Visitors to Safari West see many things when they come here. They see the guides decked out in khaki and caps in their M37 Power Wagons, rumbling up and down the oak-studded hills. They see the sumptuous tent camps, the savory-smelling restaurant, and probably some hard-working keepers, well-dusted with alfalfa and mud. Oh, and of course they see the animals; several hundred of them, representing nearly 90 individual species.
What the average visitor may not see are the many researchers and dedicated scientists working diligently behind the scenes. Safari West is not only home to lemurs, flamingos, and giraffes. It’s also home to something we call the REC department. Standing for “Research, Education, & Conservation”, the hard working REC Department team-members have several interconnected but very different responsibilities.
Firstly, the REC Department is our research division. Tucked away in one corner of the property, we find the heart of this division, the Osteology Lab. Osteology is the study of bones; a useful field of exploration. A tremendous amount of information can be garnered from the study of bones. After all, how do you think we learned about dinosaurs? Beyond the study of skeletons, the osteology lab scientists also conduct extensive inquiries into animal behavior, reproductive physiology, and parasitology.
The animals of Safari West live out their entire lives here, often times from birth. While death is an unpleasant subject, especially the death of an animal we’ve been working alongside for years, it is nonetheless a reality that must be confronted. Zebras are no more immortal than we humans are after all. If a zebra passes away here on property, we are lucky in that we can glean something positive from the tragedy by studying the bones that remain. By conducting postmortem investigations, our team can learn about the life of the individual animal. This allows us to expand our knowledge of potential illnesses or traumas that may affect the species in our care. Furthermore, by studying the characteristics that make each individual bone unique, we benefit the fields of paleontology and archaeology. In these ways, the tragedy of an animal’s loss is in a small way brightened by the opportunity to further our understanding of that species.
The second letter of the REC department stands for education. Educating the public is of paramount importance to the REC department and its members. For example, while much of the Osteo lab’s work happens behind the scenes, October visitors to Safari West enjoy a unique opportunity to take a peek behind the curtain. As we celebrate Halloween and the Day of the Dead, the REC department brings out examples of their osteological specimens. These displays provide amazing demonstrations of the work the researchers do and it’s incredible value to the scientific world at large. In the Osteo lab’s Walking with the Dead exhibit, guests are invited to explore many of the skeletons in the collection. Likewise, in celebration of World Giraffe Day, the Osteo lab brings out their giraffe specific material. Examining the complete skeletal structure of an adult giraffe like the one you just saw on tour adds a completely unique level of understanding to the safari experience.
Lastly, we come to the conservation component of the REC Department. Conservation efforts touch nearly every aspect of daily life at Safari West. Conservation comes to play in the propagation of endangered species and the management of genetic diversity in our collection. It is also a factor influencing which conservation advocates and scientists we invite to present to our guests throughout the year. If you’ve been reading the newsletter, then you’ve likely seen the Conservation Corner articles we produce. They are also a part of our conservation outreach.
Daniel (Danny) Cusimano is the Director of the Research, Education, and Conservation Department. As you may imagine, he’s a pretty busy guy. He directs the operations of the osteology lab and is the driving force behind the many research projects happening on the property. Research interns and graduate students embarking on studies work closely with Danny as well.
Recently, Danny became involved with the Kesem Kebena Project; a paleontological salvage operation taking place in Ethiopia. The Kesem and the Kebena are two rivers in the process of being dammed. As a result of the damming, large areas of land will become inundated with water and any paleontological material in those areas will be lost. Thanks to the sponsorship of the Ethiopian Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage (ARCCH), the Kesem Kebena project has been collecting and cataloging as much material as possible and moving it to the National Museum of Ethiopia in Addis Ababa. Rarely are these fossils complete skeletons or even complete bones. More frequently this material shows up as a chaotic collection of intermingled fragments. The project needed scientists adept at piecing together animal bones and thanks to his work as director of the Osteo lab, Danny fit the bill perfectly.
Safari West is sponsoring Danny’s work in Ethiopia. The Kesem Kebena Project represents a worthy undertaking and something Safari West is proud to support on principle. We do however have an interest beyond mere nobility. Several species from our collection originate in the area the project is studying. The fossils Danny and his cohorts are piecing together represent the ancestors of animals we interact with on a daily basis.
This project perfectly bridges the three primary responsibilities of the REC Department. By collecting and cataloging these fossils this research project adds valuable data to the library of human knowledge. The project also supplements our education component beautifully. The Safari West guide department prides itself on constantly refining our information and techniques so that visitors to our preserve get the most accurate and informative presentations possible. The new finds unearthed by the Kesem Kebena Project are already revealing novel data about the species in our collection and their evolutionary history.
Perhaps most exciting of all is the way in which this kind of paleontological work is beginning to influence the world of conservation. For a long time conservation has been focused largely on mitigating human factors. If we’re over hunting a species, the conservation message is to limit hunting pressures. If we are fragmenting a habitat either through deforestation, urbanization or some other means, the immediate conservation response is to establish protected areas.
These are all valid responses but they are fundamentally reactionary. We pursue a behavior until we recognize a consequence and then attempt to mitigate the behavior. Conservation is slowly turning proactive instead of reactive and a novel scientific approach is aiding in that transition. It’s been called conservation paleobiology and it’s the result of paleontologists like Danny taking an interest in the modern conservation situation. Human factors are undeniably critical to the current state of wildlife conservation but humans have only been around for the last 200,000 years. Up until the advent of civilization some 6,000 years ago, we couldn’t have had the kind of mass impact we do now and arguably even then we didn’t start to exert global pressure until after the industrial revolution.
What conservation paleobiology allows us to do is take the long view. We are increasingly able to look beyond the last few hundred years. The interplay of ecosystems is subtle and if you take bullets and freeways out of the equation, there are still innumerable factors related to the success or failure of a species. By sending Danny to Ethiopia, we are placing ourselves at the forefront of this branch of research.
Safari West is more than just a wildlife preserve. If our aim were simply to show you the animals that once roamed the wild, we’d be doing a disservice. Instead, our goal is to show you to the amazing creatures who continue to inhabit the wild today and hopefully, to inspire you to join our fight to keep it that way.