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A first-of-its-kind breeding center for animals takes shape on the New Orleans West Bank

Giraffes in their enclosure at the Audubon Zoo (John Snell) Giraffes in their enclosure at the Audubon Zoo (John Snell)
NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) -

Construction is well underway on a one-of-a-kind partnership between the New Orleans and San Diego zoos to breed animals at a remote facility on the West Bank of New Orleans.

The Alliance for Sustainable Wildlife aims to increase zoo populations of some species that can be difficult for zoos to obtain, including some that are critically endangered in the wild.

"We were looking at animals that really needed help, needed more breeding, needed more animals in zoos," said Michelle Hatwood, curator at the Audubon Species Survival Center.  

Nearly two years after announcing the partnership, the Audubon Nature Institute and the San Diego Zoo Global have begun construction on phase one, including large enclosures of giraffe and okapi.

The okapi, a rare forest creature from central Africa, looks like a cross between a horse and zebra, but genetically is a closer relative of the giraffe.  

"We're focusing on species whose populations aren't sustainable, or where we want them to be, in zoos across North America," said Joel Hamilton, General Curator of the Audubon Nature Institute.

The partnership does not specifically target species whose numbers are falling in the wild, but "the two often go together," Hamilton said.

The alliance also takes advantage of a site on the Algiers Lower Coast that Audubon leases from the Coast Guard, an 1,100 acre wooded area that hugs the Mississippi River.

Construction is about 50 percent complete on phase one, which includes large concrete barns.

However, curators say the animals will spend most of the time roaming large paddocks, including a 43 acre site for giraffe.

"The zoo itself here on Magazine Street is 54 acres," Hamilton said.  "So, it's almost the size of the zoo itself."

The San Diego Zoo Global has experienced success breeding animals at its sprawling 900-acre Safari Park about 30 miles north of the famous downtown zoo.

Given room to roam, animals in larger herds behave more as they would in the wild than in a typical zoo.

Unlike the Safari Park, the Alliance for Sustainable Wildlife will not be open to the public.

However, animals bred there would be displayed at the two zoos and could be shared with other facilities around the country.

Curators say a healthy population of a given species requires 250 to 300 animals across all the zoos of North America.  Some species number barely half that.

At the moment, the only resident on site is a blue-billed curassow, a large bird native to Central America that is threatened in the wild.  It is being housed in a temporary enclosure.

The Audubon Nature Institute estimates the large, hoofed animals should begin moving into their enclosures around May of next year.

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