This piece was originally published in the Spring 2016 issue of Our Jackson Home: The Magazine.
After you crank your car down from the sixty-five miles-per-hour speed limit, you’ll make a turn onto a shaded, gravel road, and if you are lucky you’ll catch your first glimpse of the exotic: radiant peacocks, enormous camels, ancient buffalo, and vibrant zebras. In a way, you will feel that you have just stepped into a new world filled with wonder and excitement. And you’ve only just pulled in.
Tennessee’s only drive-through safari park is truly a captivating place. Since 2007 the park’s popularity has grown to influence the greater Mid-South region. Currently they have collected animals from all over the world—Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas are all represented. You can watch the kangaroos of Australia bolt back and forth in their enclosure. You can gaze at the herds of wildebeests, North American bison, and incredibly friendly fallow deer. You can see the chubby Vietnamese pot belly pigs scurry along the side of your vehicle. If you’re like me, you might cringe as you watch the reptiles slide across their habitats. And, possibly the best of all, you can stare Jerry directly in face—the 3,000-pound giraffe that will snatch any amount of carrots you wish to give him right out of your hand. There are so many more animals here—so many, in fact, that listing them all would take up too much space in this short article. Even so, this park is not just a place to experience the exotic for yourself in an incredibly personal setting. The Tennessee Safari Park is a last hope and refuge for many animals that are critically endangered in the wild.
Since 1963 the park has functioned as a place of sanctuary. They are the first safari park in the state of Tennessee to privately hold a herd of American bison. These colossal creatures once dotted North America reaching numbers that range from thirty to sixty million. Now Yellowstone National Park records that they have some 4,000 left with woefully inadequate space in which to move. The Safari Park, along with giant parks like Yellowstone, opened a new door for some of these animals to thrive again. And their collection only increased from there. Next they collected Damara zebras and African antelopes along with many other types of animals. At present they have over 1,000 animals on site. Out of that 1,000, over 100 species they hold are on the endangered list, some even critically endangered; thus, those endangered species make up over half of those 1,000 animals in the park. When visiting you could be looking at an animal in one of only two places on the earth to see it. Let that sink in. John Conley, the park’s manager, states that preserving these rare forms of wildlife is at the top of the parks priority list.
Since the 1950s, according to Conley, “the focus has been on endangered animals.” Sure, the llamas, emus, fallow deer, and goats make the kids laugh. But there is a real seriousness in the work they are doing out in little Alamo, Tennessee. Let’s take a look at the Père David’s deer, for instance. Originating in China, this elk-like behemoth came to Europe through a series of bribes by the French missionary Père Armand David. He was able to obtain two or three of these animals from the hunting grounds of the royal emperor and to get them back to Europe in safety. However, a flood brought down the hunting ground’s walls, and most of the deer that were inside were killed by hungry peasants on the outside. Less than forty years later, almost all of the remaining population was killed off in the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. At the Safari Park I saw three of these massive animals. Other zoos in the United States are having issues with their small herds of Père David’s deer—so much, in fact, that they are dying off daily. Thankfully the Safari Park’s herd is one that is still breeding, fighting to keep these animals on the earth.
The Safari Park has developed an impressive national presence. Conley and his staff trade, buy, breed, bolster, and diversify their populations. The zoos they associate with are some of the best in North America, including the San Diego Zoo in California. Several of the animals can only be found at the Safari Park and the San Diego Zoo, in fact. They also associate with zoos in Texas, Oklahoma, and New York, as well as smaller parks all around the United States.
The park is especially known for its populations of large mammals, which are mostly comprised of African antelopes. They include the South African bontebok, the sub-Saharan ellipsis waterbuck, the North African scimitar oryx (which is nearly extinct), and a new population of gemsbok from Southern Africa. These are highly desired animals around the United States, and the Safari Park has a hand in supplying some of these animals to certain zoos. However, their primary focus is to secure and breed those antelopes that are critically endangered or even extinct in the wild.
Even with all of the push to breed rare and endangered animals, Conley and his staff recognize one of the most daunting tasks they have ahead of them: educating the public. “We wanted to create a place where families could come and kids could have a great learning experience,” Conley states. To secure these animals now, in one man’s lifetime, is a great accomplishment. However, securing conservation efforts for the next 100 years is a feat beyond compare. Conley understands that the next generation of conservationists, wildlife activists, and preservations have to be sought, inspired, and trained now. On any given day the park is flooded with visitors, and thankfully many of those are children who may be the leaders in our communities one day. The heartbeat of the Tennessee Safari Park is to get the local community to understand the importance of educating children and their parents about these animals. It creates a sense of belonging. Imagining how to save the life of one more addax or dama gazelle can make a person more aware of his place in the world.
Thankfully, the park is growing; over 100,000 visitors roamed the safari grounds in the last year alone. They have made some adjustments to park more vehicles, move more animals, and create a more room for exhibits and roaming space. But, for a visionary like John Conley, that is not enough. The park is set to expand on a large scale over in 2016 and 2017. There are many surprises on the horizon, but there are a few Conley has made known to the public. For example, the park will be getting several more giraffes for a new exhibit that will allow these gigantic mammals to come directly to your car. Additionally, the zoo will be getting a selection of pygmy hippos, more antelopes, and another three miles of car paths added to the existing three miles. The park has become a national attraction, and with these new additions it is bound to gain even more notoriety and respect for its monumental work in the saving of endangered animals.
“A lot of the animals you see here you won’t see anywhere else,” Conley notes, reffering to the diverse population. And it’s true. Their Safari Park boasts species that can only be found in one other place in the world. And all of this is sitting in our backyard. To walk amongst these nearly extinct creatures is a strange thing. On one hand, I wish they were back in the wild thriving off of the land in which they originated; on the other, I am thankful for the chance to catch a glimpse of them in an environment that is thriving and with people who care about their well-being.
The Tennessee Safari Park’s mission is to provide an educational experience for the community while also creating a sanctuary for endangered animals, and the park is soaring to new heights in both of these areas. Not only will expansion allow the public to have more access to a wider and more diversified population of rare animals, but it will also allow these rare animals to grow in number and thrive.
After taking in all of this beauty, the end of your southern safari draws near. You’ll get back in your car, pass a small herd of zebras, see a peacock or two, watch the small Reeves’s muntjac deer bounce around their enclosure, and then turn onto to Highway 412. You’ll crank your car back up to the sixty-five miles-per-hour speed limit and head home, glancing back in your rear view mirror in amazement. The safari experience you just had in the heart of the South will stay with you for weeks.
The Tennessee Safari Park is located at 618 Conley Road in Alamo, Tennessee, and is open seven days a week. To learn more, visit their website.
When Seth Harden is not working at the Registration Center at Jackson State Community College or pastoring the greatest children on earth at Lighthouse Church, you can find him deep in a good history book, throwing down a Starbucks coffee, or hanging out with the most beautiful woman in the world, Abbigail Young. He also currently holds a B.A. in History from the University of Memphis and is pursuing graduate work in the field.
Photography by Katie Howerton.