By Kayla Beckmann | Contributor

When was the last time you took a stroll around the savanna plains? Came face-to-face with a Malayan tiger? Saw an Amur leopard mother caring for her cubs? Fed a giraffe a leaf? Well, believe it or not, all of this is right in your backyard.

The Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens was founded in 1914, making it 100 years old this year. It all started with one red deer fawn and is now home to approximately 2,000 animals and 1,000 plants. The Zoo has become a regional attraction that boasts national award-winning exhibits such as Range of the Jaguar, and the recently opened impressive and unique Land of the Tiger exhibit.

Tapir Mark Sheppe

When you think of the Zoo, it’s easy to think of a fun day of leisurely viewing exotic animals. But when you pull back the curtain, you’ll realize that it’s so much more. The Jacksonville Zoo is a key player in both local and international conservation of both plant and animal species. In fact, the Zoo was involved in 39 conservation projects last year. The programs focus on native species recovery, rescue and support for threatened species in the wild.

“The Zoo supports efforts to conserve and staff assists recovery teams for Florida panthers, sea turtles, right whales, shorebirds, whooping cranes and manatees,” John Lukas, Conservation and Science manager at the Jacksonville Zoo, explained. “The Zoo has responded to the amphibian crisis by dedicating resources to an amphibian breeding facility at the Zoo. Thousands of striped newts and Puerto Rican crested toads have been bred in the ’Save the Frogs’ building and many of the offspring released into secure habitat in the wild.”

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Internationally, the Zoo supports efforts to conserve species such as bonobos, gorillas, rhinos, okapi, tapirs, jaguars, giant otters, penguins, crocodiles, lions, giraffe, Amur leopards and giant armadillos. In conjunction with the opening of Land of the Tiger exhibit, the Zoo provides support for a Wildlife Protection Unit in Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park in Sumatra, Indonesia.

“Brave men patrol the forest removing snares and arresting poachers that not only helps protect tigers but also elephants, rhinos, tapirs and many species of primates. The Zoo has a special relationship with Guyana supporting the Guyana Zoo’s efforts to rehabilitate giant otters and jaguars and other wildlife that is confiscated by the wildlife department,” Lukas said.

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The Jacksonville Zoo is showing no signs of slowing down its conservation efforts, either. Plans are in the works for a new manatee rehabilitation facility on Zoo grounds.

“There are currently only three Manatee Critical Care Centers in Florida. None are located in the species’ northern range,” Dan Maloney, deputy director of Animal Care & Conservation, said. “Animals rescued in the Jacksonville area have to be driven to Tampa, Orlando, or Miami, and transported back for release. We see a center as an important part of our regional conservation effort. We plan on building a functional, modest center, with limited public access. In the future we may build a world-class manatee exhibit at the zoo, or perhaps at a riverfront aquarium downtown.”

So yes, the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens has really cool animals and is a great place to spend the day, but the role it plays on a worldwide scale is so much larger. Want to contribute? While the zoo welcomes financial support, it also welcomes individuals who are willing to donate their time and energy. Conservation actions from guests, such as effective ways to save precious water and habitat resources, are also encouraged.

Puerto Rican Crested Toad

Zoo Facts

  • Fifty-cents of each ticket sold goes toward conservation efforts.
  • The Zoo works with captive breeding program, SEZARC, to process semen from Ali the bull African elephant. His semen is used by zoos across the country to inseminate their females. What a stud!
  • The majority of zoo animals are captive-bred. Data indicates that 82 percent of new mammals are now born in captivity, along with 64 percent of birds and a majority of reptile species. (Source: International Species Information System)