Sure, a huge lion marauds the streets of Charleston in some of the advertisements for the 34th Southeastern Wildlife Exposition. But if I were you, I’d keep an eye out for the snakes.
When the 2016 presentation of some 200 hunting, outdoors, wildlife and conservation spectacles and exhibits takes place Friday through Sunday, what will be carousing the streets are tens of thousands of attendees. The usual downtown life — such as hotel rooms, parking or dinner reservations — will be harder to find.
SEWE is a highball of high-brow art galas and hunting animal showmanship with an undercurrent of conservation education. It draws anywhere from 35,000 to 45,000 people per year, who pop from $30 to $60 million per year into the local, winter tourism economy, according to SEWE.
Some events are pricey. But others are at little cost beyond an admission ticket.
And there might well be a wild cat. “Jungle Jack” Hanna, the vaunted animal guru, is a staple who occasionally startles attendees walking by with something like a puma or a white snow leopard, but it’s on a chain. The DockDogs retriever competition at Brittlebank Park is always a crowd pleaser. Tactile artistry like bronze animal sculptures captivate.
But among the featured critters this year will be a serpentine, dark-as-midnight slitherer that is the largest nonvenomous native American snake, the Eastern indigo. It’s one of a number of reptiles that will accompany staff of the Orianne Society, a Georgia-based group working to conserve reptile and amphibian species — any number of which are threatened or endangered — by conserving habitat for them.
The society has exhibited at SEWE before, but is a featured presenter for the first time. Why attend?
“It’s not every day you get to hold some of the most endangered species in the United States,” said Heidi Hall, development director.
Also making an appearance with the society will be a gopher tortoise, turtles, small snakes and, oh, an Eastern diamondback rattlesnake — the 6-feet-long, thick-as-your-arm venomous animal that kills nearly half the people who are severely bitten.
Got the pulse racing? Well, the native Lowcountry species is actually reclusive and relatively docile. Diamondbacks are in decline, and they are an alpha predator, a “flagship” species of the longleaf savannah. The savannah is healthy so long as they are around.
The exposition also features birds of prey exhibit flights by the Center for Avian Conservation in Awendaw and a Caw Caw wilderness tour. Demonstrations include fine cooking, fly fishing and retriever dogs, lectures such as “Whitetail Oddities” and stuff for the kids such as cast net demonstrations and an anti-litter puppet show.
Then there’s the wildlife art by world-renowned names such as Stefan Savides, John Banovich and Greg Beecham. Don’t overlook the fine crafts exhibits; table after table of custom work largely by regional artisans, items like carved canoe paddles and duck calls, exquisite iron fire kettles, jewelry, Damascus steel knives, some of it rare and costly, some of it not. All of it as extraordinary as it is useful.
It’s enough of a extravaganza that Orianne Society staff was thrilled to learn it will be among the featured presenters, Hall said.
Just don’t bother about the big lion. It turns up on the streets only in the ads, like the gargantuan bear and the footloose elephant.
“We wanted the advertising to show, ‘SEWE takes over Charleston,’” said Mary Roberts, marketing director. Having an actual lion run loose “would be so cool, but I don’t think they could ever allow that in the Gaillard.”
Reach Bo Petersen at 843-937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.