Three American alligators from chicago's Brookfield Zoo and two white rhinos from the San Diego Zoo are leading the pack -- but other animals are coming up from behind in the race to swap with the Peking Zoo.
The immediate prize for US zoos is being able to show off Chinese lesser pandas in San Diego, Chinese cobras in Chicago, and dhole (Asiatic wild dogs) in Washington's National Zoological Park.
Ever since President Nixon's 1972 trip to China netted two giant pandas for the National Zoo (which sent musk ox in return), there has been mounting interest in swaps, but no movement until last autumn.
In October, China's zoos began stocking up on such new attractions as rattlesnakes, bullfrogs, and Canada geese -- providing an added draw for the peking Zoo, which had some 8 million paying visitors last year.
American zoo officials who visited China in November 1978 and in December 1979 stress that far more is at stake than just introducing todayhs growing number of zoogoers to unfamiliar species.
"These exchanges are long-term investments," explains Brookfield Zoo director George Rabb. He says these are vital investments, because "often we are dealing with endangered species."
Dr. Rabb warns that without a well-coordinated worldwide conservation effort "there will be much less for our grandchildren to see in 50 years' time."
Both Dr. Rabb and San Diego Zoo general manager Clayton Swanson were impressed after their visits to Chinese zoos -- and particularly pleased to find Chinese zoo officials are deeply committed to supporting international animal conservation efforts.
Dr. Rabb reports the Chinese are devoting considerable expertise and money to "efforts to educate people, with an emphasis on conservation." He is satisfied that animals sent to Chinese zoos will be well cared for. He says that although the Peking animal hospital lacks some modern equipment, it does have eight veterinarians on the staff and "a separate quarantine facility which many of us hre envy."
Brookfield curator of reptiles Raymond Pawley personally filled the Chinese order for three alligators by capturing them himself -- after obtaining all the necessary state and federal permits -- at the Okefenokee Wildlife Refugee in Folkston, Ga.
Since he found the male and one of the two females in the same 'gator hole -- and since all three are lively adults -- Mr. Pawley is confident that the Chinese will be able to begin breeding alligators within the year.
And the new alligators should feel right at home, because the one place alligators are found outside the American Southeast is along the banks of the Yangtze River in China.
The National Zoo assistant director, Robet Hoage, who has traded long "wish lists" with the Chinese and hopes to exchange animals soon, said his chief objective is to build up new stocks of breeding animals.
Dr. Hoage explains, "We can't keep going b ack to the wild and taking out fresh supplies." The answer is to build up "gene pools outside of China."
Mr. Swanson says his zoo already has offered to help stock other American zoos as soon as San Diego's recently installed lesser pandas, dhole, Durbyan parakeets, and Jenkowski swans start reproducing.