A baby boom comes to the Audubon Nature Institute west bank facility

Partnership between New Orleans and San Diego zoo organizations breeds endangered species.
Published: Feb. 24, 2022 at 10:45 PM CST
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - While “Asili” looks like a cross between a horse and a zebra, she is actually a pregnant okapi, an endangered species native to Central Africa.

“It’s a very big deal” in the zoo world, according to Michelle Hatwood, General Curator at the Audubon Nature Institute’s Species Survival Center in Algiers.

“Sometimes we call okapi the giant pandas of the hoofed-stock world.”

The animals in this facility straddling the Mississippi River live on a 1,200 acre site that Audubon leases from the U.S. Coast Guard.

“The entire okapi complex is 26 acres,” Hatwood said.

Michelle Hatwood, general curator of the Audubon Species Survival Center, with an okapi
Michelle Hatwood, general curator of the Audubon Species Survival Center, with an okapi(WVUE)

During a recent visit there, Asili was kept in a smaller enclosure in order for curators to keep a close eye on the first-time mom.

“She’s doing great, she’s huge,” Hatwood said. “She’s already a big female, so now she’s got this big belly on her.”

Several years ago, Audubon teamed up with the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance in a partnership to take advantage of all the space here, allowing animals to roam in more natural surroundings.

The alliance has produced 52 mammals from eight different species and 83 birds from six species, according to Hatwood.

That includes the highly-endangered eastern bongo, native to Central Africa.

“Habitat loss is a big problem for them,” Hatwood said. “Also, hunting in the past.”

While the primary aim remains to breed animals for zoo populations, zoo conservation programs have re-established bongo populations in the wild.

“We do take a very direct conservation approach with some species,” Hatwood said.

For example, whooping cranes went extinct in Louisiana several decades ago.

Audubon is helping to re-establish the whooping crane population in wildlife areas near Lake Charles and a subspecies of sandhill crane at a refuge in Mississippi.

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