On a first look at St. Catherines Island, you might mistake it for a plateau in Kenya. Herds of nearly extinct adaxes, sable antelopes, zebras, and other animals graze quietly in green meadows and rest under tall trees.
These exotic animals are part of propagation programs on this southeastern Atlantic barrier island. Conducted by biologists from the New York Zoological Society, the programs aim to boost the diminishing numbers of rare species of animals and birds.
Happily, through the society's efforts, the population of gazelles, slender-horned gemsboks, antelopes, Arabian oryxes, zebras, and hartebeests are increasing in the world. Some of the bird species enlarging their flocks here are colorful macaws, cockatoos, cranes, and ospreys -- confined in caged avaries or in open-fenced pens.
Wildlife native to the island -- herons, egrets, ospreys, and eagles -- nest in pine-tree branches, and reptiles slither into quiet lagoons while the research programs go on.
St. Catherines Island, 40 miles southeast of Savannah, Ga., has a beautiful forest of moss-draped centuries-old live oaks, tall long-leaf pine forests, and a 12-mile-long white sandy beach where water- and wind-shaped driftwood lies undisturbed by human collectors.
Now on the National Register of Historic Places, the island is a landmark owned by the Noble Foundation of Greenwich, Conn., and New York City. In 1943 Edward J. Noble bought the island to raise purebred Black Angus cattle. And in 1968 he set up the E. J. Noble Foundation to start a survival center for animals and birds. Fifteen species of animals and 20 species of birds once almost extinct have been saved. Fourteen zoos throughout the country cooperate with the propagating system going on here.
The early history becomes apparent soon after one's arrival on the island. Evidence of the Guale Indians, who used the land for a hunting ground, is seen in Indian burial mounds. Also visible are the remains of a Spanish mission dating back to the 1560s. The house built by the British settler Button Gwinnett, one of Georgia's signers of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, is intact. ``The Old House'' is currently used by prominent island guests. Remains of the slave quarters, which once housed work ers for the cotton plantations and rice fields during the South's antebellum era, are partly standing. One can observe their crumbling walls, made of ``tabby,'' a blend of oyster shells, lime, sand, and water in common use as building material in that era.
Although the Guale Indians predated the Spanish by 4,000 years, the island's name came from the mission of Santa Catalina de Guale. The mission is being excavated by Dr. David H. Thomas, chairman of the Department of Anthropology at the Museum of Natural History, and his rotating teams of archaeological diggers. Their findings of ancient artifacts might possibly force historians to rewrite early American history books.
St. Catherines has enjoyed protected privacy because of the anthropological and archaeological studies going on, but recent television exposure has brought numerous interested visitors and participants into the programs.
Admission to the island is limited to those who write for a special permit. Environmental, archaeological, museum, educational, and other special interest groups are invited after being screened. The small staff can accommodate a group of 25 to 30 at one time.
With a date in hand, travelers go east from I-95 to the Atlantic coast. They board open motorboats at a dock near Midway, Ga. The boats leave from Yellow Bluff on the mainland, going through the Inland Waterway along marshy shores, and out into St. Catherines Sound for the half-hour trip.
It's a unique experience to see animals that one could rarely find in a big city zoo, or for that matter on an African safari, running freely on open plains of a Georgia Island -- where fields of cotton once grew. When open truckloads of human visitors intrude on this sanctuary, the animals just cast a curious stare toward the vehicle and graze on.
For more information on island activities, costs, and possible dates for a trip, contact the St. Catherines Island Foundation Inc., Route 1, Box 207-Z, Midway, Ga. 31320.