Humans Are Merely Visitors at This Conservation Oasis in Florida

One of the first conservation programs at White Oak featured the okapi, an endangered relative of the giraffe that lives in the forest. White Oak Conservation

About 30 miles north of Jacksonville, Florida, hundreds of imperiled animals wander an internationally known 17,000-acre facility. Although well-known in conservation and animal circles, sprawling White Oak Conservation somehow isn't on the general radar.

White Oak is such an interesting amalgam of things that it's difficult to describe. There are the animals, of course, and the obvious focus on conservation. Along with that, there are innovative programs that are open to the public on a limited basis that allow some access to the facility and the animals. There is also a hospitality component with meeting rooms for conferences, a bowling alley, gym and meals provided by award-winning chefs.

So, what is White Oak?

"The animal programs are the major part of what we do," Brandy Carvalho, White Oak development & sustainability manager tells MNN. "That is the foundation of all of our work."

Saving so many species

whooping crane chicks
Hemlock watches over her two newborn whooping crane chicks. White Oak Conservation

Between 350 and 400 animals, comprised of 35 species, call White Oak home. Ranging from the feathered to the four-footed, the flagship species include rhinos, cheetahs, giraffes and okapis, says Carvalho.

The facility's landmark bird work includes the recent birth of two whooping crane chicks. Only about 700 to 800 whooping cranes remain in North America, and White Oak is hoping to work toward repopulating the endangered species. The state-of-the-art research facility is also working on a recovery program to save the Florida grasshopper sparrow, North America's most endangered bird.

The breeding programs have so far contributed more than 35 rhinos, 160 cheetahs and more than 1,000 antelope births to captive conservation populations. They have also helped reintroduce bongo antelope, roan antelope and black rhinos back into the wild in Africa.

White Oak's history

black rhino
The conservation breeding program at White Oak has contributed more than 35 rhinoceros to captive populations. White Oak Conservation

Although records of the property date back to the 1700s, it wasn't until the 1980s when philanthropist Howard Gilman began the earliest conservation programs on the property. Although the land became home to a conference center, a golf course and a dance studio, Gilman created a foundation to focus on studying, breeding and rehabilitating threatened and endangered species. National and international conferences were held at White Oak, often aimed at conservation and the environment.

In 2013, Mark and Kimbra Walter purchased White Oak, ramping up the facility's conservation programs. They spearheaded successful conservation strategies with several more endangered species including okapis, rhinos, Florida panthers and whooping cranes.

Not only did they expand the animal program, but they created more opportunities for people to get up close and visit them ... including budding conservationists. More than 1,000 schoolchildren visit the facility each year. Although most come from within driving distance, many come from neighboring Georgia and the Carolinas.

It's all about the animals

safari from the saddle
Visitors tour the facility on horseback in the Safari from the Saddle program. White Oak Conservation

The facility offers several ways that people can get up close and personal with the animals by touring the facility or simply taking part in a conference and seeing the animals is an amazing sidebar.

These programs afford the facility a way to help support its conservation work, but they also give visitors a peek at rare animals at home on its acreage.

"We are educating folks when they are here," says Carvalho. "Most of them are already inspired and that’s why they are here. They care about the species."

There are tours of the property held in open-air trolleys and vans, behind-the-scenes caretaker experiences where visitors might help prepare food for the animals and get a more hands-on encounter. There are tours of the property on horseback and more marketing-themed encounters such as "Crafts and Giraffes" (featuring local craft beers) and "Winos and Rhinos" (for a more grape-themed experience).

No matter what the tour or adventure, visitors will see animals, since that's the overriding theme of White Oak. But because all habitats are natural, no specifics are guaranteed.

"The priorities are the animals living in an environment that is more like their natural habitat," says Carvalho. "Any of these species could be open for reintroduction into the wild at some point, so we don't want to disrupt their habitat. This is their world and we are allowed to visit in it. So at the end of the day, we are just visitors."