As a conservation park and educational facility Safari West is proud to be a safe haven for many of Africa’s endangered species. From our growing herds of dama gazelle and Nile lechwe to our newest generation of the incredibly rare addax, we’re doing everything we can to help these rare animals hold on to their place in the world. While you probably aren’t surprised to hear that we’re helping out endangered African animals at our African safari park, you may not have known that we’re working to preserve our local species as well.
A big part of how we’re doing that centers on the western expanse of the Safari West preserve. Watusi lake and the creek running through it make up a dividing line running north to south through Safari West. The 160-acre stretch to the west of that dividing line constitutes our “Forever Wild” area. That acreage is protected from development into perpetuity and exists as a sanctuary for the native residents of Sonoma County. Our daily safaris frequently come across wild turkeys, black-tailed deer, downy woodpeckers, and western bluebirds. We often catch a glimpse of western pond turtles (a threatened species) basking in Watusi lake as well.
It’s exciting enough to see these local species thriving here but for the last few years, we’ve been lucky enough to have a family of North American river otters stops by Safari West as well. The North American river otter as its name suggests, is found throughout the continent but in the early part of last century, California populations were cut roughly in half, largely due to habitat encroachment and unrestricted trapping. In 1962 the state banned the hunting and trapping of otters. This was done primarily to protect the still endangered sea otter but had a major impact on the river otters as well. In 1972 the state legislature passed the Clean Water Act which further aided the ailing species.
In recent years the river otter has been sighted with greater and greater frequency. In 2012 a river otter quickly named Sutro Sam was spotted in the remains of the Sutro Baths off San Francisco’s Ocean Beach. Sutro Sam was the first otter seen in San Francisco in at least three decades and an immediate media sensation.
Our own group of river otters began showing up here during the summer months a few years back. They appear in Lake Watusi almost as if by magic and stay for a while, feasting on catfish and bass before moving along.
Each year we wait impatiently, anxious to find out if they’ll return again. This year they popped up in the very last week of October and have been keeping a low profile so far. All the same, the fact that they have been able to survive and find their way here in the midst of this record-breaking drought is a good sign for the species.
River otters are highly mobile mammals who can travel overland as easily as they glide through the water. They’ve been known to travel as far as 26 miles in a day. We never know how long they’re going to stay but if you come join us on safari this November and December, there’s at least a chance that between adventures with our African rhinos and wild wildebeests, you may catch a glimpse of the aquatic antics of our otter friends.