Hundreds of acres of the park are given over to massive, mixed-species exhibits featuring the ungulates of Africa and Asia. Years ago, during my first visit to the park, these exhibits were toured by the Wgasa Bush Line, a monorail that swept visitors past panoramic views of giraffe, rhinoceros, and a startling array of wild cattle, wild goats and sheep, deer, antelope, and equines. It was on that ride that I saw many species for the first time, including at least three - European bison, Bornean bearded pig, and black wildebeest - that I've never seen since, and are no longer at the park. This was also the last zoo in the western hemisphere to house northern white rhinos, a subspecies now teetering on the edge of extinction.
Regrettably, the hour long ride proved too much for the attention span of many visitors, so a new, shortened ride now takes guests across a fraction of the terrain, but leaves much of the landscape unvisited. Visitors interested in seeing the rest of the park are able to take special photo safaris, where staff load guests into the open backs of trucks and drive them out into the exhibits to meet the animals. Hot air balloon views of the park are also possible. I've heard it said - but not confirmed - that the San Diego Zoo Safari Park served as a resource for the movie Jurassic Park... and I believe it.
The heart of the park is Nairobi Village, a recreated African fishing town situated around a series of waterways that house flamingos, waterfowl, and rarely-exhibited shoebills. Located around the shores of the pools are a walk-through aviary featuring birds from around the world (including seldom-seen species such as Storm's stork and Madagascar ibis), a walk-through lemur exhibit, a lorikeet aviary, and a petting kraal. Also featured here is a paddock for young ungulates from the main park which are in need of hand-rearing (with as many hundreds of deer and antelope as the park has, there are always bound to be a few rejected by mothers). Nearby is a spacious, moated gorilla habitat, with rolling grassy logs and lots of climbing structures. Equally gorgeous lion and cheetah habitats are nearby.
Breaking off from Nairobi Village are a series of side trails, featuring walking safaris that take visitors past other unique species. The African Woods trail is a meandering boardwalk through an African forest, with close-up views of okapi, giant eland, and warthogs. Several bird species can be found here, too, including cranes, vultures, and secretary birds. Another trail leads through a gorgeous new habitat for Sumatran tigers, while also offering an overlook of the African elephant habitat.
My personal favorite trail is Condor Ridge, home to the native wildlife of southern California. Ocelots, bald eagles, and burrowing owls are seen in a series of meshed-in enclosures, before visitors reach the trail's climax. A flight deck is situated between habitats of two of the southwest's most iconic species - desert bighorn sheep and California condors. San Diego Wild Animal Park (as it was known then) was instrumental in the captive-breeding and reintroduction of the condor, and was the first facility to publically exhibit them following their brush with near-extinction (exhibits have since opened at a handful of other western zoos).
For a casual visitor or a zoo connoisseur, the Safari Park is an extraordinary place to visit. Granted, it does not have the diversity or variety of species seen at many zoos - the collection is heavily African, heavily ungulate and bird. There are a few carnivores (no bears, for instance), a few primates, and fewer reptiles and amphibians. Some of the animals can be difficult to see in large, natural enclosures. The wait for the monorail can be exhausting at times. And it must be admitted that the park has more of a crowded, theme-park vibe than many zoos, especially around Nairobi Village, the hub of guest services.
Still, there are few zoo experiences more impressive than watching herds - not pairs or trios but honest-to-God herds - of animals moving across an enclosure so big that animals have actually established neighboring territories in it. Or of seeing five or six species of large mammal in one landscape without turning your head. Or simply of knowing that you are visiting an institution which has done so much to help save so many endangered species for extinction. The vast, sprawling grounds of the park have enabled San Diego to maintain larger groups of hoofed mammals; being maintained in more natural social settings, with the potential for males to compete and females to be selective, breeding of many species has been quite successful. The park's history is full of individual animals which failed to breed at other facilities, but happily procreated here:
"Whether Mandhla [the white rhino] selected the females or they him, they results were the same. His relationships were platonic no more. Whenever a female indicated that she was in heat, he stood ready to oblige. Soon, allowing for an 18-month gestation period, his offspring began to arrive one by one."
- Lifeboats to Arafat, Sheldon Campbell