Rhinos are in trouble in the wild. Great numbers of them are being hunted in their native habitats in Africa and India. But they are thriving at White Oak, where herds graze in spacious enclosures and where 35 white rhino calves have been born.
The number of cheetahs in South Africa is decreasing due to habitat loss and persecution from farmers. In the wild, the mortality rate for cubs is about 90 percent due to natural predators, and in captivity they are difficult to breed. At White Oak, however, about 30 cheetahs are thriving from specialized care, and many cubs have been born.
Okapis are endangered forest animals that are related to giraffes but look more like zebras. Few of the skittish, silent leaf-eating animals remain in their only natural habitat in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Nobody knows exactly how many exist in the wild. But at White Oak, they are doing well and babies are being born.
Rhinos, cheetahs and okapis are just a few of the approximately 30 species of endangered or threatened animal species living and successfully bred at White Oak, a 7,500 acre natural habitat conservation and conference center in rural Nassau County. Designed for the animals and conservation breeding, White Oak’s stated mission is that it is “committed to providing conservation options for animals that need them most.”
The private facility succeeds in its mission because it is so vast, giving animals space to roam and live in groups or herds as they do in the wild, says Brandon Speeg, director of conservation education.
White Oak is well known for its success with breeding white and black rhinos, from Africa, and with Indian Rhinos, from India and Nepal. But the private facility, which is staffed with animal experts who are top in their fields, is also internationally respected for its success with many other species and partners with conservation groups and zoos in its breeding efforts.
For many years the beautiful peaceful property that stretches along the Florida/Georgia border, with five and a half miles along the St. Mary’s River, was exclusive and open only to invited guests.
Now new owners, Mark and Kimbra Walter, who purchased White Oak two years ago have opened it up to the public to increase awareness of its conservation efforts and expand them. Group tours are available on a reservation basis two days a week. School programs and day and overnight summer camps are available for elementary and middle school age children.
The kids can participate in real scientific research, with the goal of “increasing their conservation ethics,” which “is really exciting,” says Lauren Watkins, conservation education specialist.
Adults and families can come out for monthly events such as sunset safaris, where they can watch cheetahs run at 60 to 70 miles an hour.
“It’s a pretty unique experience to see them run,” in a special enclosed area about the length of two football fields, says Sophia Tribuzio, wildlife specialist. “Cats mostly sleep.”
Two-hour trolley tours are also offered through the conservation center, stopping along the way for passengers to take pictures. In some cases they will engage with the animals, including species such as cassowaries, ostrich-like birds from Australia; bongos, mountain gazelles from Kenya; and Somali Wild Asses, critically endangered animals from Somalia.
“We don’t guarantee any specific animal interaction,” Speeg says. “But you will get close to most species.”
“People who come to White Oak want to be engaged and inspired,” he says.
And they are.