Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

REMOVING THE CLOAK ON WHITE OAK; the Public Profile of the Famously Private Plantation in Nassau County Is Getting a Boost

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

REMOVING THE CLOAK ON WHITE OAK; the Public Profile of the Famously Private Plantation in Nassau County Is Getting a Boost

Article excerpt

Byline: JUDY WELLS

YULEE -- Dancers refine their movements after watching wild animals. Zoologists see their wards' actions in a new light. And both benefit from the unique encounters available at White Oak Plantation, a haven for creative artists, endangered animals and conservation and corporate retreats in a most unlikely locale, Yulee.

The late Howard Gilman began building White Oak Plantation in 1977 as a private preserve where he raised wild animals and entertained friends. Over the years, dancers, artists and other famous people stayed there and used the pool, yacht club, stables, 9-hole golf course and studios. Most area residents have known little more than that about the 7,000-acre enclave on the St. Marys River in Yulee, but that is changing.

White Oak is opening its gates today, inviting a limited number of animal and music lovers in to see the 600-acre White Oak Conservation Center, to hear actress Isabella Rossellini perform The Carnival of the Animals with the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra and to wine and dine at the Riverside Pavilion.

The performance is part of a drive to raise awareness -- and money -- for Gilman International Conservation, the non-profit organization funding the projects of the center and its international partners.

"It's a friend-raising as much as a fund-raising," John Lukas, general director of White Oak and president of Gilman International Conservation, said of the inaugural event.

The organization, which has been raising more than $1 million a year internationally for research and training, is increasing its public profile to drum up support for White Oak and the work of conservation partners such as the International Rhino Foundation (of which Lukas is president), the Cheetah Conservation Fund in Namibia, Wildlife Conservation Network and the Conservation Breeding and Specialist Group. About 95 percent of the money raised through donations goes directly into conservation projects.

"It was a private place for a long time," said Lukas. "Our goal is to have more and more public support for the programs and building an endowment."

White Oak is neither a zoo nor a tourist attraction. Many of the endangered species in residence wouldn't reproduce if it were. Tours are limited and organized to protect the privacy of the animals. Supporters who become Gilman International Conservation members are offered tour opportunities during the year.

"You'll learn about all the conservation programs we're involved with; you'll get a real educational experience," said Lukas.

Animal life is not limited to rhinos, giraffes, okapis, cassowaries, cheetahs, bongos and panthers. White Oak also nourishes the human animal. Gilman was an art lover and his practice of sharing his plantation with dance and theater companies, writers and artists continues. …

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