Audubon and San Diego Zoo ally for Wildlife
“Habitat around the world is being destroyed and we have a road to change that.” - Ron Forman.
The Audubon Nature Institute and San Diego Zoo Global on Tuesday morning announced a groundbreaking partnership, called the Alliance for Sustainable Wildlife, that could help rebuild threatened species for generations to come. The partnership's 1,000-acre breeding site in Algiers, which will be one of the largest in the United States, is based on the model that certain animals will more easily breed, and will breed with more genetic diversity, when they can roam in large herds or flocks.
"Habitat around the world is being destroyed and we have a road to change that," said Audubon President and CEO Ron Forman. "This is a model for zoos in the future, as we hope other zoos will join in similar collaboration efforts."
Threatened animals such as the Mississippi Sandhill crane, African eland and bongos already call the research center home. Masai giraffes, okapis, cranes, pelicans and sable and roan antelopes will be some of the first to take up residence.
Tucked away in the dense, hardwood forest in lower coast Algiers along the Mississippi River that some compare to Jurassic Park, the Freeport-McMoRan Audubon Species Survival Center originally opened in 1993 and Audubon already has put about $30 million into its development. Forman said San Diego Zoo Global will put in another $10 million over the next 5 years for more capital improvements. Audubon and the San Diego Zoo Global will share operating costs.
Forman said he expects to hire up to 100 new employees in the next five years to help run the refuge. Construction, slated to begin this fall, will include building two 50-acre enclosures and eight 25-acre enclosures, with some enclosures possibly housing multiple species.
New breeding programs are slated to begin in 2014. While the general public will not be able to visit the refuge, it is likely universities will be given access and eventually classroom field trips might be offered, Forman said.
For the last 15 years or so, the Audubon Center for the Research of Endangered Species, or ACRES, has been the main facility on the 1,000-ace tract, with its mission to specialize in assisted reproductive technology.
Some of ACRES achievements have been the birth of an African wildcat born as a result of an embryo transfer to a domestic cat, cloned caracal kittens and the birth of a fluorescent cat.
Since 2003, the center also has worked to help rebuild the population of whooping cranes by producing fertile eggs. The ACRES program has produced about 15 fertile eggs that have hatched, according to Megan Savoir, the Audubon crane program coordinator. In 2011, there were only about 570 whooping cranes worldwide.
While zoos and aquariums around the nation often work together to help repopulate just one species, such as the Smithsonian's work with cheetahs, the partnership between Audubon and San Diego marks the first time two organizations are tackling conservation on such a broad scope, according to Bob Wiese, chief life sciences officer of the San Diego Zoo Global. While large-scale breeding programs do exist, such the Fossil Rim Wildlife Center in Texas, they are run by only one institution, as opposed to an alliance.
"It's history being made," said Doug Myers, president of San Diego Zoo Global. "We think this is the right thing to do, we think these are the right people to do it with, and so we think we can do this right."
Rick Gulley, a New Orleans native who is Chairman of the Board of the Zoological Society of San Diego, explained that "animals that live in herds or flocks, by their very nature need to roam, roam to form large social groups, and roam to breed."
Wiese added that larger groups of animals - and the large space needed to house such large groups - also allow for more genetic diversity in the species which also can lead to more sustainable populations. He added that it also lets animals pick their own mates, and could provide them with the skills needed if they were ever released back into the wild.
"We can't wait until it is tool late, or nearly to late, to rescue these animals," said Jim Maddy, the president of the nonprofit Association of Zoos & Aquariums. "We need robust populations... and adequate levels of genetic diversity within these populations to maintain the viable continuation of these species."
"We have to do these kind of things, and we have to do it together, cooperatively," Maddy added.
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