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Despite some success stories, animal experts fret over possible mass extinction

Mike the Tiger in his enclosure on the LSU campus (John Snell) Mike the Tiger in his enclosure on the LSU campus (John Snell)
NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - On a cold January morning, LSU's Mike the Tiger puts on a show for onlookers, darting around his enclosure, swimming in his small pool and bear-hugging a log.

Mike, usually a bit on the sedentary side, entertained the lunch-hour crowd. Dr. David Baker, the LSU veterinarian in charge of Mike, explained the Siberian side of this Bengal and Siberian Tiger was coming out in the winter air. At 9-and-a-half years old, Mike would be past his prime were he in the wild.

"Mike is in excellent condition," Baker said. "A lot of the conditions that animals in the wild have to deal with, he just doesn't have to deal with."

In fact, the perils of life in the wild continue to take a toll on the world's remaining tigers. The World Wildlife Fund estimates only 2,500 Bengal and 500 Siberian tigers remain in the wild. Scientists fear the tiger is just part of a much larger story of coming mass extinctions.

Five times in the earth's history, large numbers of species vanished practically simultaneously or within a short period of time.

"The sixth extinction is a concern across the globe," said Joel Hamilton, general curator of the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans.

Many scientists fear that with the alarming population declines, the earth is on the verge of the largest extinction since the dinosaurs disappeared 65 million years ago.

In Louisiana, 29 species of animals are listed as threatened or endangered, from the Louisiana Black Bear to the Kemp's ridley sea turtle.

"With habitat destruction, with hunting, with other issues that are happening around the world right now, we're losing some of the most valuable species," said Ron Forman, Audubon Institute CEO.

Consider the story of African elephants being slaughtered in mass numbers for their tusks.

"The ivory trade is having a huge impact on that species," Hamilton said. "It's just unprecedented impact over time."

The population has plummeted from an estimate 1.2 million 12 or 15 years ago to just 400,000 today. Human populations encroach on the habitats of creatures who, by nature, need space. A tiger, for example, might travel 20 miles at night in search of prey.

By the year 2050, the world population of humans is estimated to hit nine million, a lightning-fast growth rate that will require huge amounts of land to cultivate crops. To feed all those hungry mouths, the World Wildlife Fund estimates man will need to grow as much food in the next 40 years as he has in the last 8,000.

"Production of food is a huge challenge for us as far as conserving species," Hamilton said.

The issue of mass extinction has forced zoos to rethink their missions.

"Zoos in the world have changed dramatically over the years," Forman said. "It used to be a menagerie, a collection of animals, put them in cages. We come completely opposite now."

One critical issue involves how to sustain the populations of animals, not just in the wild, but in zoos.

"We have these great programs on paper," said Hamilton. "The animals don't always do what we say they should do on paper."

The Audubon Nature Institute is partnering with the San Diego Zoo in hopes of ensuring animals are available down the road. The Alliance for Sustainable Wildlife aims to take advantage of 1,000 acres of Audubon's land on the west bank of New Orleans, providing a haven for more than two dozen endangered and threatened mammal and bird species.

"We're bringing together herds of these species, putting them loose into larger paddocks so that, hopefully, the herd dynamics will improve the reproductivity rates," Hamilton said.

There are some success stories, including the American bald eagle. Once on the verge of extinction with an estimated 500 nesting pairs in the lower 48 states, the population has come roaring back. Today, Louisiana ranks as one of the hot spots in the South for the nation's symbol, with 300 nesting pairs, according to a 2007 count for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Anecdotally, the estimate would seem low today as eagle nests have sprouted along the I-10 over the Bonnet Carre Spillway west of New Orleans - and even in Algiers, practically in the heart of the city.

Thanks to alligator ranching, that iconic Louisiana creature is no longer endangered, with population estimates approaching three million.

"We have a very successful program," said John Price, owner of the Insta-Gator Ranch near Covington. "We really don't want to have a lot more alligators in the wild."

Long-term trends are not so rosy for other species, including the tigers.

"It's pretty tough out there in the wild," Dr. Baker said.

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