White Oak Plantation’s Animal Conservation Center, Northeast Florida

Okapi, just one of the rare species at White Oak Plantation located near Amelia Island, Florida

The legendary White Oak Plantation houses a Conservation Center, a natural sanctuary where exotic animals roam in Nassau County, Florida along the Georgia border.

Amidst the pines, live oaks, crape myrtle and palmettos are species of endangered animals. White Oak Conservation Center is one of the world’s premiere wildlife breeding, research, and training facilities.  With a global reputation, the 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,” as described by the Karatasi newsletter.

The 7,500 acre 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).  If you wish to see the property, White Oak Conservation Center is hosting an annual event “A Celebration of White Oak” fundraiser, scheduled for Sunday, March 7, 2010 from 12-4 pm (read more about event further below…).

I had an opportunity to tour White Oak several years back. 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. Sounds like fodder for a great Fed Ex commercial.

Straddling the St. Marys River on the Florida/Georgia border, this private oasis is a magical place to learn about efforts to help save rare animals.  It’s 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 Plantation is remarkable and a world of its own.  


There’s a window of opportunity opening to see this fantastic property.  White Oak Conservation Center is hosting “A Celebration of White Oak” fundraising event, scheduled for Sunday, March 7, 2010 from 12-4 pm. This unique experience gives guests the opportunity to see and learn about some of the magnificent wildlife at White Oak, including the elusive okapi and the Grevy’s zebra. The Celebration event will feature specialized tours of the Conservation Center. In addition to tours, guests will enjoy presentations from staff and a delicious lunch along the St. Marys River. A silent auction will feature once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, including behind-the-scenes experiences at White Oak Conservation Center.

Space is limited for the event. Tickets are offered at $150 per person (note that of the $150 ticket price, $75 is tax-deductible.)  Have a child or grandchild with an upcoming birthday? What a great gift to give, a one-of-a-kind natural learning experience. All funds raised at “A Celebration of White Oak” will go directly to funding wildlife conservation programs. For further information or to make a reservation for this event call White Oak Conservation Center 904-225-3396 or visit web site.

An Amelia Island cruise operator is providing a water cruise to this special event at White Oak. Amelia River Cruises will depart out of Fernandina Harbor Marina on Sunday, March 7, at 9 a.m., pick up additional passengers at St. Marys, Georgia at 10 a.m., and arrive at White Oak around 12:30 p.m. (Return transportation will be provided by Coastal Georgia Charters and Tours via shuttle bus.) All inclusive transportation cost for the cruise and bus return is $50 plus 7% sales tax. Those who would like to travel by water to White Oak must reserve seating for the sail directly with the Amelia River Cruises office by calling Lori Hoerl, Director of Marketing and Operations, at 904-491-7617.


At White Oak, one is greeted by gentle giraffes who love to eat bamboo. The giraffes’ long limbs and necks meld into the scenery of northeast Florida’s tall, slender pine trees, as though they always belonged there.

There seems to be little publicity about White Oak Plantation, but those who move to the Amelia Island area eventually hear about the place where exotic animals roam. This huge plantation is located in Nassau County near Amelia Island and actually crosses the St. Mary’s River, with 1,000 acres on the Georgia side of the waterway.


The road leading into White Oak is unmarked. Those visiting this exclusive retreat to vacation, participate in national and international conferences, or special corporate group functions, don’t have to worry about being harassed by the media with its limited public access. The property is, indeed, a refuge for both man and animal.

For example, while the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal put excessive strain on President Clinton (eventually triggering impeachment hearings), President Clinton and Hillary made their escape from Washington in 1999 to the White Oak Plantation (likely to duck the glare of the news media). President Clinton reportedly fed pine cones to black rhinos at White Oak.

Amidst the pines, live oaks, crape myrtle and palmettos you also see white and black rhinos, grazing zebras, Bongo Antelope, giant Eland, Okapi, tigers, cheetahs, Florida panthers and rare birds – over 60 species of endangered animals have been present on the grounds.

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 their “genetic bank” in captivity. Besides trying to save animal species, White Oak is an educational center, with a veterinary hospital offering internships and residencies, and provides training for wildlife professionals and students of zoology.


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. Get more information about the Howard Gilman Foundation.


I found White Oak brimming with amazements. It’s a wonderful educational experience for the young and old alike.  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. I recall the Florida panthers on the property had a “pen” that encompassed 17 acres.

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 is 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 imagine the people who have gone through its threshold, the conversations held inside, 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 near Amelia Island. Don’t miss the opportunity to see it.

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