Our annual Safari West Wildlife Foundation fundraiser is right around the corner. This October the 14th, Nancy and I cordially invite you to attend Daktari!
This year, I’ve been asked to recount how this all got started. I’ll tell the story of my childhood in Hollywood and how I got to meet lions and chimpanzees on the sets of shows like Daktari and Sea Hunt; all while my Dad was laying out shots and directing actors. The amazing animals I encountered fascinated me and that fascination has never faded. In those early days I discovered a passion that would one day lead to the hills of Sonoma County and the founding of Safari West.
As proud as I am of this wildlife preserve, I am equally proud of the Safari West Wildlife Foundation. Part of why Nancy and I started this place was to make it possible for children get face-to-face with animals they may never have a chance to see otherwise. The foundation works diligently to ensure that all children share that opportunity, regardless of economic background. The foundation sponsors school field trips and operates our Junior Keeper Program; a head start program for those who want to work in this fascinating field.
Over the last twenty-three years these programs have proven highly successful. We’ve had thousands upon thousands of underserved students join us on safari thanks to foundation sponsorship and graduates of the Junior Keeper program are even now working at zoos across the country. In fact, four of our alumni have gone on to become exotic animal veterinarians! I’m proud that Safari West could play a role in giving these young professionals a head start.
With support from friends like you, we’re currently introducing over 15,000 kids a year to the opportunities that exist in the world of zoos and aquariums. We’re still growing, developing, and refining our programs and we would be honored if you would contribute to the foundation that funds this work.
Our goal is the inspiration and nurturing of wildlife advocates and with you by our side, we can make ever greater strides in pursuing that wish.
Nancy & Peter Lang
Founders of Safari West
Conservation Corner: Palm Oil Problems
By: Jared Paddock
Thanks to the glut of candy that appears on the shelves of every large retail chain this time of year, there is no better time than now to discuss the problem of palm oil. Palm oil, like corn syrup, has become a bit of a dirty word and coincidentally, both tend to pop up regularly in our Halloween candy. The real problem of palm oil is in the production. We simply produce too much of it and in a manner that is completely unsustainable. Every acre of cultivated oil palms occupies land that used to be covered by tropical rainforest. Rapid and ongoing deforestation for the sake of palm oil production continues to devastate populations of unique wildlife. The cost of our ravenous palm oil consumption comes in the form of disappearing orangutans, rhinos, tigers, and elephants.
Vegetable oils of all kinds have long been integral to human existence. People all across the globe use vegetable oils in cooking. Whether we’re talking about deep-frying some extra crispy chicken or sautéing a wok full of shrimp and veggies, vegetable oils are a key ingredient. Less famously, it turns out that vegetable oils are useful in the formulation of non-edibles as well. Many well-known soaps, shampoos, detergents, and cosmetics also contain vegetable oils, of which palm oil is the most common. Palm oil makes your bar of soap harder and helps it lather up when wet. Palm oil in your shampoo helps restore the natural oils stripped from your hair during washing. Palm oil in your lipstick or lip balm helps hold color, prevent melting, and as an added benefit has virtually no taste. Palm oil is in your ice cream, your pizza crust, your bread and pastries. Palm oil is a major source of biodiesel and ethanol. And of course, it’s in your candy. Palm oil is everywhere. In fact, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), palm oil is found in nearly half of the products lining the shelves of your neighborhood supermarket.
You would think that a product that ubiquitous would be easy to identify. You would think that you could wander the aisles scanning ingredient labels and find palm oil everywhere, but you’d be wrong. Palm oil, as it turns out, is a master at hiding in plain sight. We modify palm oil chemically depending on its use and because of various loopholes and vagaries of current labeling laws; it’s often identified as something less obvious. The following is an incomplete list of palm oil pseudonyms commonly used in labeling (compliments of the WWF):
Vegetable Oil, Vegetable Fat, Palm Kernel, Palm Kernel Oil, Palm Fruit Oil, Palmate, Palmitate, Palmolein, Glyceryl, Stearate, Stearic Acid, Elaeis Guineensis, Palmitic Acid, Palm Stearine, Palmitoyl Oxostearamide, Palmitoyl Tetrapeptide-3, Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Sodium Kernelate, Sodium Palm Kernelate, Sodium Lauryl Lactylate/Sulphate, Hyrated Palm Glycerides, Etyl Palmitate, Octyl Palmitate, Palmityl Alcohol.
As Americans we don’t typically use palm oil for cooking and it’s virtually impossible to find in its raw form here; yet as a nation, we consume it in tremendous volume, and it’s in volume that the problem lies. Oil palms have been grown for centuries. Native to west and southwest Africa, oil palms were cultivated specifically because you can extract a tremendous amount of oil from their fruit. Historically used in traditional medicine and for cooking, it wasn’t until the industrial revolution that people began to discover its many additional uses. As oil palms grew in popularity and became a cash crop, they were exported to Malaysia, Indonesia, and other tropical environs where it has been a roaring success. Malaysia spent ages as the globally dominant force of palm oil production and only gave up its crown to Indonesia in 2006. Today Indonesia is the true powerhouse of palm oil.
The situation with palm oil in Indonesia today is not unlike what we Americans went through in the Midwest during the lead up to the dust bowl era. Like our wheat farmers of years past, today’s palm oil producers have a product that thrives in their climate more so than just about anywhere else. There also happens to be a voracious and growing market for that product. This rampant demand has led to an out of control explosion in the cultivation of oil palms.
In the case of the Midwest, the rampant over-cultivation of wheat and other grain crops in the early decades of the twentieth century degraded the topsoil and created the dust bowl. Mass erosion and the failure of the nutrient cycle transformed the verdant great plains into a swirling storm of choking, fine-particle dust famously recorded in photographs of the time. In Indonesia today, the ancient and expansive rainforest ecosystem is being similarly devastated.
The most efficient method of transforming chaotic natural rainforest into orderly and profitable oil palm plantations is through the tried and true technique we call “slash-and-burn.” Slash-and-burn consists of hacking down the rainforest, letting the vegetation dry and then burning it where it fell. This clears the earth and provides it with some degree of short-term fertilization. The freshly exposed and ash-covered soil is then planted with oil palms and the monoculture is off and running. To date, an area over twice the size of Belgium has been converted from interconnected forest containing thousands of species of flora and fauna to a monoculture orchard all with the effort of a few bulldozers and chainsaws.
This rampant deforestation is devastating to the local ecology of Indonesia which has been identified as being second only to Brazil in terms of its native biodiversity. As plants and animals lose habitat the food web collapses. Habitat loss and fragmentation result in widespread population declines across species. The remaining members of the impacted species are forced to seek alternative methods of survival. Just as wolves and coyotes in our country will turn to cattle and sheep when their traditional prey species decline, so too do the elephants, tigers, and orangutans of Indonesia venture onto these increasingly prominent palm oil plantations. As recently as 2004, some of the companies growing oil palms were offering bounties on the wild species deemed by them to be a “nuisance”. Already highly endangered animals including Sumatran rhinos, tigers, and orangutans are only growing more so as this industry grows and expands.
The slash-and-burn technique has a secondary and in some ways worse impact as the burning releases captured carbon into the atmosphere. A growing tree constantly pulls carbon from the atmosphere and fixes it into the structure of its branches and leaves. The burning process releases this carbon in the same way our cars do when we burn gasoline. Furthermore, tropical forest soil in many places in Indonesia is actually something called peat soil. Due to the abundance of moisture and the never-ending growth season of the tropics, there is more buildup of fallen organic matter in tropical forests than we see here in our temperate forests. Rather than decomposing to rich fertile topsoil, the forest floor is often instead composed of dense layers of partially decayed organic matter. You may have heard of well-preserved mummies being discovered in peat bogs in Europe. That mummification is possible because the consistently wet, compressed environment of the peat layer restricts decomposition. The thick Indonesian peat soils can represent hundreds or even thousands of years of ancient vegetation and accordingly, fixed carbon.
Peat does burn, quite well. Like a compressed fire-starter log, peat burns eagerly and is difficult to extinguish. If a forest fire in Indonesia ignites the peat layer, it can continue to burn, quietly, almost unnoticeably for months or even years. It does this by burning slowly and largely underground. In this respect, it’s just like the coal mine fires still cooking in some places in the United States.
In 2015 a drought in Indonesia highlighted the extent of the problem. The unusual dryness made the peat soil even more susceptible to ignition. As a result, over the course of several months, many hundreds of intentional and often illegal clearing fires ran out of control. They spread to the broader forest further decimating thousands of acres of delicate habitat. The abundant compressed biomass of the peat soils exacerbated the fires and exponentially increased the amount of pollution and particulate released. At the peak of the disaster, pillars of smoke could be seen from space climbing from the archipelago and blanketing not only Indonesia, but Malaysia, Singapore, and even parts of Thailand.
In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency recommends considering school closures whenever the air quality index (AQI) reaches 150 and becomes insistent once the AQI climbs above 300. In Jakarta, the massive metropolis serving as Indonesia’s Capitol, the worst day of 2016 so far had a AQI of 167. The AQI in Indonesia during the fire season of 2015 spiked to 3,000. For much of September of that year, the daily carbon emissions caused by the Indonesian wildfires surpassed the daily emissions of the entire US economy.
The tragic irony of the devastation rooted in the palm oil industry is how much of it is the result of really well-intentioned ideas. When we realized the devastating health impacts of trans fats and began to remove them from the American diet, in most cases they were replaced with cheap, abundant palm oil. When the European Union mandated that a certain percentage of their gasoline be composed of biofuels, palm oil derived ethanol became the substitute of choice. While vegetable oil derived biofuels release less carbon than petroleum while burning, when you factor in the production costs and deforestation, their carbon footprint is three times the size of their petroleum forebears.
So what do we do? Boycott palm oil? That may not be the best course of action for several reasons. Firstly, it would be nearly impossible; palm oil is simply too ubiquitous. Secondly, that wouldn’t solve the issue but merely push the demand onto another crop, likely soy or canola. While vegetable oil can be derived from many plants, as it turns out, none of them produce oil as efficiently or at lower ecological cost than oil palms. To replace the oil palm plantations with any other oil producing plant would actually make the problem worse. The problem isn’t the plant, it’s the production.
The way forward isn’t a boycott but rather a reformation. Monoculture farming is a bad idea in an ecosystem as dynamic as that of a tropical forest. Unfettered deforestation to make way for monoculture farming is an even worse idea as it destabilizes the broader ecosystem and can lead to catastrophic wildfires and dust bowls. The key to sustainable palm oil production is in regulation of clearing practices and modernization of cultivation policies.
Luckily for us, this is already underway. In 2004 the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil began a discussion between palm oil producers, their customers, conservation agencies, and other concerned parties. They established a certification program and standards of practice to help rein in the industry. While the RSPO is far from perfect, they are at least beginning to right the ship. Unilever, one of the largest users of palm oil has taken the lead in pushing for change. Not only have they been a driving force in establishing the RSPO, they’ve even gone so far as to blacklist RSPO certified producers who violated the pledge. Unilever produces Dove, Ben and Jerry’s, Axe, and Lipton to name a few. This massive multinational conglomerate took action not because of legislation or government mandate but because a relatively small number of concerned citizens pressured them.
Progress is taking place but it’s moving too slowly to be called a solution right now. The RSPO must be kept accountable, and every producer of palm oil must be pushed to sustainability if we don’t want the Sumatran tiger to follow its Balinese cousin into extinction. All it takes is pressure and it’s never been easier to apply that pressure. The main thing we common citizens can do is pay attention to our purchases and the easiest way to do that is to follow RSPO recommendations and to download the app produced by the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo which will help you identify products made with RSPO certified palm oil.
When you’re stocking up for Halloween this year, take a moment to question the candy that winds up in your cart. There are several guides out there to RSPO certified or orangutan friendly products. In fact, you can find one of them here. Our indifference as consumers allows for the unrestricted deforestation, rampant CO2 emissions, and increasingly endangered species seen throughout Indonesia. If we’re all just a bit more considerate in our purchases, we can turn this industry around. It’s happening already. This Halloween, let’s join together to make it happen a little faster.
Safari Spotlight: Vultures!
There’s no better time than Halloween time to throw a bone to the unappreciated vulture. Few birds are less loved than vultures. We use songbirds to symbolize springtime and romance, and we’ve assigned doves to represent the peace and tranquility of marriage. The majestic eagle soars and scowls, representing our democracy and heritage, perching proud and golden atop our flagpoles. But the vulture? The vultures are always portrayed lurking and skulking, hunching on tombstones and peering balefully from the blackened branches of dead trees. Very, very few of us look on the bald-headed, hunch-backed buzzard with love. This Halloween, let’s try to change that.
There are two species of vulture to be found here at Safari West. One you are practically guaranteed to see and another you almost certainly won’t. These are the turkey vulture and the hooded vulture. One is local to Sonoma County and the other hails from far Africa. They’re both scavengers, feeding on the dead. They both rely on sharp beaks and strong stomach acids to survive. They seem like they’d be cousins but as it turns out, they’re not. Their similarity in form and function is the result of what we call convergent evolution. Although they’re not actually related, they live similar lifestyles and so have evolved strikingly similar traits.
Let’s start with the former. The turkey vulture is our local vulture here in northern California. While they occasionally share airspace with the California condor, condors are vanishingly rare while thankfully, the turkey vulture is not. If you’ve ever been driving down the road and seen a large, ominous looking black bird on a telephone pole glaring down with wings outspread, that was a turkey vulture. If you’ve looked up at a column of slowly rising black spots, soaring unsteadily in summer updrafts, those are turkey vultures. They’re not classically attractive birds with their black plumage and bald heads. They’re frequently missing a few flight feathers, lending their appearance a raggedy air. They’re often spotted lumbering into unsteady flight as your car approaches a recently squished squirrel, skunk, or raccoon on the roadside. Bare red skulls and sooty black plumage; these are our beautiful turkey vultures.
We have turkey vultures all over Safari West for good reason. Our wildlife preserve is located in the foothills of the Mayacamas Mountains which means that as the sun hits our slopes each morning, it generates thermal updrafts; rising columns of heated air. The vultures, refreshed from a night’s sleep use those thermals like elevators, riding the currents of air to tremendous heights. If you’re ever on property between nine and eleven in the morning, look up and you’ll see them drifting overhead.
The amazing thing about turkey vultures (and indeed all vultures found in the Americas) is that they actually smell for food from that altitude. Unlike the vulture species found elsewhere in the world, new-world vultures depend more on scent than sight when it comes to finding a delicious corpse. Even at high altitudes, the scent of corruption and decay is detectable to them and, like an airborne bloodhound; they can track the scent to its source.
The other species of vulture to be found at Safari West is the hooded vulture. Hooded vultures are native to sub-Saharan Africa. Ours are quite shy and aren’t on display so don’t expect to see them during a visit here. The reason we have them here is because the hooded vulture is a critically endangered species and we are a conservation breeding facility. Like vultures the world over, hooded vultures are experiencing a shocking decline in population. As of 2009, they were considered a species of least concern. Fast forward less than a decade and they are at the most extreme level of endangerment. What happened?
Hooded vultures are part of the family we call Old-World vultures; vulture species found in Europe, Africa, and Asia. One trait shared by old-world vultures is absolutely incredible eyesight. Like our local turkey vultures, the hooded vultures float aloft on thermals and then cruise around in search of a recently deceased meal. Unlike the turkey vultures, they’re not sniffing for bodies but scanning for the distinct shape of something deliciously dead. When they spot a body, or just as often, another vulture descending with purpose, they drop down to feast.
The naked head and hooked beak of the vulture species is perfect for prying apart dead flesh. The beak is a fantastic tool and the nude head and neck keeps mess to a minimum. Hooded vultures tend to wait for the bigger vulture species to eat and leave before they take over a corpse. They’re among the smaller of vulture species, and weaker as well, so they benefit from the rending and tearing done by their larger cousins. Their smaller size also makes it easier for them to get the juicy bits left in crevices.
There are several problems faced by vultures in Africa. One is that they are hunted for food as well as for body parts used in traditional medicine. There’s also some evidence that poachers will kill vultures so the circling birds don’t give away the location of an illegally killed elephant, rhino, or lion. Some of the more pressing and widespread concerns however, have to do with habitat loss and poisoning. Habitat loss is a fairly standard culprit when looking at endangered species, but poisoning is something else entirely.
What typically happens is that a rancher will poison the corpse of one of their flock or herd with the hope that that poison will be consumed by the painted dog, cheetah, leopard, or lion who’s been preying on their animals. This is discouraged in the first place because of the endangered status of all of those primary predators, but is further problematic because any corpse will draw vultures from miles, sometimes hundreds of miles around. While this kind of poisoning will occasionally rid a shepherd of a bothersome leopard, it also decimates the local scavenger population.
When the scavengers aren’t there to clean up the dead, microbes takes over the work instead. Microbes can cause disease to spread among other local species, including us. We may not instinctively love vultures but we certainly should. Their super senses serve to keep huge areas of terrain free of rotting corpses. Their stomach acids are so strong that they’ll wolf down rancid meat riddled with the pathogens that cause anthrax, botulism, and rabies without batting an eye. This incredible cleaning capacity means that vultures play a key role in reducing disease vectors. The next time you see a black colored V soaring over your home, take a moment to thank it for the work its doing. This would be a much grosser place without them.
Bats, Bones, & Walking with the Dead
This year for Halloween you could stick with the same-old-same-old. You could go snag a cheap costume from Wal-Mart, make a lap around the block and retire with a sad sack of candy. Or, you could get creative, get wild, and come join the party at Safari West! Make a reservation for our Halloween Spook-tacular on Saturday, October 29th and come see how we do it on the Sonoma Serengeti.
We’ve got everything you could want in a Halloween celebration. There’s the Conservation Pumpkin patch where you can sponsor a pumpkin for our wild creatures. There’s something awesome about watching a rhinoceros smash a jack-o-lantern, or seeing the lemurs sneak up on a snack-filled gourd. With a small donation, you can make that happen and help support the work of the Vulture Conservation Foundation! You may not think of buzzards as birds that need some help, but they most certainly do and you could be a part of that.
We’ve also got the Safari West Trick-or-Treat Trail which passes through our Junior Keepers’ Mad Science Lab, past the Wall of Skulls, and through the Bone Garden where our Osteology Lab Scientists bring Dia de los Muertos and Safari West together in an amazing way. There are incredible things to see and delicious candy to collect. And when your feet feel a little tired, you’re welcome to kick back and relax on the Trick-or-Trek bus tour, a 45-minute cruise through a few of our enclosures. Enjoy the sights of giraffes, rhinos, and antelope galore as you travel through their Safari West home.
But what about the costumes? Of course you should come in costume! All we ask is that you skip those cheap plastic things you find in the store. They’re made of single-use plastic and are almost guaranteed to wind up in a landfill by Thanksgiving. Instead, show off your creativity. Come up with an awesome costume made with stuff you find around the house, or from recycled old costumes, or from anything else you can think of. Wow us with your imagination and ingenuity and you just may take home a prize!
Lastly, if you want to make a day of it, reserve dinner with us. After an afternoon of exploration and fun, sit down at the Savanna Cafe for a delicious African-inspired meal followed by a presentation by Corky Quirk of Nor-Cal Bats. Not only will she fascinate you with her stories of our local flying mammals, she’ll introduce you to a few live and in person.
Halloween and Dia de los Muertos are festivals to honor the dead and celebrate the living. Come to celebrate with us at Safari West and make your Halloween wild!