Surfing Safari


This week I’ve been joined in San Clemente by Harriet and Alex, who arrived on Tuesday and Friday respectively. It’s really great to have them both here, not only for their excellent company but also that special laughter and joy that your children always bring and it’s also cool that they’re keen surfers.

Ahead of Alex’s arrival, Harriet and I decided to have a day away from the waves and headed to the San Diego Wild Animal Park which is owned and run by the San Diego Zoo. It’s located about 30 miles inland of the city over nearly 2000 acres and has c50 different species in large enclosures which are all built to resemble each animal’s habitat.

The park is spilt into two distinct sections:

  1. There are a series of trails and looped paths which enable visitors to walk around the outside of the enclosures and observe the animals up close via the various viewing galleries.
  2. The African Plains tour which is an open-air trolley ride around the open 800 acre park which has many of the largest animals roaming free and has tree and plant species native to the savannah.
Savannah in Southern California

Both are very well done and well laid out making it easy to navigate around the different zones and see all of the animals. First up were the gorillas whose enclosure has a combination of trees, climbing frames, water, grass and rocks both to climb and also to shelter within. They have a big silverback male, three adult females, one of whom has recently given birth to two babies and a number of adolescents of both sexes. At the time we were there, there was a whole lot of action in progress – play-fighting, climbing the rocks and frames, as well as some major feeding.

There are lion and tiger enclosures with up to 5 of each species in them; the Sumatran tiger enclosure is especially impressive as it comprises three zones, one of which has a cooling waterfall and another includes a pool as these cats love water – which debunked a myth I’d always had that all felines have an intense dislike for water. As for the lions, the big male was nowhere to be seen as we discovered from a keeper that he was asleep in a tree while the females were entertaining the cubs – familiar sounding behaviour anyone…?

No tapping the glass please, this kitty bites!

After stopping for our picnic, we took the trolley ride around the African Plains where there are Giraffe, Gazelle, Antelope, Wildebeest, Zebra, Rhino and Emu roaming freely about, where they all live in harmony as happens on the savannah. We were privileged to see two baby giraffe who had only been born the week before and were still in the Giraffe house. The word baby is of course relative in this context as both were roughly 6 foot tall when born. Yikes! That’ll make your eyes water a bit…

Aww, look at the ‘little’ babies…

As is often the case, it was the elephants who were the show-stoppers. Spread over roughly 150 acres there are two large enclosures for the herd, a few of whom were rescued from being culled in Swaziland as part of a government initiative in 2003 and since their arrival 6 calves have been born. There a large pond for them to enjoy a cooling swim, as well as shade structures made from simulated rock, and given the size of the enclosure, there is plenty of freedom to roam.

I know that zoos and safari parks often come in for criticism (and quite rightly in some cases where the animals are clearly not being well cared for), but I put the San Diego Wild Animal Park and its sister Zoo firmly in the positive category. Whilst they are obviously a commercial enterprise, their ethos is care and wellbeing for the animals they look after. They are involved in many conservation programmes with other zoos and organisations around the world – at present they’re working to bring the Northern White Rhino back from extinction by using two of their Southern White Rhino females as surrogates which hopefully once born and at a suitable age can be released into the wild.

One Rhino post-mud bath, the others will take theirs later

Another example is the Arabian Oryx, which is an antelope native to the Arabian Peninsula and Sinai Desert that due to hunting had become extinct in the wild by the late 1960s. In 1972 they joined Operation Oryx, which was a programme set up to save it from extinction and since then almost 400 have been born at the Park, many of which have returned to Oman and Jordan to be reintroduced to the wild.

However, whatever your feelings regarding these institutions, Harriet and I came away very impressed by what we’d seen and learnt, they have some really beautiful animals in the park, all of which appear to be thriving.