20th-century Noahs try to save vanishing species
California condors at the San Diego Zoo, pandas at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., Siberian tigers at the Minnesota Zoological Garden - three of more than two dozen animal species that are the subjects of a 20th-century version of Noah's Ark.Skip to next paragraph
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Sisquoc and Tecuya, condor chicks hatched in San Diego March 30 and April 5, recently replaced Washington's giant pandas, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, in the spotlight as central characters in attempts to breed declining or endangered species in captivity. Others are waiting in the wings, and already there are several success stories.
The baby condors ''are doing great,'' reports Jeff Jouett, the San Diego Zoological Society biologist in charge of this phase of the Condor Project. ''They're eating like pigs and gaining weight rapidly.''
A third condor egg arrived April 8 at the San Diego Zoo for incubation. Eventually, explains Mr. Jouett, the Condor Project - a joint effort of several zoological and conservation groups as well as state and federal agencies - hopes to have a breeding flock of 16 to 20.
The Los Angeles Zoo has three male condors and hopes soon to obtain a female to breed with one of them - Topa-Topa, who made headlines last year when the supposed mate that was captured for him turned out to be another male.
Reestablishment of species in the wild is the ultimate aim of such captive breeding projects. But in many cases - such as the California condor's - that goal may be decades away, if attainable at all.
The immediate goal, says Jouett, is ''to keep the condor alive as a species for some future time when humans may have gotten their act together'' enough to provide a safe habitat for the majestic vultures.
That's the goal of most such projects, says Nate Flesness, who directs the International Species Inventory System (ISIS) from an office at the Minnesota Zoological Garden near Minneapolis. Mr. Flesness works alongside Tom Foose, who is conservation coordinator for the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums (AAZPA). ISIS is an international data base that helps zoos and other organizations in 12 nations coordinate breeding of endangered species. Flesness points out that since most captive-breeding programs involve small populations of the animals, it is particularly important to protect the gene pool from the bad effects of inbreeding.
Mr. Foose helps zoos prepare and coordinate species survival plans. Since the AAZPA membership is limited to Canada and the United States, he works primarily with institutions in North America. But, according to Flesness, ''cooperation with foreign nations is growing.''
''Coordination is a political challenge,'' Flesness explains, ''because most zoos are local, and it's difficult for local zoo officials to incur expenses not directly beneficial to local patrons.''
Success itself causes some problems. Big cats, especially tigers, have been bred so successfully in captivity that the zoos are running out of space to keep them. This points up one difficulty, says Flesness: In order to preserve the strength and diversity of breeding stock, fairly large populations have to be maintained.
By coordinating widespread programs and providing a central information system, AAZPA and ISIS can help in orderly maintenance of species represented in zoos worldwide.
There are critics, even among conservation organizations, who say efforts should be concentrated on preserving species in the wild. The Sierra Club's condor task force, for example, has warned that the captive breeding program shouldn't be allowed to diminish attempts to restore California condors in their wild habitat.