“The first time I went to White Oak …” are words I have always wanted to say.
To a Jacksonville native, White Oak Conservation looms mythical as Xanadu, a magical land where, my younger self was certain, ballet legend Mikhail Baryshnikov danced on the backs of gracefully charging white rhinos (in slow motion, of course).
Better than imagination is the Snapchat video of a playful baby rhino that Jay Smith, White Oak’s Activities Manager, shares with me in the first hour of the day when I am actually, finally, lucky enough to tour this iconic place.
The reality of White Oak surpasses childhood fantasy. While the property’s history reaches back into the 1700s, its role as a pioneer in conservation and community building began in 1982 through philanthropist-owner Howard Gilman, patron of the arts and endangered species.
For Gilman, says Brandy Carvalho, Development and Sustainability Manager, “White Oak was a way of inspiration.”
White Oak provides a home to three of the 5 remaining species of rhinos on earth; the Black Rhino, the Indian Rhino and the White Rhino.
White Oak has had giraffes since 1987 as part of the conservation program. They have special giraffe barns on premises to accommodate their height.
The cheetah is a priority animal program at White Oak.
From the framed piece of flooring hanging in the dance studio, memorializing the time Baryshnikov dipped his feet in paint and danced, to the 17th-century Han Dynasty wood screen lining a high-tech conference room, to portraits of White Oak animals photographed by National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore for his Photo Ark project, inspiration comes from seeing the interplay of art and nature.
“White Oak is exciting to people in a multifaceted way,” Carvalho says. “There’s a science side but there’s an emotional side too. I think of being here as lighting a couple of extra fires in the brain.”
Since 2013, new owners Mark and Kimbra Walter have graciously and generously expanded Gilman’s efforts, starting with a one-year study analyzing everything that goes into making White Oak work. The staff plans to reduce fuel, energy, water, and waste consumption by twenty percent, aspects of which they happily shared with participants in their recent Saturday Safari showcasing their 4-acre garden and sustainable food program.
An incredible array of programs offer glimpses into many facets of the ongoing conservation work that has put this more than 13,000-acre marvel on the local and international map. Stephanie Rutan, Senior Education Specialist, knows that the animal care team and the education specialists can provide an engaging experience for any and all ages.
Howard Gilman of Gilman Paper Company acquired White Oak in 1938 and items from his extraordinary collections are on display at the lodge.
Rutan says, “Expect to be immersed in conservation programs and learn more than you ever wanted to know.”
On the local level, educators at White Oak, like K-12 specialist Lauren Watkins, work with teachers and students in Duval, Nassau and Camden counties. Carvalho says the team takes its educational responsibilities seriously. She explained that “this is a partnership, not a field trip.”
At St. John’s Country Day School, Science Department Head Lisa Sachs explains, “The kids become Rhino Rangers. In Science, they learn about three rhino species and animal behavior. In English and Social Studies, they study poaching causes and solutions. In math, they do a budgetary review, comparing the cost of protecting rhinos in the wild versus raising them at White Oak.”
Sachs explains the PSAs the kids make about their findings will be translated into five languages and shared globally. “We get to do this in real time, in our backyard,” says Sachs. “And our students learn that you can make a difference in the world, you can make change.”
Experimental filmmaker and Fernandina Beach native David Montgomery is the first animator artist-in-residence at White Oak. Montgomery worked on a collaborative art project with Conservation Camp students over the summer but also created his own piece.
“I decided to use my animation technique to explore White Oak’s namesake tree,” wrote Montgomery in an email.
Montgomery uses animation to turn the complexity of biodiversity into mesmerizing videos showing the beauty of genetic variation. The surfer-artist wrote, “No two flower blossoms, leaves, or seeds (even from the same plant) are precisely alike. Seeking to learn a bit more about why this is as well as plant anatomy and taxonomy has led me to try and create a body of work that encompasses the vastness of what the term biodiversity means without venturing much beyond my backyard to do so.”
Because of its involvement with conservation partners around the world, White Oak’s backyard knows no borders. Since its inception, White Oak has hosted meetings of an internationally renowned training and mentorship program, Emerging Wildlife Conservation Leaders.
The vintage bowling alley in Gilman Hall is a highlight for conference visitors.
“It’s an intense two-year program,” said Carvalho, who volunteers her expertise as a program mentor. “We work with people from diverse backgrounds: field project managers, administrators, and animal keepers. The goal is to work with people that have some years of experience in their field but who are looking twenty years ahead to the future of conservation.”
The peace and the beauty of White Oak make it seem a world apart from stress and strife. Mary Lee Clark Elementary’s Gifted Education Specialist Mary Boily, from St. Mary, Georgia, describes her first visit to this sanctuary. “I absolutely fell in love with it. It was so serene. I felt the facility was there to protect and foster animals so that they could be kept from going extinct and to ensure that the animals were as close to being in the wild as possible.”
“These are here as a history lesson and a warning,” Carvalho says as she gestures to the genuine T-rex and triceratops skulls mounted behind velvet ropes in the dining hall, then points to the ground on our side of the display. “We try to keep our animals on this side of the velvet rope.”
According to Carvalho, despite the seriousness of their mission, White Oak events stand out as a “hybrid of learning and education, hospitality, and having fun.”
If Cocktails and Conservation sounds too formal for you, for example, consider attending the next Winos for Rhinos event, a small group social allowing participants to talk with keepers and learn intensely in a relaxed atmosphere.
Carvalho recalls one memorable evening where traditionally-garbed Masai from the Northern Rangelands Trust mingled with Jacksonville’s elite, rolling ten frames at White Oak’s two-lane bowling alley.
“That night so represents what White Oak is,” says Carvalho. “I can still visualize that moment.”
White Oak was a plantation dating back to the late 1700s. Because of its wetlands, it cultivated rice, and was at one time the southernmost rice plantation on the East Coast.
At White Oak, remarkable moments are daily fare, a truth the staff tries to document in a new photo initiative titled “Through the Eyes of White Oak.”
Currently featured: extreme close-ups of cicadas and panoramas of White Oaks’ wetlands areas, courtesy of Snapchat and iPhone master Jay Smith. Carvalho says, “We work the craziest hours, in the craziest places, so of course we get the coolest photos.”
Fulfilling my childhood dream of visiting White Oak feels momentous, like sitting at the table with the real grown-ups and being invited to participate in conversations of importance. The existence of acronyms like SSP (Species Survival Plan), the need for such a thing, and the fact that people all over the world band together to ensure it, well, that feels like world-building.
Carvalho says, “There’s a lot of sadness in conservation work. We want people to build relationships and positivity.”
I drive away slowly, trying to commit everything I’ve seen and learned to memory: A group of giraffes is called ‘a tower’ and a herd of rhino ‘a crash.’ A Somali wild ass’s hair is purple under the microscope, Victorian era explorers called the okapi ‘the elusive forest giraffe,’ and when people get close to the rhinos, says Carvalho, “They [visitors] cry.”
White Oak is priceless, worth more than one visit. Carvalho says, “We exist to be a conduit between inspiration, wildlife, and people. Just how amazing is this?”
She laughs and answers her own question, “It’s authentic.”
I disagree. It’s miraculous. Go.
For more information on tours, summer camps, signature events and tee times (yes there is an exclusive golf course there) visit whiteoakwildlife.org