On a secluded island off the Georgia coast, the rarest of wild things thrive. As one navigates one of the marsh rivers that flow from the wet, grassy mainland to the barrier islands on the Atlantic, suddenly, astonishingly, a white-columned house comes into view. It is a breathtaking sight, but there is still no hint that this island conceals a strange garden of unearthly delights.
And then, from down a narrow saltwater cut, behind a moss-covered fence, comes a glimpse of something primeval—a pair of spiraling addax horns thrust toward the sky, perhaps, or the graceful wing of a rare African crane. One has caught the special flavor of St. Catherines Island, the unlikely stage for some of this nation's most important and interesting wildlife research.
Here, in a series of large paddocks and aviaries, lives a menagerie of unusual creatures from isolated savannas, marshes and shallow lakes in the interior of Africa, along with other creatures rescued from tropical forests in South America. The complex is the St. Catherines Wildlife Survival Center, and it might be the only place in the world that is not a zoo where you can find imperiled parrots, zebras, tortoises, hartebeests and oryx living together: a kind of Garden of Eden, a last refuge for mammals, birds and reptiles occupying that tenuous ledge between scarcity and extinction.
"The habitat itself is in prime condition, a beautifully protected maritime forest," says Mallory Pearce, a wildlife illustrator and art teacher at Armstrong State College in Savannah who toured the island in 1992. "The bluffs are unusual for the Georgia coast. You actually have to look up to see them. And to see lion-tailed macaques coming at us out of the live oak branches was quite impressive. For a moment you asked yourself, Is this Asia or Georgia?"
The island would be striking even without such exotic residents. Similar in size and shape to a Manhattan that had fattened up around the belt, St. Catherines is an idyllic setting for many kinds of wildlife: shrouded in humidity and pocked by marshes and thick tangles of subtropical foliage. The island also has been the site of a memorable string of human events. Following thousands of years of Native American occupation, it was home to a 16th-century Spanish mission unearthed by researchers in 1982; an English-Creek Indian woman, Mary Musgrove, who in 1759 defiantly reclaimed the island from the British, who had controlled it for 79 years; plantation owner Button Gwinnett, who signed the Declaration of Independence; and Tunis Campbell, an African-American politician, who with the U.S. government's blessing, became the leader of a republic for freed slaves on the island.
After Campbell declared that no whites would be permitted on the island, he was driven off by federal troops in 1867. Next it had a series of private owners, the last of whom began the tradition of importing animals. Edward Noble, a philanthropist who made his fortune by converting Life Savers packaging from paper rolls to stay-fresh foil ones in 1914, purchased the island in 1943 and tried raising Black Angus cattle for a while in fields where cotton previously had been cultivated.
After Noble died, in 1958, the foundation that had been established to continue his philanthropic work, in conjunction with the New York Zoological Society and the American Museum of Natural History, turned Noble's former island home into a research and breeding station to preserve rare mammals and birds that couldn't tolerate New York's harsh winters.
"We had been looking for a place to propagate animals in a favorable climate for many years," says William Conway, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society. "The island has some special benefits. Among those are that being an island, it gives a great deal of security to the animals, and it has a mild climate."
By 1974 the Noble Foundation and the New York Zoological Society had combined their efforts to build paddocks to enclose the former pastures and agricultural fields, and had transported a first group of gemsbok to the island by ferry. Since then the immigrants have included elusive lemurs, Grevy's zebras and more antelopes, gazelles and cranes than the average zoologist could shake a stick at. The animals have come primarily from the best-stocked zoos in the U.S.; those of Atlanta, Baltimore, St. Louis, San Diego and the Bronx have all contributed at one time or another.
It has been estimated that it costs at least a half-million dollars a year to run the island facility, where caretakers must fight disease, misfortune and the elements. Some of the imported animals are fenced off in paddocks, but accidents still happen. One lemur was eaten by an alligator, and another perished beneath truck tires. Then there are the vagaries of weather. Last summer was exceptionally hot and moist, as trade winds and tropical storms brought heavy rains followed by severe dry spells. In a bad winter the preserve's curator and manager must be careful to see that the free-ranging animals get enough food.