The Audubon Nature Institute and San Diego Zoo Global were expected yesterday to announce the development of a breeding program for rare and endangered species on 400 hectares south of New Orleans, bringing herds of antelope, okapi and Masai giraffe to graze on the banks of the Mississippi River.
The breeding site, which will be among the largest in the US, represents the latest version of a wildlife conservation model based on the finding that certain species mate more successfully when allowed to roam in herds than when paired off in captivity, something to which many visitors to New Orleans’ Bourbon Street could probably attest. It also brings two of US’ most prominent zoological organizations together from opposite sides of the country.
Public access is likely to be somewhat limited, as the facility is intended primarily for breeding and research, and for this reason the species do not have to be, as one scientist put it, the most charismatic kind.
However, among the more than two dozen species expected in the program, which is scheduled to begin in 2014, are lions, flamingos, storks and several kinds of antelopes.
Breeding programs intended to maintain endangered species in US zoos have been around for decades. However, the movement toward large breeding sites has begun taking hold only in recent years, after previous, more intimate efforts at breeding fell short.
In the past, biologists would play matchmaker, looking through the general population of US zoos to find a male and a female of a species that seemed to make a good genetic match and bringing them together to mate. While this works for certain species, not all of the pairs have that spark.
“It never has been rocket science that group species breed better in groups,” said Pat Condy, the executive director of the Fossil Rim Wildlife Center, a 690 hectare non-profit conservation site in Texas.
Females in many species, including lions and hyenas, breed according to a hierarchical structure, Condy said, while the males in some species tend to be rather uninterested in breeding unless there are other males to compete against.
Moreover, breeding in groups helps enormously for animals that are going to be reintroduced into the wild, which is the plan for some of the animals bred in south Louisiana, he said.
A herd of antelopes would adjust more quickly than one or several, and the offspring reared in groups are less likely to grow up to be adults that Condy referred to as “odd or not representative.”
In addition to Fossil Rim, there are a handful of other institutions that have opened large breeding sites, including the Smithsonian and, in Ohio, the Columbus Zoo.
However, more sites are needed to prevent the rising tide of extinctions, president of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums Jim Maddy said.