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Visit(s)

26.05.2013

The city of Palm Desert is situated in the Coachella Valley south-east of Los Angeles close to the Joshua Tree national park. The high mountain ranges on three sides and a south-sloping valley floor all contribute to the unique and year-round warm climate of Palm Desert, with the warmest winters in the western United States. The arid climate of Palm Desert delivers an average annual high temperature of 32°C, so, the 35°C and above during my visit was not exceptional. Summer high temperatures of above 42°C are common and sometimes even exceed 49°C, while under 130 mm of annual precipitation is average [1].

So, Palm Desert is one of the warmest and driest places in the United States. And the Sonoran desert is a unique place where they established The Living Desert Zoo & Gardens, a 480 hectares facility that specializes in plants and animals found throughout the deserts of the world. You could say that the Zoo is one huge landscape immersion exhibit. The enclosures can be found in a 45 hectares small part of the grounds which houses mostly desert or semi-desert dwelling species. While most species in the Zoo are well-adapted to local circumstances or have a broad habitat tolerance, a few exceptions are perhaps less well-adapted to (semi)desert-like habitat, such as the giraffe, Grevy's zebra and Cuvier's gazelle. Nevertheless, these species are kept according their habitat needs as well.

Many native and exotic endangered species can be seen in natural surroundings at The Living Desert, roughly divided into North American and African species.

Sonoran pondYou must prepare yourself for a hot, dry and sunny day when you visit The Living Desert – don't forget to put on a good sunscreen and bring bottled water. And when you don't want to expose yourself too much to the hot circumstances and want to acclimatise to the situation, I would suggest you go left after the entrance. Start your visit in the North American section and first enter the part where the ten ecosystems of the North American deserts are represented. In these immersion gardens with the different ecosystem themes and corresponding (geographical) names the rich fauna and especially flora of the desert is on display. This area with rich vegetation covers at least 10 hectare, I think, with the enclosures and exhibits at a spacious distance from each other.

In addition you can visit the state-of-the-art wildlife hospital & conservation center, that was opened in January 2002, that allows visitors to interact with the staff while procedures are being performed on animals.

The aviaries in this section are not different from most other zoos, which means that they are too small at least in my opinion. Although the Palm Oasis walk-through aviary with turkey vultures provides ample space for free flight. The red-tailed hawk that is on display has been brought in injured and is not to be rehabilitated (more information here).

Coyote enclosure, The Living DesertThe first carnivore you encounter when walking from the entrance through the North American section is the coyote, a common native species, that lives in flexible social structures dependent on the available prey. So, the fact that the Zoo has just a single specimen living by itself is odd but not unusual for the species.

Following the footpath up to the part of the Zoo farthest away from the entrance you arrive at a section with a variety of predator enclosures. But there is an aviary to begin with, near the cougar enclosure, that houses Mexican military macaw and thick-billed parrot (Rhynchopsitta pachyrhyncha), of which the latter was the last known native parrot species in the contiguous U.S., Arizona and New Mexico. It disappeared in the early 1990s, and was successfully reintroduced since. Nevertheless it is listed as Endangered in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™.

The cougar (Puma concolor) exhibit itself in a rich enclosure with trees, a pond, waterfall and stream, and a rock-face rear wall with high level platforms. Furthermore it provides lots of shadow and hiding places. Next-door the serval, an outlier from Africa here in the American part, has got a more simple enclosure at its disposal that lacks high level platforms. The bobcats (Lynx rufus) (see video), kit fox and swift fox all have similar enclosure with a similar layout as the serval but they merely differ in size. The exhibits are all quite secluded open-top enclosures with viewing windows that contain vertical wire instead of glass, except for the bobcat's.

The Mexican wolf (Canis lupus baileyi) is the last predator you encounter in this corner. It occupies a nice elongated enclosure with undulating terrain that provides an area behind a hill which allows the animal to hide from the public.

When you have finished this circular walkway along the predators and push on along the cactus garden you will pass the North American ringtail or miner's cat (Bassariscus astutus), which is a member of the the raccoon family thus not a cat, and the state mammal of Arizona. They sometimes are called living fossils because the resemble very much their ancestors from the Neogene period (23 million and 2.6 million years ago). And just a little bit further you'll find the jaguar enclosure that has wire mesh all around, including the rooftop. The enclosure is rather low and lacks high level resting or observation platforms. There's a pond and lots of desert vegetation but not many shady places. Though commonly found in the rainforest the jaguar is one of those species that shows incredible versatility with regard to its habitat as long as there is enough prey around. So, it does not necessarily stand-out here in the Living Desert, but you could argue whether the enclosure is fit for purpose.

It was a generous 35°C during my visit to the Zoo, so when I left the lusciously vegetated area I was glad that not only the animals are provided with atomizers, but the visitors as well. At several places on the premises you'll find this water spray equipment, misted rest spots they call them, that helps people to cool down and prevent overheating.

Along the edge of the Zoo grounds across from the jaguar North America's fastest land animal is kept, the pronghorn (Antilocapra americana). Pronghorn can reach top speeds of around 90 km/h and can run at a steady pace of 50 km/h for over 30 kilometres! [2]

Bighorn mountainOne of the loveliest exhibits is next in line on this side of the Zoo, Bighorn Mountain. The indigenous bighorn sheep species are hard to spot in their enclosure. Not only because they blend in superbly, but also because they can just go to the other side of their mountain (hill).

At this point you cross the geographical border and before you know it you've switched continents and are watching African species. The first mixed-species exhibit appears with Abyssinian ground hornbill and Cuvier's gazelle, followed by a row of cages for small predators on the other side of the footpath. These upgraded old-fashioned cages are not much to my liking, and lack enrichment. As there is no vegetation to provide shade there are sunshades on the rooftop and atomizers provide the essential refreshment. The Arabian wildcat, the sand cat and the fennec fox are kept here.

Three specimens of a medium-sized antelope not native to Africa, the Arabian oryx, occupy a large desert-like enclosure adjacent to the previously mentioned mixed-species exhibit. It contains just a few trees to provide shade, but it does resemble the native desert and steppe of the Arabian peninsula. The Arabian oryx is one of the best examples what zoos can do to conserve species. It was extinct in the wild by the early 1970s, but was saved in zoos and private preserves and reintroduced into the wild starting in 1980.

Neighbours of the oryx are the African wild dogs. They have an open-top enclosure with wire mesh fences all around. There's a hill in the middle that provides sufficient options to hide, a pool and a few trees for shade, but it is not very large though. An atypical mixed-species desert comprises slender-horned gazelle, grey crowned crane (Balearica regulorum) and yellow-billed stork follows, with another bird – the kori bustard – in a separate enclosure next-door.

Cheetah enclosure, The Living DesertWhile it is almost impossible to create satisfying environments for most animals in captivity, it is even harder to create a situation that cheetahs can express their natural behaviour – running at high speed. Nevertheless, at the Living Desert the two cheetahs have a great exhibit at their disposal. Though not really a savannah-like plain as it is rather undulating, but it is large and elongated so some speed can be achieved when the cats want to stretch their legs.

Both the addax and dromedary camel are housed on the same dull compound, though separated by a wooden fence. The reason that I thought it is worth mentioning the camel is the fact that this species well-known for its adaptation to arid areas seemed to suffer from the local heat as much as I did:

A breeding pair of leopards is kept in a nice varied enclosure with lots of shade due to natural vegetation (trees and shrubs), though it contains a near empty pool. There's little exposure to the public due to only one small viewing window embedded in a rock face wall. Several high level observation posts in the shadow, but a wire mesh rooftop at about 4 m high, which is rather low for this species to express its natural behaviour – climbing trees, unfortunately.

Just around the corner in this section – with the African village WaTuTu as a geographical reminder there's the unavoidable petting zoo, called petting kraal this time (kraal is South African for corral) with Ankole cattle, Sicilian dwarf donkeys, and Nigerian dwarf goats.

Savannah enclosure, The Living DesertThe highlight of my day came at the end of it, with the mixed-species exhibit comprising reticulated giraffe, greater kudu and ostrich. A large paddock - savannah in an undulating landscape, beautifully set against the backdrop of the Santa Rosa mountain range near Palm Desert, and a pool close to one of the savannah lookouts. Especially the seemingly endless grounds of the paddock, because you cannot see the end of it due to your position at the 'foothill' of the enclosure, was impressive, in addition to the great light at that time of the day.

Well, as already mentioned the grounds of The Living Desert covers a larger area than just the collection of exhibits. It is also a nature preserve, in fact, 435 of the 480 hectares are undisturbed Sonoran Desert. In the preserve there are three nature trails, all starting from the Living Desert, a hiker can choose from to experience the real undisturbed desert. The Zoo closes these trails during summer until October due to the heat.

It is remarkable for a Zoo of such a size and intentions regarding conservation efforts that many ungulates are represented by only a few specimens. This makes it less probable to achieve good breeding results, and it also does not demonstrate good husbandry for hoofed animals that live in herds in the wild.

A lot of indigenous species can be seen in their native habitat, the desert, of the Zoo's gardens. Different lizard species, hummingbirds, and the odd rattlesnake do not recognise the boundaries of the Zoo grounds and are there for you, besides the captive species, to enjoy as well. Although I can imagine that a close encounter with a rattlesnake is not what most of us look forward to. Nevertheless, it is a delight to stroll through this garden. Due to the layout of the North American section I found myself many times seemingly alone with nobody within hearing distance.


[1] = Wikipedia, Palm Desert, California

[2] = Treehugger, natural sciences, 10.07.2013

Goal: 7000 tigers in the wild

Tiger range countries map

 

"Tiger map" (CC BY 2.5) by Sanderson et al., 2006.

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