Last week I waxed enthusiastic about the many and varied animal species and
habitats of the San Diego Wild Animal Park, but I saved one "exhibit"
The park's "Journey Into Africa" is an impressive 2.5-mile ride that
takes you through a microcosm of Africa's many ecosystems. The Zoological
Society of San Diego (parent organization to the Wild Animal Park and the
world-famous San Diego Zoo) transformed an entire valley into this series of
habitats, which opened to the public in March 2007.
The Vast Dark Continent
As the website (http://www.sandiegozoo.org/wap) says, Africa "isn't a
place --it's a million places." Desert, veldt, forest, savannah, and
mountain habitats are all represented in this valley. From the vantage point of
your open-sided, eco-friendly, soft-wheeled tour vehicle, you get the distinct
sensation that YOU are the visitor and this is the home of the wildlife you are
The valley includes contiguous areas representing East Africa, North Africa,
Central Africa, and South Africa, plus special habitats devoted to the
mountains of Africa and the African Veldt. Large watering holes have been
created, and islands give some of the avian species refuge.
The full panoply of classic African wildlife are on display here including
giraffes, rhinos (both black and the rare white), zebras, wild boars, and
antelope of many kinds. Seeing them in the open spaces truly similar to natural
habitat gives a fresh appreciation of their size, the way they move, and the
way they interact with other members of their own and sometimes other
It's easy to forget about our feathered friends in the midst of such
mammalian majesty, but the bird collection is truly amazing as well. But can
you see birds in such a vast environment? You bet you can, when they are as
large as the ostriches, herons, storks, vultures, and pelicans who live here.
Watch for them on the island in the middle of the watering hole in
"Central Africa." This area combines plantings of native African
flora that will eventually mimic a Central African forest. This part of the
valley is home to the tufted-jowled, floppy-eared red river hog, a cartoon pig
if ever I've seen one, as well as the striped and horned bongo, the largest and
heaviest of the forest antelope species. Bongos are hard to photograph because
their chestnut brown coats with light stripes mimic the sun-dappled shade of
the trees where they like to hang out. Unlike most of the African antelope
species, both male and female bongos have horns.
"South Africa" is where the zebras live, gentle herbivores until
provoked by a predator. "North Africa" is home to ruminants such as
deer, gazelle, oryx, and wild cattle.
The tour takes about half an hour. It's amazing how many wonders are packed
into that short an amount of time. The Journey Into Africa exhibit is still
relatively new and is still in a state of improvement and evolution. It will
take time for some of the native African flora (particularly the larger tree
species) to fill out and fill in the additional pieces of ambience in the grand
plan. It's an exhibition that bears repeat visits to watch it grow and see
which species choose to reveal themselves from one visit to the next.
At this writing, eight new habitats are under development along the Journey
into Africa tour route: a flamingo pond; a marshland for geese, cranes, and other
birds and exotic plants; a wooded grassland for steenbok and other grazers; a
scrubland for a rare species of vultures; a hillside habitat for sheep and wild
donkeys; a kopje rockscape for klipspringers; a sage-and-scrub fringe along the
edges of the existing savannah for a variety of birds; and additional zebra
habitat to accommodate new species.
The Journey into Africa is part of the San Diego Wild Animal Park, which is
located 35 miles (56 kilometers) north of downtown San Diego in the San Pasqual
Valley near Escondido, Calif.
Sally O'Neal hikes, bikes, and enjoys wild and domestic animals from her home base in Washington State. She writes weekly for sportsmansguide.com.