The opening on 10 May 1972 of San Diego Zoo Safari Park, or San Diego Wild Animal Park as it was called at first, was a dream coming true for Charles Schroeder, San Diego Zoo's director at the time. He envisioned the zoo of the future, one where people – rather than animals – would be enclosed. It would be a breeding ground to populate the world's zoos without depopulating the wild. It would be a new kind of zoo where animals live in large spaces and feel more freedom than any other zoo. And it would be a conservation ground where people do all they can to save species from extinction1.
Did Schroeder succeeded, was the question I had in mind while entering the grounds in the early morning of a beautiful day in May 2013. My answer would be, yes he did. He dreamt the right dream and created a zoo that evolved into place that could be considered the intermediate form between a regular zoo and a nature reserve. Indeed, a place that can not only serve as a captive breeding ground for zoo populations, but also as an ark for endangered species, with a possibility even to repopulate the wild perhaps. Which is the ultimate dream of a conservationist, of course. In my honest and humble opinion I would say this is how every zoo should be. A zoo that provide excellent shelter for endangered species; that create an environment in which savannah-dwelling species can roam over large distances; and that features mixed-species exhibits with a variety of hoofstock species in large herds, offered plenty of space to interact and get out of each others way as well. To cover the grounds and see it all you are facing a strenuous but rewarding day. But for those who want to have a more relaxed visit, you can have a comfortable seat in the shadow on the viewing deck of the café/snack bar on stilts while overlooking the African plains – seeing the giraffes and other hoofed animals passing by in the distance. You can sit there for hours and imagine yourself being in Africa on a luxurious safari trip. Indeed, why go to Africa, since this is a cheaper and less polluting trip than taking the plane to Kenia for instance.
An even more interesting view on the Safari Park grounds is from above with the balloon safari. It gives you a bird eye's view from about 120 metres while standing in a basket under a helium balloon, modelled after the hot air balloon tours of the Serengeti.
To get acquainted with the size of San Diego Zoo Safari Park (from now on called Safari Park) I first embark on the Africa tram that runs along the African Plains. From the tram you get a different angle on the premises while at the same time the tram driver provides basic information and peculiarities about the Safari Park. For instance, the Californian mule deer is a notorious freeloader. It is an indigenous species that is widespread throughout northern and central California, and clever enough to enter the fenced off African Plains to get easy access to food. Here you see it in the enclosure of the black rhinoceroses, shot from inside the tram:
They go to great lengths to provide all of the species a native and naturalistic habitat. For instance, as part of this process of creating naturalistic habitats the area that represents Central Africa comprises more trees and other vegetation than the 24 hectare area for southern Africa, which has a drier environment – in other words more dirt and dust.
Besides the naturalistic design of the enclosures there are many mixed species exhibits, comprising species of similar geographically origin. Such exhibits provide behavioural enrichment simply because the animals have to interact. The most impressive mixed-species exhibit is of course the African Plains that comprise: East African sitatunga; Nile lechwe; Lake Victoria Defassa waterbuck; southern white rhinoceros; fringe-eared oryx; giraffe; Grant's gazelle; Thomson's gazelle; Kenya impala; yellow-billed stork; marabou stork and East African crowned crane.
The signage at the enclosures is similar to the information panels used in San Diego Zoo, which means that it provide basic information on geographical range, habitat and conservation status. But nothing is mentioned on these panels about feeding behaviour and reproduction. However, at the Safari Park there are additional panels that provide particular information for the real enthusiasts.
Though many animals are housed in bar-less mixed-species exhibits, there are a few exceptions. Predators do not mix very well with prey animals, of course, so they are housed in single-species enclosures. However, the success of mixing animals is unpredictable and depends on individual temperament and sometimes trivial things regarding enclosure design. Let alone, trying to keep different species in one enclosure. All in all, gorillas and some hoofed animal species are kept in separate enclosures as well.
After the tram ride I start my visit at the Lion Camp along the African loop trail. The Kruger lion (Panthera leo krugeri) pride has an excellent view on prey species from its exhibit. The distance to the prey species in the adjacent enclosure is safe though, so the prey animals will not get nervous from being within hunting range of the three lions, one male and two females. It is a marvellous exhibit: undulating multilevel grounds, with a dry moat at two-thirds of the perimeter, several trees, grassy bedding, and a derelict four wheel drive car as an enrichment feature. The backside of the car is the perfect shelter for a nap, the favourite activity of big cats.
Following the African loop trail from there I arrive at the cheetah enclosure. Considering the space available, and what is available for many other species, the size of the cheetah enclosure is rather disappointing. Especially when compared to the much larger enclosures I have seen for this graceful big cat at for instance Hilvarenbeek Zoo and Nesles Zoo. Although the animals are allowed to exercise during their daily , I think they deserve a much larger enclosure. The grassy enclosure is elongated with a dry moat all around the perimeter. A few trees provide the shade the cheetahs need on sunny days, but there's no elevated part in the enclosure that could be regarded as an observation post. Nevertheless, as an enrichment feature the cats can see their natural prey – the Thomson's gazelle – in the enormous adjacent paddock of the African Plains.
The next stop on my route is the beautiful lake with flamingos and the island for black-and-white colobus monkey. It is an absolute delight crossing the lake via the elevated wooden boardwalk and arriving at the rather extraordinary mixed-species exhibit for bat-eared foxes (Otocyon megalotis) and southern warthog (Phacochoerus africanus sundevallii). It is a nice large exhibit with a slightly undulating landscape and on one side a clay wall as if the enclosure has been excavated. There are a few mud pools for the warthog, trees, rocks, and other features.
While the IUCN conservation status of most species along the African loop trail is at the most Vulnerable, at the end of the African loop trail you'll find an Endangered species, the okapi. Its enclosure looks like it has been excavated just like the one for the warthogs and foxes. It's a large exhibit with lots of trees and shade. The group of southern gerenuk (Litocranius walleri walleri) across from the okapi exhibit and close to the Lion Camp, seems to be a successful breeding group – like many herds of hoofstock species in the Safari Park.
Before moving on to the African elephants and the sole Asian predator species in this zoo, the Sumatran tiger, I have a look at the Gorilla Forest. It is situated close to the entrance where the western lowland gorilla group of 7 individuals have access to a small elongated enclosure with a wide and deep dry moat at the public's side. An artificial rock face rear wall with some caves give shelter from the elements, especially the sun. A small waterfall from the top of the rock face makes it all more attractive.
The Safari Park houses 13 African elephants. Their adult elephants came from two wildlife reserves in Swaziland. These reserves were losing ground and other places had no room to allow relocation of some animals. Therefore, the reserve managers felt they had no other choice than to schedule a kill to reduce the number of elephants. San Diego Zoo and Florida's Lowry Park Zoo asked to bring some of the elephants to the United States, and as a result the kill was called off. Since the adults came to the Safari Park 12 calves were born up till the date of my visit in 2013. The elephants have two large enclosures at their disposal with grassy, sandy grounds and both have a pool. There are several viewing platforms where you can see the big pachyderms in their somewhat undulating landscape with trees and buildings designed to provide shade.
From the African elephants I move on to the single section where Asian species can be found. Here they keep two female specimens of the Critically Endangered Sumatran tiger (born 05.10.2010). Construction works are ongoing for a Tiger trail to be ready in 2014. This suggests that it is going to be even greater than it is already. The current enclosure does not necessarily resembles a densely forested jungle, which is what comes to my mind when thinking of Sumatra and tigers. But it is a huge enclosure with trees, grass, dry soil and a small pool. The trees are an enrichment feature because they are not protected from common scratching behaviour of the two big cats. There are several wooden platforms, besides some large boulders, to be used as resting and observation posts. The enclosure is situated down in the valleywith the viewing platforms for the visitors positioned on one hillside. Here you have an excellent view on the enclosure beneath (see ).
Along the condor trail to the California condor exhibit at the highest point of the Safari Park grounds in the valley, the bald eagles aviary can be found. It is somewhat small compared to the bald eagles aviaries at Santa Barbara Zoo and San Diego Zoo. These raptors have been injured in the wild and are not able to fly anymore. So, according to the information panel at the enclosure the aviary gives the birds ample room to move about and exercise safely.
Next door the ocelot is one of the few species that stand out because they do not fit in the Safari Park's geographical focus on African and Asian savannah. The ocelots are housed in two separate enclosures with vegetation that provides plenty of shade, but additional access to a pool would have been great. Apart from the various aviaries, including the bat house, this is more or less the only enclosure that is not built according the old Hagenbeck principle – without bars. Trees and trunks offer climbing enrichment, and multilevel platforms fulfil other felid's needs.
By the way, according the Safari Park website they currently (2015) do not keep ocelot anymore, but another South American species, the coati.
The two California condors in their exhibit at the highest point of the Safari Park grounds have great views on the surrounding area, including on the next-door bighorn sheep, a carrion species for the condor. The large condor aviary – wire mesh all around – allows free flight and it contains trees and a couple of boulders right in the middle for roosting. Wild condors maintain a large home range, often travelling 250 km a day in search of carrion, so no matter how large the aviary it will be never suitable. But as part of the captive breeding programme that has succeeded to return captive bred condors in the wild, such aviaries are exactly why this welfare impairment is acceptable in my opinion, for the greater good so to speak.
Giant large bar-less enclosures are set as the standard at the Safari Park, and the ones that yet have to meet these standards, would look fine in many other zoos. So, it's all relative.
(1: Mister Zoo, the life and legacy of Dr. Charles Schroeder by Douglas G. Myers, 1999)