Roving ark urges public to save endangered animals

If Noah were here today, gathering two of every animal for his ark might be a problem.

For instance, locating a pair of California condors could prove extremely difficult, since wildlife experts estimate only about 30 of this dwindling species are left.

But the National Audubon Society is working on a solution to help such endangered species. It's the Audubon Ark, a free educational exhibit based on the idea of Noah's ark. This mini-museum travels across the United States to ''make people aware of the problem,'' says promotion coordinator Diana Tominac, ''with the hope they will do what they can to help preserve species that are threatened.''

The number of endangered species is growing. Paul Opler of the Interior Department's Office of Endangered Species says it's difficult to pinpoint the rate of extinction, but at present the US loses about 10 species and subspecies of animals and plants a year.

Whales, wolves, mountain lions, and even little creatures like the blunt-nosed leopard lizard and the pine barrens tree frog are disappearing, say the ark's creators.

The Audubon Ark isn't the waterproof, pitch and lumber vessel that Noah's was , though its concept comes from the Bible story in which Noah preserves two of every animal species. This modern ark moves on land and docks in shopping malls, where it lowers its gangplank to schoolchildren, shoppers, and community organizations.

Once on board, visitors don't find bleating, braying creatures. Instead, they ''meet'' endangered species through a series of vivid display panels. Photographs and text discuss endangered animals and plants as well as the history of already extinct species - from dinosaurs to dodo birds. Eight discussion categories - among them ''habitat loss,'' ''overexploitation,'' and ''human attitudes,'' - give visitors a comprehensive view of the current wildlife dilemma.

One panel tells visitors: ''Between the years 1600 and 1900, known species, mostly birds and mammals, disappeared from the Earth at the rate of one every four years. By 1900, the rate had increased to one species every year, with no figures for reptiles, amphibians, fish, invertebrates, and plants.'' Now, says an ark text, Earth probably loses at least a species a day, and that number could zoom to one every hour in another decade.

To keep pace with the 21st century, the ark has two electronic games - an elaborate quizboard where visitors can solve a puzzle, and a giant device based on the popular Rubik's cube where children can match species through spinning blocks. Films, lectures, and slide shows often accompany the display. There are two permanent ''caretakers.''

Says another panel: The US has one of the ''most far-reaching laws to protect endangered species'' - the Endangered Species Act. This act is presently undergoing reauthorization (extension for three more years), which the ark's panels urge concerned citizens to support.

Visitors who join the Audubon ''citizen mobilization campaign'' are regularly informed about laws and issues, and are urged to tell elected representatives their views. Promotion coordinator Tominac says the ark has ''recruited thousands and thousands of people'' for the campaign.

After reauthorization of the Endangered Species Act, the ark won't sail home. Further protection is imperative, says Bob Boardman, deputy communications director for the society. ''We have fought off attacks. There may be other attacks in the future,'' he says. ''We certainly say in this business that no battle is won.'' So the ark will continue rolling until 1984. he says.

More than 50,000 people have visited the education project in just over a year. The ark will be traveling along the West Coast until August. After that: The Rocky Mountains, followed by the Midwest, South, and East Coast.

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