Antelope, other endangered animals to roam West Bank

Common eland, a rare type of antelope, graze at the Audubon Species Survival Center
Common eland, a rare type of antelope, graze at the Audubon Species Survival Center

New Orleans, La. -- San Diego and New Orleans already boast two of America's great zoos. Now they are teaming up in an unprecedented effort to help save endangered species.

Executives from the Audubon Species Survival Center and San Diego Zoo Global have signed an agreement to create one of the country's largest animal breeding sites.

On the Algiers Lower Coast, near the Plaquemines Parish line, the partnership will utilize the 1,000-acre Audubon Species Survival Center.

"What we're finding is we don't have enough land in our zoos and aquariums to do what we really need to do," said Ron Forman, CEO of the Audubon Nature Institute.

The idea dates back several years, when San Diego's acclaimed zoo crafted an ambitious plan for breeding some of the rarest and most endangered creatures on earth.

What San Diego lacked, New Orleans had in abundance: land.  Staffers there went looking for a partner.

"We started talking about it and the first ones to step forward with the capability was New Orleans," said Rick Gulley, chairman of the Zoological Society of San Diego.

The two facilities will share experts and both will contribute animals, some of which are already present at the Algiers facility.  Audubon, for example, has played a critical role in adding to the wild population of Mississippi Sandhill Crane.  San Diego will bring the highly endangered Okapi, a sort of cross between a zebra and a giraffe.

Zoos have been teaming up through breeding programs for 30 years, often producing only one or two babies at a time. The New Orleans-San Diego partnership aims to bring the concept to a much larger scale.

Forman calls it almost "Jurassic Park-like," with animals living in 25- or 30-acre pens.

Robert Wiese, chief life sciences officer at San Diego Zoo Global, envisions antelope roaming free and herds of giraffes.

While many animals do just fine in small pens, others have trouble breeding in captivity.

The hope is that, in free, open spaces, males would be more likely to compete for females and nature would take its course.

Forman sees the effort as a model for zoos and aquariums across the country.

"The conservation and wildlife doesn't belong to us, but to our kids and our grand kids," Forman said.