By Bud Cole
The Wilds, located near Cumberland, in southeastern Ohio deserves to be at the top of your family travel destination list. This unique animal preserve, one of the largest and most innovative conservation centers in the world, was conceived as a private-public partnership in 1984. It received a gift of 9,154 acres of reclaimed strip mining land from the Central Ohio Coal Company, a subsidiary of American Electric Power Company, in 1986. Since that time the development of the area has been an on going project. Fencing of the initial open range and construction of the first animal management facilities were completed in 1990.
Hartman Mountain zebras, Przewalskis horses and Scimitar-horned Oryxes were the first animal species brought to the Wilds in 1991. Since that time additional animals from around the world continue to arrive and benefit from the research and care provided by the expert staff. Native Ohio animal species also roam freely within the nearly 10,000 acre site.
A shuttle takes visitors from the parking lot to the Johnson Visitor Center where they can select their own P.A.C.E., that’s the Personal Adventure in Conservation Education. Choose the Wilds Safari Transport Pass or the Open Air Safari.
Three southern white rhinos graze near the open safari vehicle’s tour route.Larger With the Transport Pass visitors enjoy the comfort of an enclosed tour bus. Interpretive guides discuss the natural history of the animals and their habitats. There are four stops where visitors can depart the transport to explore the areas up close and personal. Transports run every few minutes so groups and individuals can choose how long they want to enjoy each destination.
The other option is the Open Air Safari where visitors experience the Wilds from an open safari vehicle. This option offers outstanding opportunities for wildlife viewing and photography. The safari concludes with a journey to several unique destinations aboard a Safari Transport. All tours end at the Overlook which includes a café, picnic area and gift shop.
My wife Bev and I toured the 14 square mile preserve with Toni Kellar, the Wild’s marketing and Communications Officer. We started our tour by hiking out to a windy knoll where it seemed as though we could see forever across the expansive preserve. Toni pointed out different animal enclosures as we viewed the surrounding area with our binoculars. We continued the tour in her Land Rover. Each animal enclosure is separated by fences and electric powered gates operated by remotes in each tour vehicle.
A Bactrian camel ignores the safari vehicle.Our first animal encounter was with a herd of Pere David’s deer grazing on grasses between two manmade lakes. Unlike most deer species the Pere David’s are very fond of water often grazing on a combination of grasses and water plants. Adults weigh 330 to 440 pounds. The males have large branching antlers. The Wilds is one of the few locations in the world where you can still observe this rare species of deer. They have totally disappeared as a wild deer species.
Pere David Deer, unlike most deer species, enjoy water and feed on water plants.Larger As we continued our tour along the winding dirt road we spotted a greater one-horned rhinoceros in the distance. Little did I know at the time how close I would come to one of its cousins? (I was taking rhino photos of two females and a calf when a third adult female began to approach our vehicle.
Three females and one baby one-horned rhino approach our vehicle. Notice the Visitor Center in the background.Larger Focusing and viewing the approaching rhino through the camera’s zoom lens gave me a false sense of distance. Bev began to calmly tell me to close my window. When I finally realized how close the rhino was to my camera lens and I tried to close the window I found that there was no window control button on my door panel. Just as Ms. Rhino was about to stick her nose in my face Toni closed the window with her control. It was the most exciting part of my trip, but I’m sure you will create your own exhilarating memories.
A few of the other endangered and threatened species under study in The Wilds include African wild dogs, Bactrian camels, Bantengs, southern white rhinos, Bharal sheep, cheetahs, common elands, Grevy’s zebras, fringe-eared oryxes, Persian onagers and sable antelopes. Masai, reticulated and Rothchild’s giraffes also roam together in one of the enclosures.
If you’ve always wanted to go on a family photographic safari to Africa or some exotic Asian location, but felt your budget could not afford airfare, lodging, meals and tours then the Wilds in southeastern Ohio is a perfect choice. Tours will resume in May 2010. They have added special winter tours this year.
The Wilds is located about 28 miles from Cambridge, Ohio just off the Cambridge exit of I-70. To contact the local visitors bureau call 1-800-933-5480 or visit VisitGuernseyCounty.com