Skip to main content
Original Issue


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

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

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

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.

The goal is not simply to keep a few rare creatures alive, but
also to find better methods of breeding them back to healthy
numbers. In setting aside a protected space where the animals
can safely breed, and in helping them to breed if necessary, the
center is trying to ensure that its resident marvels won't be
lost to history. For creatures such as the Arabian oryx, which
looks like a deer except for its two nearly straight horns,
breeding in captivity represents the best hope for survival as a

"Ultimately, you want to bring them back to their [homelands]
one day, but in most cases that simply isn't going to happen,"
says Conway.

In addition to breeding, abundant research takes place in this
outdoor laboratory. Tim Keith-Lucas, a professor of psychology
at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., knows the
benefits of working in such a sanctuary. Last year he and two
colleagues released five black-and-white-ruffed lemurs from
their enclosures. Based on their observations the scientists
suspect that while these lemurs are polygamous when living in
close confinement, they are monogamous when given room to roam.
If they can confirm their hypothesis, that information will be
useful should these animals be returned to Madagascar. "This is
an extremely valuable resource for primatology," says Keith-Lucas.

On the southern end of St. Catherines, lion-tailed macaques
climb freely through dense forests of live oak. Elsewhere there
are spacious aviaries. Two researchers who observed the behavior
of a dozen wattled cranes from inside a blind thought these
magnificent birds appeared bored with their confinement--not
exactly earthshaking news, but useful because the birds' range
continues to shrink.

Several threatened or endangered local creatures also take
refuge on St. Catherines: Native osprey, bald eagles, wood
storks, sandhill cranes and sea turtles are all protected and
studied on the island by experts from around the South. Recently
biologists added a group of gopher tortoises from a south
Georgia site where bulldozers stood poised to break ground for a
shopping center. Now ensconced on St. Catherines with
transmitters attached to their shells, the tortoises are
thriving while researchers track their movements with receivers.

So what's the catch to this little sliver of paradise? Just one.
Outsiders are decidedly unwelcome. The center is one of just a
handful of facilities doing this kind of work (others exist in
Florida, Virginia and Louisiana), and it can't accommodate
visitors the way zoos can. One may not land a boat on the island
except by special invitation; photographs and interviews are
discouraged; and the foundation that operates the island is
self-supporting, eliminating the need for donations or grants.

The center fears that the island would be compromised by casual
visitors. Tourism on any scale could start the ecology of St.
Catherines down a slippery slope toward the fate of other
islands that have been compromised by human disruption. There is
also the unspoken fear that poachers might get wind of the
place. "We neither wish for nor need the publicity," is how one
overseer puts it. "All it takes is one pleasure boat to begin
ruining the place."

He's right, of course, but researchers, including Keith-Lucas,
feel confident that ruin will never come, that outsiders will
continue to respect the island's particular need for privacy, as
they always have. "The [owners] have the resources to protect
the island, to keep it from becoming another Hilton Head," says
Keith-Lucas. "And they're doing a wonderful job of that."

Environmental journalist and essayist Paul Karr lives in
Portland, Maine.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY NIP ROGERS [Drawing of rare animals in landscape]

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY NIP ROGERS [Drawing of rare animals in landscape]