50 Years of Conservation, Community, And Connection to Wildlife
By Peggy Scott*
Eighteen-hundred acres of land in the San Pasqual Valley and a vision of what wildlife conservation could become. That’s what Dr. Charles Schroeder had back in 1969 when we broke ground for the Wild Animal Park, Dr. Schroeder’s “zoo of the future.” As executive director of the Zoological Society of San Diego, Dr. Schroeder had big plans for his “natural environment zoo,” with its expansive, multispecies savanna habitats and revolutionary approach to wildlife management that would forever change what zoos would look like.
The San Diego Zoo Safari Park, as it is now known, opened to the public on March 10, 1972, and took the industry-leading wildlife care program that made the San Diego Zoo world famous and expanded upon it, rewriting what was thought to be possible for the fields of wildlife health and conservation. The Safari Park was started on inspiration, and that foresight continues to this day.
The Early Years
When the Safari Park opened in 1972, some 3,000 visitors attended the grand opening, and they marveled at the unique opportunity to experience wildlife offered by the Wgasa Bush Line Railway. The Wgasa monorail system took passengers into the Safari Park’s savanna habitats, offering a safe, up-close way to view an array of wildlife—including some of the Safari Park’s first residents: six African savanna elephants (two more would soon join them); sable antelope, greater kudu, and gemsbok; as well as a group of 18 southern white rhinos, among them 8 that were born at the San Diego Zoo. The first white rhino calf was soon born at their new home—a male named “Zibulo” on October 11 of that year. The Safari Park’s Nairobi Village was designed to complement the monorail experience, recreating a little bit of Africa right here in San Diego County.
The Safari Park experienced many firsts in its early years; quickly receiving two Bean Awards from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums for its work with North African and Abyssinian ground hornbills. The first Przewalski’s horses arrived in 1973, and the first wapiti the next year. In 1974, an expansion took place that would guide the Zoo and Safari Park—and the organization that we now call San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance—for the decades to come: the establishment of the Center for the Reproduction of Endangered Species (CRES) at the San Diego Zoo by physician and mammalian cytogenetics pioneer Dr. Kurt Benirschke, and then-San Zoo Diego Director Chuck Bieler. The foresight of our scientists back then resonates to this day.
“Fifty years ago, Dr. Kurt Benirschke began storing cells from animals in the Frozen Zoo® for purposes not yet understood,” explains Dr. Nadine Lamberski, SDZWA’s Chief Conservation and Wildlife Health Officer. “But he knew they would be a valuable resource one day. Today, we have increased the genetic diversity of two endangered species, the Przewalski’s horse and black-footed ferret, by using biomaterials stored decades ago. What is more amazing than that?”
Success in the Skies
To see one of the Safari Park’s earliest conservation success stories, you have to look up. Once ranging from British Columbia to northern Baja California, Mexico, condor populations dipped as low as 22 individuals in the 1980s. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service brought the remaining birds into managed care at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park and the Los Angeles Zoo. Through careful breeding at the Park and by our partners, enough chicks hatched to allow the first reintroductions of California condors in 1992. By 2001, 100 California condor chicks had hatched at the Safari Park. In 2012, California condors Sisquoc and Shatash had become the first pair that the public could view incubating an egg. Condor Cam, set up in their habitat and nesting areas at the Safari Park, gave viewers an up-close look at their daily life. Saticoy, their offspring, hatched for a live worldwide audience on March 10, 2012. Today, more than 330 California condors soar the skies of their native ranges.
Advances in Conservation Science
As it was becoming clear that the world was losing its wildlife and habitats, the scientists at CRES focused on research to improve wildlife population numbers via Species Survival Plans (SSPs) and breeding programs. And if there is a species that embodies the importance of maintaining a Wildlife Biodiversity Bank, it’s hard to look beyond the northern white rhinoceros. While the world’s living population now stands at just two survivors of this subspecies, San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance’s Wildlife Biodiversity Bank contains genetic material from 12 northern white rhinos. An innovative in vitro fertilization/surrogacy project at the Nikita Kahn Rhino Rescue Center at the Safari Park resulted in the birth of a healthy male southern white rhino calf, named Edward, in 2019. With his big feet and wiggly ears, Edward was more than just an adorable addition to the crash. He proved that the scientific process, including IVF and surrogacy, works. He is a living, breathing symbol of hope for the future genetic recovery of the northern white rhino.
Expanding to Share the World
The initial inspiration behind the Safari Park has continued to fuel its growth through new projects and expansion. Each new experience built upon the goal of creating the most naturalistic, state-of-the-art habitats possible. The Tull Family Tiger Trail, which opened in 2014, presented a whole new way to see—and hear—tigers. Walkabout Australia, debuting in 2018, brought with it the chance to see the only two platypuses outside Australia; as well as a walk-through, open-access area inhabited by kangaroos. The Safari Park’s vision and dedication to detail did not go unnoticed, as both Tiger Trail and Walkabout Australia received the prestigious “Exhibit of the Year” award from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). Even with all its accomplishments and contributions to wildlife conservation, the Safari Park—and its wildlife care experts—weren’t about to rest on their laurels. There was—and is—more to come.
As the Safari Park enters its sixth decade— and beyond—we are planning for our next immersive wildlife experience, Elephant Valley. Exemplifying the Safari Park’s dedication to connecting people to wildlife and nature, the vast, 11-acre Elephant Valley is as much a place of community as it is a habitat for the largest land mammal on Earth. Elephant Valley takes guests into the heart of the African savanna, where they will be surrounded by our family of elephants, offering the incredible opportunity to create a powerful connection that will last a lifetime. Elephant Valley is an innovative expansion of the idea of what is possible in the world of wildlife conservation. And as a place where science and biotechnology work seamlessly with groundbreaking wildlife care, along with empathy and the desire for a world where all life thrives, the outlook for Dr. Schroeder’s “zoo of the future” couldn’t be brighter.
Happy 50th, Safari Park! Here is your golden opportunity to celebrate with us. From cute and comfortable apparel and accessories to drinkware suitable for toasting this milestone, our official 50th Anniversary logo features the bold profile of an African rhino against a sunset landscape. Help support wildlife and rhino conservation with our line of commemorative 50th anniversary gear - click here. Here’s to the next 50 years!