Living and breeding in Algiers at ‘Jurassic Park-like’ facility

Advocate staff photo by SCOTT THRELKELD --  Common eland, photographed Saturday  at the Freeport-McMoRan Audubon Species Survival Center in New Orleans.The center will figure in a new partnership between Audubon Nature Institute and San Diego Zoo Global.
Advocate staff photo by SCOTT THRELKELD -- Common eland, photographed Saturday at the Freeport-McMoRan Audubon Species Survival Center in New Orleans.The center will figure in a new partnership between Audubon Nature Institute and San Diego Zoo Global.

Audubon  Nature Institute,  San Diego Zoo Global  form partnership

Over the next five years, some of the world’s most exotic and endangered animals will begin to populate the lower coast of Algiers, where the Audubon Nature Institute and the San Diego Zoo Global are partnering to create a habitat that will ensure the survival of animal populations facing extinction.

Just 15 miles south of New Orleans sits a wild and largely undeveloped 1,200 acres of land nestled in the elbow of a sharp curve in the Mississippi River. Rivaling the human diversity to the north, okapis, bongos and Masai giraffes will be among two dozen rare or endangered mammal and bird species to begin populating and breeding at the West Bank property under the newly created Alliance for Sustainable Wildlife.

Jim Maddy, president and CEO of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, said the partnership between Audubon and San Diego is a win-win — Audubon has the space, and San Diego has the money and the animals.

Ron Forman, president and CEO of the Audubon Nature Institute, said combining the scientists and research already taking place at the two organizations will provide an exciting opportunity to advance science and prevent extinction.

“This groundbreaking partnership between the San Diego Zoo and Audubon Nature Institute will allow us to establish a one-of-a-kind resource for zoos and aquariums to rebuild animal collections that are in danger of disappearing,’’ Forman said in a news release. “By joining forces on this project, we will put to work our shared expertise in assisted reproduction techniques and behavioral sciences to develop breeding and husbandry protocol that ensure long-term success.’’

Maddy said preserving species isn’t always as easy as bringing the animals “two by two” on the ark, as stated in the Old Testament. Sometimes it does work to put a male and female together and “they’ll do the rest,” Maddy said. But sometimes it doesn’t, and creatures need to self-select their mates, with more of a “20 by 20” ark approach required, he said.

“The primary goal is to increase the sustainability of select species and increase the likelihood of their persistence in the future,” said Dr. Robert Wiese, chief life sciences officer for San Diego Zoo Global.

Forman said that they will begin building a new phase each year for five years as they construct paddocks ranging from 25 to 100 acres. The breeding programs will begin in early 2014 when the first animals arrive, he said. The animals will be matched with a home as close to their natural habitat as possible, whether putting them in the wooded areas or parts of the property that more closely match grasslands. Wiese said many of the first animals to arrive will be native to Africa.

The relatively moderate climate is also ideal and lends itself a number of different species, Wiese said.

“It’s a hugely collaborative community,” Wiese said of the nation’s zoos. Unlike other competing industries that guard their secrets, the community works together to solve issues, through efforts such as exchanging animals to promote genetic diversity. The community has one focus — the animals, Wiese said.

The new partnership is unique and filled with potential to not only to build populations but also to make scientific breakthroughs through the collaboration of research, Wiese said.

It’s the “human component,” and “the talent that comes with the partnership that makes the biggest difference,” Maddy said.

Innovative and ambitious research has been taking place on the land since Audubon acquired it for the Freeport-McMoRan Audubon Species Survival Center in 1990. The land is owned by the federal government and a small portion is used by the U.S. Coast Guard, with whom Audubon has a long-term lease to use the property.

The Center for Research of Endangered Species opened in 1996 on the grounds, adding a high tech lab for working in assisted reproductive technology. From cloning cats to safeguarding genetics in a “frozen zoo” in which about 175 vanishing species are represented, scientists have been working on studies in reproductive physiology, endocrinology, genetics, and embryo transfer. The stated mission is to “accelerate reproduction and preserve the earth’s genetic heritage.”

Forman calls the center “Jurassic Park-like,” with scientists in white lab coats working with frozen embryos and collecting eggs and sperm in the middle of a dense forest.

The new partnership and alliance will expand the current research and conservation efforts tremendously.

And the need for ensuring the survival and sustainability of endangered animals for future generations is greater than ever, Maddy said, with the condition of wildlife habitats across the globe moving in a dangerous direction. “We are rapidly approaching a world in which there is very little wild left,” he said.

Maddy said they are operating on a 100-year horizon to increase populations with high levels of genetic diversity. As there are indicators that those objectives are being met, he said there will be the opportunity to consider reintroducing the species back into the wild — though the challenges of that objective vary significantly from species to species. And while the Alliance for Sustainable Wildlife won’t initially be open to the public, Maddy said that public engagement will be part of a later phase.

Maddy said that the role of zoos as cultural resources and community amenities cannot be overstated, but the entertainment function is only “half of the job.” The other half is centered on science, conservation, education, and research, Maddy said — areas in which he said both Audubon and San Diego Zoo Global are leading their peers nationally.