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WILD THINGS : Frozen Assets

November 20, 1994|Sharon Whitley

As the man-made monsters of poaching and habitat destruction continue to devour animal populations around the world, wildlife experts are scrambling to find new ways to protect endangered species. Scientists, meanwhile, are working on ways to re-create them.

That's part of the changing role of the Frozen Zoo, a unit of the San Diego Zoo's Center for Reproduction of Endangered Species. Also dubbed the 20th Century Ark, it is preserving and studying the genetic material of more than 350 species and subspecies, including the Przewalski horse--extinct in its native Mongolia and found only in captivity. Skin cells, semen, eggs and embryos sit safely in large metal tanks, frozen in liquid nitrogen, awaiting the time that artificial insemination and various high-tech reproductive techniques prove viable--and necessary. (And no, they don't clone them.)

The main focus of the Frozen Zoo, founded in 1975, is the studying of the animal's genetic makeup, their reproductive processes and how viruses infect the creatures' cells. But preserving the gene pool is taking on increasing importance as animal populations dwindle. "Unless world leaders accelerate the pace of global conservation efforts, the Frozen Zoo may be the last home for many wildlife species," says zoo spokeswoman Georgeanne Irvine. "I'd hate to see a good percentage of the world's wildlife living only 'on ice.' "

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