White Oak Conservation Protects & Breeds Rare Species In Yulee, FL

Okapi photo White Oak Conservation
Okapi (photo credit: White Oak Conservation)

Straddling the St. Marys River at the Florida-Georgia border, White Oak is a magical place helping to save rare animals.

On the sprawling property of 17,000 acres, 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 threatened species and near extinct animals.

Vets & Zoologists

The workplace of specialized veterinarians and zoologists, White Oak is an educational center with a veterinary hospital offering internships and residencies. The center provides training for wildlife professionals and students of zoology.

Nassau County, Florida

This secluded world, an “animal planet” of its own, is right here in northeast Florida’s Nassau County. The entrance to this huge property is in Yulee, about a 20-minute drive from Amelia Island. However, some of the land is on the other side of the St. Marys River in Georgia. At one time a rice plantation, then later cultivated for cotton and timber, in the 1980s the property became a safe haven for various species.

At White Oak, one is greeted by gentle giraffes who love to eat bamboo. The giraffes’ long limbs and slender, extended necks meld into the scenery of northeast Florida’s towering pine trees as though they always belonged together. Giraffes have roamed White Oak since 1987. (“Some subspecies of giraffe are considered endangered,” according to the center.) In the past decade, more recent arrivals include Pere David’s deer, an Asian species (endemic to China), that became extinct in the wild.

Famous Elephants Find New Home At White Oak

It was the arrival of world-famous elephants, however, that caused a big splash of media attention on White Oak. In 2021 a dozen “retired” elephants, former performers with the world-famous “Greatest Show On Earth,” Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, became permanent residents at White Oak. Watch video below, CBS This Morning’s feature story about these elephants and scenes of White Oak grounds where the elephants have a new home.

For many generations of kids, attending a performance of the Ringling Bros. & Barnum Baily Circus was a right of passage. The world famous circus began all the way back in the 1800s. Elephants performed in the circus for nearly 150 years until 2016 when the elephant appearances stopped for various reasons, including attitudes shifting about performances by animals.

The circus elephants needed to be relocated, requiring a special place to finish living out their lives. Ultimately, White Oak Conservation at the Florida-Georgia border became their final destination.

Another second herd of elephants, around 20, will also be coming to White Oak when the next phase of the elephant area is completed.

Politicians and Movie Stars — Famous Past Visitors at White Oak Plantation

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, visiting White Oak was by invitation only, known in elite circles as a special oasis.

Long before the arrival of the world-famous elephants, the property (formerly known as White Oak Plantation), had been an exclusive destination for famous Americans, U.S. Presidents, foreign political dignitaries, movie stars, musicians, and dancers.

Mikhail Baryshnikov’s “White Oak Dance Project” was born here. A dance studio on the property was named after him and has played host to dance companies in past years. Other famous guests at White Oak included Madonna, Julia Roberts, Al Gore, Colin Powell, and John Travolta (he played golf at White Oak).

Escape From Washington

Besides being a unique animal sanctuary, also making it alluring for the famous was its secretive nature, being off limits to the media and paparazzi-types. In 1999, the White Oak Plantation was a getaway for former President Bill Clinton (and the former first lady, Hillary Clinton), during a tumultuous period of his presidency. The year 2023 marks 25 years since the Monica Lewinsky scandal rocked the U.S. presidency. (The details of the sexual relationship flooded the public spotlight back in 1998-1999). This resulted in President Clinton’s impeachment by the House of Representatives, followed by a Senate acquittal in February 1999. Post-presidency, Bill Clinton has returned to White Oak (Clinton Global Initiative planning retreats have been held at White Oak in past years).

Howard Gilman Legacy

The man behind White Oak was the late paper magnate, Howard Gilman, a performing arts lover and avid collector, with sincere commitment to animal conservation. In its heyday, Gilman was the largest privately-owned paper and building products company in the United States. Howard Gilman wanted to return some of his company’s paper profits to conservation efforts, a way of giving back to nature, and started the White Oak conservation program in 1982.

In general, White Oak brims with amazements and is a wonderful educational experience for the young and old alike.  One of the rare birds cared for is 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.

Cassowary and chick photo White Oak Conservation
Cassowary & Chick (photo White Oak Conservation)

After a long history of rarely being open to the general public there was a period of years when White Oak Conservation opened up tours for the public. Besides the giraffes, visitors got glimpses of white and black rhinos, grazing zebras, Bongo Antelope, giant Eland, Okapi, tigers, cheetahs, Florida panthers and rare birds – around 35 species of endangered animals have lived on the grounds. However, these public tours that formerly could be purchased with advance reservation, have been discontinued. EXCEPTION– Some White Oak educational programs continue to be offered to students (see below).

Educational Programs & Youth Summer Camps

White Oak offers educational programs for student groups plus career training for conservation professionals. Besides nurturing animals, a goal is to also nurture and train future conservation leaders. White Oaks hosts special conferences, classes, and school students.

Youth Summer Camps have been developed at White Oak for small groups of kids in 3rd to 12th grades. These summer camps are all-inclusive overnight experiences with lodging, meals, and activities. Mini-camps are three days for the younger kids (grades 3 to 5) and six days for grades 6 to 12th. However, these summer camps offered in such a unique setting — an outstanding educational opportunity — are very popular and fill up fast. The summer of 2023 youth camps are already full. Learn more about White Oak summer youth camps for future availability at their website, get on their newsletter list for updates. (White Oak suggests parents check their website in January 2024 to find out about 2024 summer camps.)

Gilman passed away in 1998 and the Howard Gilman Foundation eventually sold the White Oak Plantation with its conservation center in 2013, purchased by Mark and Kimbra Walter. The couple became the new stewards of this magnificent rare animal world here at the Florida-Georgia border, with an aim to continue its admirable conservation mission.

Mark Walter is CEO/Co-Founder of Guggenheim Partners, LLC. In 2012, Walter became an owner of Major League Baseballs’ LA Dodgers (his investment group which includes Magic Johnson, bought the team).

White Oak is a “TWF Conservation Cause.” The Walter Family Causes are explained in TWF’s video below. TWF Conservation “protects more than one million acres of land worldwide.”

According to TWF, they seek “opportunities to build sustainable models of philanthropy that create permanent capital from direct ownership of stakes in businesses or business operations and that fund the causes reducing the need for continuous philanthropic investment.”

Looking Back — A Remembrance Of Personal Tour

The White Oak Plantation’s legacy amenities from Gilman’s ownership includes a golf course and equestrian center with 25 miles of horse trails and jumps. Plus tennis courts, an archery range, yacht club and the intriguing Big Game Lodge.

Photos of White Oak Plantation in Yulee, Florida
Photos, White Oak Plantation in Yulee, Florida

Having had the opportunity to take a private tour of White Oak Plantation long ago when the property was still owned by the Gilman Foundation, we also toured the property’s main lodge with its fascinating decor. Aside from the conservation aspect and animals of the sprawling property, White Oak’s Big Game Lodge itself was interesting in both design and contents.

Big Game Lodge

Upon entering the lodge, on display was a vest formerly worn by the Native American Apache chief, Geronimo, along with a preserved bear. The lodge was very impressive from the massive original Tiffany ceiling above the bar, to the coconut hair carpeting, and a stately conference room.  Its dining room with dance floor, and acoustical ceiling with clouds, lured one to imagine those who walked through its threshold in the past, and grand parties held here.

We were told the many animal trophies on the walls of the lodge all had died of natural causes at White Oak, not game hunting. The walls of a long hallway was 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 Big Game Lodge. There are many other buildings on the White Oak property, including quaint guest cottages and “Roseland,” decorated in a southwestern theme where President Clinton had stayed.