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Visit(s)

30.05.2013

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. outlook viewingdeck cafeBut 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.

lion enclosureAfter 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 Chee­tah Run, 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.

colobus monkey islandThe 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.

elephant enclosureThe 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.

sumatran tiger enclosureFrom 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 video).

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.

condor aviaryThe 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)

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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