A baby boom comes to the Audubon Institute West Bank facility

A unique partnership with the San Diego Zoo breeds animals whose numbers are dwindling in the wild
Updated: May. 8, 2019 at 9:51 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Michelle Hatwood trudges through a wooded area of Algiers in search of an elusive creature.

Somewhere here, the newest mother at the Audubon Species Survival Center hides her week-old baby. After about a 20-minute search, the Audubon Institute curator discovers the two sitatunga, a species of African antelope.

“Normally, when we have a brand new baby, we try to catch it when it’s two days old," Hatwood said. "We do a full health check on the baby. We also are able to know what sex it is. Is it a boy or a girl?”

That answer had to wait since the mother sitatunga was hiding her baby so well.

Despite its shy nature, the sitatunga probably feels right at home in this wooded, somewhat swampy area along the Mississippi River near the Orleans-Plaquemines Parish line.

“The sitatunga’s really exciting to me because they are a swamp-loving antelope species,” Hatwood said.

The newborn is the latest addition to a first-of-its-kind partnership between the Audubon Nature Institute and the San Diego Zoo Global, dubbed the “Alliance for Sustainable Wildlife.”

The ASW occupies 425 acres of a 1,200-acre site that Audubon leases from the U.S. Coast Guard, allowing animals to roam in large enclosures that would be the envy of most zoos.

The giraffe enclosure alone encompasses about 40 acres, or roughly the size of the entire Audubon Zoo. That places animals in more nature settings in an effort to help populate North America zoos, emphasizing species that are struggling in the wild.

Hatwood argued that providing a sort of insurance population makes sense, even for species such as the sitatunga that are not struggling today.

"A lot of conservationists would say, it might not be threatened now. Or, it’s not threatened yet,” she said.

Since its opening nearly two years, the ASW has fostered a baby boom that includes five giraffes, three sable antelope, five eland, six bongo, one yellow-backed duiker and the sitatunga.

“We need to send them to other zoos around the country to help spread that genetics," Hatwood said. "So they can find their own homes and their own herds.”

Last month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service took the first step toward adding giraffes to the Endangered Species List, a designation that could potentially bar the importation of hunting trophies or giraffe body parts.

Considered stable only a couple of decades ago, conservation groups say giraffe populations have plummeted about 40 percent in the wild since 1985.

“The idea of this large, charismatic creature disappearing, it’s kind of befuddling to a lot of people,” Hatwood said, "but it’s happening.”

Conservation groups blame hunting and the loss of habitat for the giraffe’s struggles.

While the focus here is on populating North America zoos, some of the animals at the Survival Center will go into the wild.

Audubon is one of a handful of facilities around the country raising endangered cranes, the Mississippi sandhill crane and the whooping crane.

“We do have whooping cranes currently in Louisiana that are only there because of programs like we’re doing, where they’re raised in captivity and released back into the wild,” said Heather Holtz, a crane keeper.

The first two of this year’s whooping crane chicks hatched Wednesday morning.

An hours-old whooping crane gets its first checkup at the Audubon Species Survival Center
An hours-old whooping crane gets its first checkup at the Audubon Species Survival Center(John Snell)

The facility also houses a sort of hospital and rehab center for marine life.

Currently, staff members are nursing back to health a highly endangered Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle and two green sea turtles, one of which encountered a boat propeller.

“We see a lot of boat strikes and hooked, incidental capture,” said Gabriella Harlamert, the Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Stranding Coordinator.

Given the number of species struggling in the wild, staff members say the work is rewarding.

“Every day I get to work with these amazing animals,” Hatwood said, "and very few people get to do that, and that’s very exciting to me.”

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