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Amelia Islander

Call of the Wild

One of northeast Florida’s best-kept secrets is a magical place called White Oak Plantation. Thirty miles north of Jacksonville on the banks of the St. Marys River, it offers more than 7,400 acres of hardwood hammocks, pine forest, and tidal wetlands. Hidden in its serene pine woods are twenty-seven species of animals, including rhino, giraffe, okapi, and cheetah.

Originally a working plantation dating back to 1768, the plantation produced timber and rice. Before the Civil War, White Oak had approximately 350 acres in rice paddy cultivation. By 1833, Zephaniah Kingsley, a pre-Civil War agricultural baron, became the plantation’s sole owner. The Gilman family purchased White Oak in 1938, and it was used for timber production, the breeding and training of horses, and as a recreational destination for the highly successful Gilman Paper Company.

In 1982, the shady, pine-wooded property with the St. Mary’s River as one of its property lines became the home of philanthropist Howard Gilman’s significant program for the conservation and propagation of threatened and endangered species. White Oak remains a world leader in protecting endangered species. Fulfilling Gilman’s vision, White Oak began to host a variety of national and international conferences in 1993 which focused on a wide variety of fields, including the arts and culture, conservation and the environment, and public policy. Visitors to White Oak have included world-renowned actors, actresses, dancers, and performers, as well as political leaders from around the world.

Today, there is a new energy at White Oak. In March 2013, White Oak was bought by Mark and Kimbra Walter. The couple are dedicated conservationists, and they have established White Oak Conservation Holdings to continue and enhance White Oak’s conservation and wildlife programs. In addition, the family wants to share White Oak and its treasures.

White Oak has always had a special mystique, and a visit there is a rare and wonderful treat. Tall, majestic pines line the well-maintained roads, which quietly lead to the most astonishing sights. In unobtrusive enclosures, animals usually only seen in the wild roam about freely, receiving the very best in animal care and protection. White Oak is well-known in the conservation and zoo communities for their rhinoceros, cheetah, antelope, and okapi (a rare giraffe relative) programs, and for their support of conservation in Africa, Asia, and the United States.

At White Oak, you will also meet a community of dedicated conservationists eager to share their knowledge and enthusiasm. Regular tours have opened the property to increasing numbers of people. One of the more exciting initiatives is the new conservation education program under the leadership of Brandon Speeg, Director of Conservation Education at White Oak. Working at a similar conservation facility in southeastern Ohio, he served as an animal specialist and was responsible for some of the most imperiled species, such as rhinoceros, antelope, cheetahs, and African painted dogs. He is an alumnus of the Emerging Wildlife Conservation Leaders program and has traveled in Southeast Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Middle East.

Speeg wants to share his passion for inspiring conservation action and is currently coordinating camp programs for children. Partnering with a Montessori school in Jacksonville, the first pilot program was initiated the summer of 2013 for seven- and eight-year-olds. Not surprisingly, it was huge success, and more camps have been added.

“White Oak is an amazing place to engage children in conservation and connect them with the plight of many of the species that share our world,” says Speeg. “Beyond the 27 species that are part of our conservation breeding programs, we also have 7,400 acres of natural Florida woodlands and wetlands to explore, because conservation most certainly starts at home.”

White Oak Plantation is alive and well and eager to share its amazing story. As the camp brochure states, the program offers “experiential conservation education in a unique 7,400-acre refuge for people, animals, and ideas.” Public tours are offered regularly, but reservations must be made in advance. For times and pricing, call (904) 225-3396. For more information on White Oak’s outreach programs, summer camps and special programs, visit and sign up for their newsletter.