Highlights of historic Fernandina, the beaches, and coastal nature at Florida-Georgia border.

White Oak Animal Conservation Center

Okapi, rare species at White Oak in Yulee

The legendary White Oak Plantation is a natural sanctuary where exotic animals roam in Nassau County, Florida. White Oak Conservation Center is one of the world’s premiere wildlife breeding, research, and training facilities.

Here at the Florida-Georgia border, amidst the pines, live oaks, and palmettos are species of endangered animals.

Located in Yulee, the entrance to White Oak is off US 17, about a 20-25 minute drive from Amelia Island. A sprawling property at more than 10,000 acres, some is actually located across the St. Mary’s River, (1,000 acres on the Georgia side of the waterway).

White Oak Conservation

With a global reputation, the conservation center is dedicated to maintaining genetically healthy breeding of rare and near extinct animals, with species survival plans. The White Oak Conservation Center “conserves and sustains some of the earth’s rarest wild animals through innovative training, research, breeding and field programs that contribute to the survival of wildlife in nature,” according to the Karatasi newsletter.

Politicians & Movie Stars

White Oak Plantation has been an exclusive destination for famous Americans including a U.S. president, foreign political dignitaries as well as movie stars, musicians, and dancers like Mikhail Baryshnikov (there’s a dance studio on the property named after him, that hosts dance companies). Previous guests at White Oak include Madonna, Julia Roberts, Al Gore, Colin Powell, and John Travolta (who has played golf there).

Special Event: “Celebration of White Oak”

Those interested in seeing the property have a unique opportunity to visit. White Oak Conservation Center is hosting an annual fundraising event, “A Celebration of White Oak,” scheduled for Sunday, March 7, 2010 from 12-4 pm.

White Oak is the workplace of specialized veterinarians and zoologists. What was originally a rice plantation, then later cultivated for cotton and timber, has been developed into a wonderful sanctuary for both man and beast. White Oak is remarkable and a world of its own.  

Some visit this exclusive retreat to slip into solitude. Others participate in conferences and special corporate functions. With its limited public access, guests at White Oak know they don’t have to worry about being harassed by the media.

President Bill Clinton

For example, while the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal put excessive strain on President Clinton (eventually triggering impeachment hearings), he and Hillary made their escape from Washington in 1999 to White Oak. The timing was such that it appeared they were ducking the glare of media frenzy, escaping to this secluded Southern sanctuary.

Guests at White Oak see white and black rhinos, grazing zebras, Bongo Antelope, giant Eland, Okapi, tigers, cheetahs, Florida panthers, rare birds and more. Over 60 species of endangered animals have been present on the grounds.

Golf Course

The property also includes a golf course and equestrian center with 25 miles of horse trails and jumps. Plus tennis courts, an archery range, and yacht club. But most unique about White Oak is its animal conservation center and the “genetic bank” in captivity. Besides trying to save animal species, White Oak is an educational center. The veterinary hospital offers internships and residencies, and provides training for wildlife professionals and students of zoology.

Howard Gilman

The man behind White Oak was the late paper magnate, Howard Gilman, who was a performing arts lover, avid collector, and had a commitment to animal conservation. In its heyday, Gilman was the largest privately-owned paper and building products company in the United States. Gilman also had an interest in thoroughbreds. Our tour guide indicated that with the inception of the conservation center in 1982, Gilman wanted to return some of his company’s paper profits to conservation efforts, as a way of giving back to nature. Gilman passed away in 1998, and the Foundation carries on his vision.  They accept donations to help sustain the Foundation’s costs for running White Oak, learn more about the Howard Gilman Foundation.

A Personal Tour Experience

Having experienced a private tour of the property several years ago, it’s a wonderful place brimming with amazements. One of the rare birds on our tour was the Australian Cassowary species, a meat-eating bird that was used to dub in the horrific screech of the T-Rex dinosaur for the movie Jurassic Park.  We also learned that behind the number one smuggling trade (drugs) is bird smuggling. One of the cockatoos pointed out on the tour had been confiscated at the Miami International Airport. The Florida panthers on the property had a “pen” that encompassed 17 acres.

The Plantation is so large, that upon entering, the security guard gave us a map and careful instructions as to how to meet up with our tour party at the Big Game Lodge. A trolley car with a knowledgeable, enthusiastic guide at the helm, escorted our tour group around the plantation. We learned interesting tidbits, like how you can Fed Ex a rhinoceros. We saw the iron cages used for transport (seemed like fodder for a Fed Ex commercial).

Big Game Lodge

The Big Game Lodge itself was interesting in both design and contents. Upon entering the Lodge, on display is a vest formerly worn by the Native American Apache chief, Geronimo, along with a preserved bear. It’s impressive from the massive original Tiffany ceiling above the bar, to the coconut hair carpeting, and stately conference room.  Its dining room with dance floor and acoustical ceiling with clouds lures one to picture the people who have walked through its threshold, the conversations held here, and the grand parties.

The many animal trophies on the walls of the Lodge, we were told, all died of natural causes at White Oak, not game hunting. A long hallway is lined with performing arts posters, most with original signatures of the artists, dancers, actors and singers. We also saw the small bowling alley, and a theatre/film viewing room within the Lodge. Other buildings on the premises include quaint guest cottages and “Roseland” which is decorated in a southwestern theme (where President Clinton stayed).

This secluded world, an “animal planet” of its own, is right here in Nassau County, Florida. Don’t miss the opportunity to see it.

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