re relaxed and at ease when we need to put them in there for the occasional medical check up. Dubs is being adorably difficult about the whole process, stamping his feet and making mean faces at his keepers instead of doing what he’s told. So far it’s too cute to be really frustrating to his hard-working teachers.
Dubs, Nikki, TJ and all their new friends are really enjoying the warm weather and all the fans who’ve come flocking to see them. If you haven’t yet had a chance to come face-to-face with our trio of giraffe youngsters, come visit us at Safari West and experience all the wonder of wildest Africa right here in Sonoma County.
Conservation Corner: Migration Matters
By: Jared Paddock
The goal of conservation is the preservation of wilderness at risk and almost as a rule, this is achieved by conserving certain places and certain species. This system has worked beautifully with populations that don’t move around much, but has largely failed when it comes to protecting migrants. Put simply, migratory populations are those that move from one place to another and back again. When we fail to include these populations and their pathways in our conservation planning, we risk building a fatal flaw into our most well laid conservation plans.
2016 marks the 100-year-anniversary of the National Park Service (NPS). Since it’s inception a century ago, the NPS has been on the forefront of American conservation. Thanks largely to it’s successes in setting aside spaces for the protection of wildlife, we haven’t continued to see the major die offs and extinctions that marked the early history of the United States. While the herds of bison that once famously roamed in the millions through the American midwest may be largely gone, healthy and stable populations exist on managed lands in twelve states. Nearly half of these are found in Yellowstone National Park. The visibility and viability of our National Park System coupled with their well-documented successes has helped to create the current conservation culture and the methods it employs. Most of the time, the culture focuses its efforts on setting aside habitat and protecting animals where they live.
In 2001, the NPS published a report titled “Rethinking the National Parks for the 21st Century”. In it they outlined both the strengths and weaknesses of the park system as it exists and noted the following:
“Actions to preserve biodiversity cannot be limited to park areas, for parks are often parts of larger ecosystems that encompass them. To encourage ecological stewardship outside the parks, the Service should cooperate extensively with its neighbors—federal agencies, states, counties, cities, tribes, the private sector, even other countries. Parks cannot survive as islands of biodiversity. They need to be linked with other natural areas through wildlife migratory corridors and greenways.”
This report makes explicit the realization that changes in major migrations are likely to have major impacts in the ecosystems they pass through as well, including those that are otherwise protected.
Wildebeest are a famous migratory species and one which we are lucky enough to have here at Safari West. Every year, a massive herd of grazers (including zebra, Thomson’s gazelles, and a million or so wildebeest) roam up and down the Serengeti; taking part in the one of the largest land migrations on the planet. As these massive herds travel they provide sustenance for innumerable predators. Lion prides with established territories take full advantage of this moveable feast as it winds through their territories. Giant crocodiles in the Mara River wait patiently for the feeding frenzy that occurs with the arrival of the herds. Should a highway project or urban development interrupt this migration, stopping all those ungulates in their tracks, it would trigger an ecological disaster. The huge numbers of herbivores would quickly overgraze the territory they had stopped in, damaging the environment and leading to starvation. Ahead of the broken migration, the predators would suffer. They’d begin to apply increased pressure on other prey species within the ecosystem and in all likelihood, populations would decline on both sides.
Wildebeest contribute to the ecosystem in other ways as well. Millions of wildebeest produce millions of pounds of manure and spread it far and wide as they travel. Not only does the savanna gain free fertilizer, it is also tilled by the motion of millions of sharp hooves. This constant cropping and fertilizing benefits the plant life of the Serengeti immensely. The Serengeti without this valuable soil amending service would be a much different place.
In North America, we’ve seen ecosystems shift as a result of failed migration already. Consider one of our most famous wild spectacles, the annual salmon run. Most Pacific and Atlantic salmon species have a life cycle that is highly dependent on migration. Born in tributaries and streams far from the ocean, young salmon move downstream to the sea where they mature. After several years and as they approach the end of their life cycle, the salmon return to the river mouths and commence a long upstream swim to their birthplaces. In some cases this migration takes them from the Pacific coast inland as far as Idaho (a 900 mile swim against strong currents and rapids). Once they reach their natal streams, they breed and shortly thereafter, they die.
Salmon are a very important animal economically and so benefit from regulations designed to prevent overfishing and keep the population strong. We’ve also become quite adept at supplementing wild born fish with fish from commercial hatcheries. As a result of these practices and others, salmon are under no immediate threat of extinction. This healthy population-count hides the fact that wild salmon populations have undergone a steep and steady decline over the last two centuries. Why? Because we failed to take migration into account. We’ve done a decent job limiting fishing and ensuring that there is always suitable breeding stock moving upstream, but we haven’t always been as good at protecting that freshwater pathway or the streams they start and end their lives in.
Salmon populations have been decimated by a number of anthropogenic causes, among the most famous of which are our dams. Dams have the two-fold impact of blocking mature salmon from swimming upstream while simultaneously directing downstream moving youngsters into power-generating turbines. We’ve made numerous strides to correct these problems, largely by adding “fish ladders” that adult salmon jump up to bypass dams and opening spillways for the youngsters to keep them from going through the turbines. All told, while the situation is improving a bit these days, salmon runs are barely a fraction of what they once were.
Still, the total population remains strong, and we can raise new salmon in commercial hatcheries, or even farm them outright if it comes down to it (environmentally disastrous but entirely possible), so does it matter if they no longer migrate upstream? The answer to this is a simple and straightforward, yes. The salmon migration is essentially a giant nutrient transfer system leading from the bountiful sea up into mountainous forests. As mature and heavy-bodied fish leave the ocean and swim upstream, one of two things usually happens. Either the fish die en route; perhaps caught by a bear or killed by disease, or they survive their marathon swim, make it to their spawning grounds, breed, and then die. Those that get eaten add their sea-sourced nutrients to the ecosystem directly. Those that die in other ways, decompose and fertilize the downstream habitat with nitrogen, phosphorus, and other nutrients. The salmon run is not only a critical piece of salmon life cycle, it’s also an important source of nutrition that has major impacts on the river and forest ecosystem at large.
It’s interesting to note that while the loss of a migration results in a dynamically changed environment, migration itself is an evolutionary response to a dynamically changing environment. In a land of eternal spring, birds would have no need to fly south. If winter snows didn’t bury mountaintop vegetation, elk wouldn’t need to head to the valleys. If the Serengeti weren’t seasonally dry, wildebeest wouldn’t have to follow the rains. These things do happen however, and life has found ways to adapt to the changes. In a dynamic world, movement is a key survival strategy. If the wildebeest stop migrating, their ecosystem will be fundamentally changed. If the ecosystem itself changes however, if the dry seasons get longer, or the weather patterns move north, the wildebeest need to be able to move with them. The major problem with not considering migration when we think about conservation is that we often wind up boxing in our species at risk. If they cannot change with a changing world, they die.
Like the world at large, conservation has to be dynamic. We’ve conserved a lot through the careful creation and management of parks and preserves, but now we know that’s not enough. Now that we’ve learned that these parks cannot exist as islands cut off from the world, we’re adjusting our techniques. We’ve only just begun to step back and examine the systems that connect one protected patch of green to another but as we learn, we must incorporate that knowledge into our plans. The future of conservation lies not in slicing out plots of wild, but in learning how to protect the systems by which life continues to adapt to an ever-changing world.
Safari Spotlight: Northern Bald Ibis
The Northern bald ibis, also known as the Waldrapp’s ibis could be considered a scary looking bird. At first glance, their bald, red-skinned heads and glossy black plumage make them look like small vultures. A collar of long black feathers burst back from around the neck which has the effect of making the birds appear almost as though they’re wearing capes. It’s a villainous look to be sure. This sinister appearance isn’t helped by their habit of peering down at us visiting humans from their nesting platforms high above our heads.
While the ibis does sport a very vulture-like look and aren’t above eating the occasional dead lizard or mouse, they aren’t typically scavengers. They are better described as omnivorous generalists. Normally, the glossy black birds are found foraging in open areas of sparse vegetation where they seek out small animal prey including bugs, worms, and small mammals. Not strictly carnivorous, the ibises will also chow down on berries, plant material of various types, and duckweed. Ibises of all species are known for their long, sensitive downward curving bill, and just like all of their cousins, the Northern bald ibis puts this valuable tool to work, probing about in the soft soil or beneath the water in their never-ending quest for sustenance.
While the Northern bald ibis is perhaps not the most flamboyant or beautiful of feathered creatures, they are among the most interesting birds we have here on property for a somewhat discouraging reason. The ibis is critically endangered and has been since at least the early 1990’s. If we were to rewind the clock a few hundred years, we’d find Northern bald ibises throughout North Africa, the Middle East and into Europe. Most of these birds were migratory animals, taking advantage of the mild European spring to breed and then heading south to Africa as winter approached. Two to three hundred years ago, the migratory ibises began to disappear from Europe for reasons we still don’t quite understand. Cut back to modern day and the few remaining ibis populations are found in just a couple of geographically isolated pockets in Africa and the Middle East.
The last truly wild, sustainable population of Northern bald ibises exists in Morocco and interestingly, they are a resident population. Rather than migrating long distances between the temperate north and semi-tropical south, these birds seem to have settled down in between. During the breeding season, the ibises congregate in Souss-Massa national park in Morocco. There they build nests on ledges in the coastal cliff sides where they are largely protected from predation. They breed in one of four extant colonies and then, when the newest generation of chicks are fledged, they disperse along the north-western coast of Africa to forage and fly until the next breeding season calls them back together again.
In the Middle East, the ibis population is all but extinct. Today there exists what we call a semi-wild population in Turkey. This group is managed in the sense that they live wild throughout most of the year, but are captured and contained each autumn to prevent them from attempting the long migration into east Africa. They simply do not survive the trip and so the decision has been made to keep them safe in Turkey instead. If they were to migrate, their path would take them through Syria where ibises had been thought long extinct until a small colony was rediscovered there in 2002. The rediscovered colony of seven individuals immediately garnered scientific attention and some degree of protection. At first the Syrian birds achieved greater breeding success than any other extant population. Their successes however, were short lived and the population, already critically small, experienced several failed breeding seasons. Each year, fewer and fewer birds returned from the migration south to the Ethiopian highlands and by 2012 only two birds returned to the colony. We no longer have reliable data about the Syrian population because the colony sits right next to Palmyra, a city which has been occupied and reoccupied by different armies throughout the Syrian civil war. It was only recently liberated from control by ISIL. It is expected that the Syrian population is once again extinct.
In spite of all of these setbacks, recent news of the Northern bald ibis has been somewhat promising. Their numbers, at least in the Moroccan population seem to be climbing. By the end of the 20th century, it was estimated that only 50 breeding pairs of Northern bald ibises remained in the world. At the tail end of 2015, Birdlife International happily announced that the colonies of Morocco now support 116 breeding pairs and a total population of approximately 600 birds.
Safari West is currently home to five of these charismatic birds and we are working toward a successful breeding program ourselves. Genetic diversity and greater understanding of the biology and life cycle of these majestic birds are the greatest tools we have in the fight to preserve their species. There has never been a more dynamic time for the Northern bald ibis than right now. Updates and new information about this species appear regularly and lately it’s been mostly good. Come to Safari West and meet these fascinating birds face to red skinned face. You never know when the next bit of news is going to come in and it’s always exciting to be with the birds when it does.
Conservation Speaker Series
The Safari West Speaker Series is an ongoing part of the conservation mission here at Safari West. Throughout the year we invite scientists, conservationists, advocates, and experts of all kinds to present on conservations efforts from around the world. In the last month, our dinner guests have been invited to sit in on the presentations of several 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.
Recently we were honored to host Robin Parks from the Mountain Lion Foundation, Leigh Moyer from the Center for Biological Diversity, Peter Blinston from the Painted Dog Conservation, Michael Starkey from Save the Frogs, and more!
The lineup of guest speakers appearing later this year continues to grow and grow. This month alone we’ll be hosting Dale Anderson from Project Survival Cathaven for a fascinating presentation about jaguars, Emily Russell from African Wildlife Foundation, and Christ Austria from Ngamba Chimp Sanctuary, with many more to come. If you’d like to come experience one of the immersive talks for yourself, please consult our calendar for the latest.