West Bank Wildlife Refuge Takes Shape

Venture to lower coast Algiers, where hardwood forests press against the West Bank of the Mississippi River, and it’s hard to believe you’re still within the city of New Orleans. Soon, however, a large swath of that area will begin to look more like an African savannah, with giraffes, exotic herd animals and rare birds making their homes there.

A 1,000-acre spread of land in this remote corner of New Orleans is being turned into a refuge for more than two-dozen endangered and threatened mammal and bird species, a place where they can live and, just as importantly, breed in conditions more attuned to their natural habitat and social instincts. The new program is called the Alliance for Sustainable Wildlife, and it’s coming about through collaboration between the local Audubon Nature Institute and the San Diego Zoo Global, the parent organization for the West Coast zoo.

Audubon president and chief executive Ron Forman called the breeding program a “one-of-a-kind resource for zoos and aquariums to rebuild animal collections that are in danger of disappearing.”

The program is based on findings that some species mate more successfully and benefit from greater genetic diversity when they can roam in herds instead of being paired up for breeding in captivity. While many zoos have breeding programs to help species that face dwindling numbers, not all of them have access to large, undeveloped plots of land suitable for open-acreage habitat.

The alliance, however, unites the resources of the acclaimed San Diego Zoo with the Audubon Institute, which includes this large West Bank property. The same site is home to the Freeport-McMoRan Audubon Species Survival Center, where researchers safeguard genetic material for endangered species and run smaller-scale breeding programs.

“The idea is, since we have all this space, let the antelope be antelope,” Robert Wiese, chief life sciences officer at San Diego Global, told the Associated Press. “Let’s have the herds acting like herds.”

Construction for new enclosures of 25 and 50 acres each for specific species will begin later this year, and new breeding programs should begin in 2014. The Audubon Institute and San Diego Zoo Global will share operating costs, and also share research and expertise to develop better breeding programs.

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