Audubon and San Diego Zoos team up to breed endangered species

Audubon and San Diego Zoos team up to breed endangered species
Published: Feb. 26, 2016 at 2:18 AM CST
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As zoo giraffes go, six-month-old Yamikani is luckier than most.

She enjoys room to roam at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, a sprawling  facility 30 miles north of the downtown San Diego Zoo.

"The ambiance is much different and it's more like you're living with the animals here as opposed to just visiting them," said zoo visitor Kathy Opila.

"It's as close as you're going to get to being in the wild, I think," said Steve Gerhart moments after taking a two-hour "safari tour" through the park.

First envisioned as a breeding facility, the park-- 30 miles north of the downtown San Diego Zoo-- opened to visitors in 1972.

Many of the species here struggle in the wild as man encroaches on their habitat and poaching decimates their numbers.

"It's really quite striking," said Randy Rieches, Curator of Mammals at the San Diego Zoo.  "Giraffe populations 20 years ago were still stable.  Now, giraffe are being hunted for meat and for other bi-products."

In a first-of-its-kind partnership, the San Diego Zoo Global is teaming up with the Audubon Institute to breed some of the world's endangered animals and add to struggling zoo populations in the process.

"The populations can't withstand that take for very long," said Robert Wiese, Chief Life Sciences Officers for San Diego Zoo Global.

Declining populations in the wild present new challenges for zoos.

While curators say a healthy population of a given species generally requires 250 to 300 animals across all the zoos of North America, some species number barely half that.

"We have a lot of wildlife that we knew we needed to find homes for to create sustainable populations," Rieches said.

The Safari Park stretches over 1800 acres, including 900 acres not open to the public and preserved for native California animals.  Despite all that space, San Diego turned to New Orleans for land.

In Algiers, not far from English Turn, an area of mostly undisturbed woods holds the Audubon Species Survival Center.

There, Audubon and San Diego plan to breed species and share their offspring.

"Most of the animals that we have selected for this are forest edge or deep forest animals," said Joel Hamilton, Vice President and General Curator at the Audubon Zoo.  "This is the kind of habitat they like to live in."

San Diego, Audubon and other zoos find themselves cramped for space partly because of the changing nature of zoos.

"They're building larger exhibits," Rieches said.  "So, that only allows them to exhibit a smaller number of species because the exhibits get larger."

New Orleans followed that trend with the recent opening of the roomier orangutan exhibit.  The adjacent elephant home opening later this year takes up one acre, ten times larger than the old one.

The differing climates of the two zoos also play a role in the partnership.

The Safari Park sits on the outskirts of the California desert, its arid conditions quite a contrast to the heat, humidity and annual rainfall totals in New Orleans.

"We have the complete opposite," said Michelle Hatwood, Animal Curator at the Species Survival Center.  "We're going to fill a niche that they have a more difficult time filling there."

While most people think of giraffes as plains animals, Hamilton said, "the reality is they eat leaves off trees in nature.  They're really a forest-edge animal."

The partnership, called "The Alliance for Sustainable Wildlife," has taken a bit longer to launch than expected when  the two zoos announced it amid much fanfare two years ago.

An Audubon spokesperson explained environmental review and permitting took time.

The zoos are in the process of reviewing bids for the construction of barns and support facilities with construction anticipated to start by May and the first animals moving into large gated paddocks in early 2017.

In reality, there is not much to build.

"With this collaboration, we're going to have 25 acres, 50 acre paddocks," Wiese said.  "So, they can act more like herds."

That is meant to be a departure from the elaborate plans zoos normally devise to breed species, pairing individual animals like an arranged marriage.

Hamilton said zoos analyze the genetics of the population, "and place animal A with animal B and we bring them together and we hope that they produce offspring" for the future sustainability of zoo populations.

"They don't always do that," Hamilton said.  "They don't always read the manual."

While animals matched up in a zoo often have no love connection, large groups of animals in a larger habitat tend to mimic how they act in nature.

"The giraffe exhibit alone is 46 acres, which is roughly the size of our zoo here in New Orleans," Hamilton said.

The plans eventually envision as many as 40 species, but the zoos will start with 8 species of large hoofed animals: giraffe; okapi; bongo antelope; eland; bontebok; red lechwe; sitatunga and yellow-back duiker.

"Really, the species that we're all looking forward to is the okapi, which is a relative of giraffe," Hamilton said.

The okapi, which looks like a cross between a giraffe and a zebra, is native to the central forests of Africa.

Highly endangered and extremely shy, the okapi might one day be on display at the Audubon Zoo. However, the Algiers site will not be open to the general public.

"People that work with the Okapi in Africa in the conservation program there sometimes work years and years and never see an Okapi in the wild because they live in such a dense forest," Hatwood said.

Phases two and three could involve hippos or endangered birds.