White Oak Conservation Tours

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.

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.

In the past, visiting White Oak was by invitation only. Off the beaten path, it was known in elite circles as a special oasis. Today, conservation tours can be arranged by advance reservation (see more further below and watch a White Oak video for overview of the property).

Politicians and Movie Stars

Formerly known as White Oak Plantation, the place had been an exclusive destination for famous Americans including former President Clinton, foreign political dignitaries as well as 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 guests at White Oak included Madonna, Julia Roberts, Al Gore, Colin Powell, and John Travolta (who played golf here).

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. Amidst the pines, live oaks and palmettos are species of endangered animals living in this natural sanctuary, a “genetic bank” in captivity. Located near Amelia Island, the entrance to this huge property (over 10,000 acres) is in Yulee.

Vets & Zoologists

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

Guided Trolley Tour

Knowledgeable, enthusiastic guides take tour groups around the property aboard a trolley. Visitors touring White Oak Conservation Center may see white and black rhinos, grazing zebras, Bongo Antelope, giant Eland, Okapi, tigers, cheetahs, Florida panthers and rare birds – around 35 species of endangered animals live on the grounds.

Southern Sanctuary

Get a glimpse of White Oak, watch short YouTube video below, “10,000 Acres of Beauty.”

This secluded world, an “animal planet” of its own, is right here in northeast Florida’s Nassau County. Don’t miss the opportunity to see this unique conservation center in Yulee.

A popular highlight is the very tall welcoming crew. At White Oak, one is greeted by gentle giraffes who love to eat bamboo that visitors feed them. 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. Newcomers to White Oak in recent years are Pere David’s deer, an Asian species (endemic to China) that became extinct in the wild.

Escape From Washington

Making it even more alluring for the famous was its less known location and being off limits to the media and paparazzi-types. In 1999, the White Oak Plantation was the getaway for President Clinton & the former first lady, Hillary, during a tumultuous time in his presidency — the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Since then, the former president has returned to White Oak post-presidency. Clinton Global Initiative planning retreats have been held at White Oak.

Play Golf

The property also includes a golf course (now open to the public, advance tee times required), and equestrian center with 25 miles of horse trails and jumps. Plus tennis courts, an archery range and yacht club. Golfers may like to try the secluded 9-hole course with 54 teeing grounds (creating 27 holes). There’s also a driving range plus 10,000 SF putting green and PGA pro on site. To arrange tee times, call 904-225-3218.

Conservation Tours

After a long history of having been private property, rarely open to the general public, management and ownership has changed over the years. Today, all are welcomed to take conservation tours by advance reservation, and/or play golf.

Whether you’re visiting the Amelia Island area and seek a special adventure or a local resident, touring White Oak is a one-of-a-kind learning experience, and for a good cause. Funds raised help sustain the wildlife conservation programs.

Hosted by wildlife experts, White Oak conservation tours are around two hours long, and offered Wednesdays and Fridays at 9 am June to September and at 10 am October to May (advance reservations required). Hop aboard a trolley or van to see White Oak facilities and some of the 35 species living at the conservation center. Adults $100, children $50 (aged 3 to 10), aged 2  and under free. Get more information at the White Oak Conservation website. The Center’s address is 581705 White Oak Rd., Yulee, Florida, 32097. Call 904-225-3396 for further info and tour reservations.

Meetings & Conferences

Some visit this exclusive retreat to participate in national and international conferences or special corporate workshops. Meeting planners for smaller groups (100 or less) are sure to please attendees with an experience quite different from more typical corporate meeting venues. Such a serene setting in the South, an educational treasure offering insight into saving species.

Personal Tour Experience

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

During the year, White Oak offers a few special events that allow seeing some other areas of the property, besides the animal conservation facilities. Having had the opportunity to take a private tour many years ago when the property was known as White Oak Plantation, here’s some further insight about this Southern estate and the amazing Big Game Lodge.

Big Game Lodge

This Lodge itself was interesting in both design and contents. Upon entering, on display is a vest formerly worn by the Native American Apache chief, Geronimo, along with a preserved bear. The lodge 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 picture the people who have walked through its threshold and the grand parties held here.

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).

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

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

We heard about bird smuggling (only second to the number one drug smuggling trade). One of the cockatoos pointed out had been confiscated at the Miami International Airport.

We learned other interesting tidbits too, such as how it’s possible to Fed Ex a rhinoceros. We saw the iron cages used for transport — seemed like fodder for a Fed Ex commercial.

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, as a way of giving back to nature, and started the conservation program in 1982. Gilman passed away in 1998 and his Foundation eventually sold White Oak in 2013. White Oak was purchased by billionaire Mark Walter, the CEO of Guggenheim Partners LLC, and the owner of the L.A. Dodgers, who carries on the mission of founder, Howard Gilman.