2 zoos, 1 big breeding ground for antelope, birds

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Two of the nation's top zoos are creating a home where endangered antelope can roam and help repopulate their species on 1,000 acres near the Mississippi River on New Orleans' west bank.

More than two dozen species of hoofed animals and birds, about half of them endangered, vulnerable or near threatened, are being considered for the breeding facility planned by the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy and New Orleans' Audubon Nature Institute.

"If two great zoos like San Diego and Audubon are going to team up" to breed endangered species, "the birds are certainly going to benefit. And the animals," said Kenneth Rosenberg, a senior researcher in the conservation science department at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, which is not part of the new Alliance for Sustainable Wildlife.

The more common animals matter, too, said Steve Shurter, director of White Oak Conservation Center in Jacksonville, Fla. "Breeding centers are very, very important resources to zoos. It's not that easy to source animals for collections," he said. "And zoos have a very, very important role to play introducing people to wild animals and the importance of conserving them."

Okapi - the only living relatives of giraffes, with a white, giraffe-like head but a much shorter neck and zebra-like stripes on their legs and haunches - are among the animals being considered. They are listed as near threatened.

White Oak and the San Diego Zoo have partnered for a quarter-century on the Okapi Conservation Project, using the animals to help conserve the Congolese rain forest where they live, Shurter said.

Antelope under consideration range from bongo, which are large, reddish-brown forest antelopes with white stripes and long horns, to scimitar-horned oryx, which are extinct in the wild, and endangered Speke's gazelles - among the smallest of their kind, up to 2 feet high at the shoulder and 40 pounds.

They all need lots of space for herds - something most zoos don't have, said Steve Feldman, spokesman for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. In general, zoos and other conservation groups try to breed pairs likely to have the best genetic match, he said.

"But that two-by-two approach doesn't always work. Sometimes it's better to put more animals together and sort of let them pick," he said. Birds will include the endangered whooping and Mississippi sandhill cranes already at Audubon, with vulnerable wattled cranes and Dalmatian pelicans among species under consideration.

Ron Forman, president of the Audubon Nature Institute, said the Alliance for Sustainable Wildlife will use most of the 1,400 acres at the Audubon Species Survival Center, where scientists began breeding endangered cranes, hoofed animals and cats in 1996.

At least in the early stages, the birds will get a total of 10 acres while each kind of hoofed stock gets 15- to 50-acre enclosures, said Robert J. "Bob" Wiese, chief life sciences officer at San Diego Global. "The idea is, since we have all this space, let the antelope be antelope. Have the herds acting like herds."

Colonial bird species such as milky storks and lesser flamingos would live in flocks, while others may be paired in a series of neighboring breeding pens, he said. Wiese and Forman said the project evolved from the zoo association's work to get sustainable populations of various species. It will help decide which birds and animals most need the space, Wiese said.

Forman said Audubon has put more than $30 million into the facility and expects to spend another $10 million and more on new pens and paddocks, with the two zoos sharing operating costs. Construction should start by the end of the year and continue into 2018, with animals moving into the first enclosures next year, he said.

Both Audubon and San Diego have worked with artificial insemination and freezing sperm and eggs.

Audubon also has cloned cats, used frozen gametes in test-tube fertilization and implanted fetuses created in the lab into a female of a related but more common species.

"The breeding programs under the Alliance of Sustainable Wildlife are not expected to need any artificial mechanisms for breeding," Christina Simmons, spokeswoman for San Diego Global, said in an email. "The whole point of setting up the center is to have the space to allow for the large herds and flocks that these species (that) need to have normal social systems and natural breeding behaviors."