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Periled Species : Man Fights for Life--of Animals

November 10, 1986|DAVID SMOLLAR | Times Staff Writer

The researchers who are engaged in a last, desperate gamble to save the California condor by capturing the last three birds in the wild and placing them in captive breeding programs can take heart these days from news from across the continent.

On Tuesday, red wolves will return to the coastal lands near Roanoke Island in North Carolina for the first time in several hundred years.

Four pair of the sleek wolves bred in captivity at the Tacoma, Wash., zoo will be placed in isolation pens at the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge near Norfolk for six months of acclimation before release next spring. The last 40 red wolves in the wild were taken into captivity a decade ago from a small remaining habitat in East Texas.

The red wolf program symbolizes the determination that scientists maintain in their ongoing and often frustrating battle to preserve, through captive breeding programs, thousands of endangered species, in most cases from the consequences of human encroachment on their habitat.

Array of Problems

In that battle, wildlife scientists confront a serious array of biological, financial and political problems. For every successful red wolf or whooping crane reintroduction, scientists can name the dusky seaside sparrow in Florida, or four species of birds on Guam, or lemurs on Madagascar that declined to extremely critical numbers or became extinct before rescue efforts could be mounted.

Even when organized programs are undertaken, it can require years, if not decades, to bring them to fruition, with no guarantee of success. The program to save whooping cranes began in 1956 but not until 1975 were the first captive-born birds ready for reintroduction into the wild.

Among the problems facing scientists:

--Endangered species programs are expensive, especially the costly biological studies to understand the breeding habits of threatened animals.

"It's a horrible circumstance to be in, to sit and make a choice when you only have the money to save perhaps one out of four (endangered species)," said Donald Bruning, curator of birds at the New York Zoological Society and head of several international committees promoting preservation.

--Most funds must be raised through time-consuming private efforts that often hinge on public identification with or affection for a particular species.

Donald Lindburg, San Diego Zoological Society animal behaviorist, said: "The gorilla, the sable antelope, the cheetah--those animals with particular beauty or drama to the public--understandably will fare better in the world than some of the less spectacular, small, drab-appearing animals, given diminishing resources."

"As (particular animal) populations decline, it takes usually a public outcry before money is made available," added James W. Carpenter, research veterinarian for endangered species research at the federal government's Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Md. Without strong fund raising for condor programs by Southern California zoological societies, Carpenter said, an active rescue program might not have taken place.

--Where few members of a species are left, such as with the condor or the black-footed ferret in Wyoming, problems of insufficient gene diversity complicate a recovery program. Too little genetic representation will result in generations of animals vulnerable to the same disease once they are released.

--Scientists, in trying to locate safe habitats, often encounter strong opposition ranging from Third World farmers wanting to clear forests for cultivation to commercial developers angry that an endangered species can stand in the way of a highway or condominium project.

Although it disappeared from the wild half a century ago, the Przewalski's horse has been scientifically bred in large numbers in numerous zoos throughout the world. Now, biologists are wrestling with problems of locating a suitable refuge in Mongolia, the animal's original home, where the horse would compete with domesticated animals for water sources.

With the midnight hour already approaching for the California condor, the species' ultimate fate rests with specialists at the Los Angeles and San Diego zoos.

Three Condors in Wild

The last three condors still soaring over the southern San Joaquin Valley will be trapped this fall because their safety in nature can no longer be guaranteed. Scientists want additional government-protected refuges to protect condors from feeding on deer carcasses, which often contain lead bullet fragments extremely harmful to the predator birds. The last three condors will be added to the 24 birds in the two zoos in an effort to breed them and eventually release them back into the wild. So far, however, condors have never been bred in captivity.

Researchers try to rally more public support for their work by warning that continued species diversity--and especially their natural habitats--may be crucial to civilization's own future.

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