October 30th, 2007 06:21 EST
Audubon Zoo: A look at Asia's endangered species
New Orleans---The piercing yellow eyes of an Amur leopard caught the fleeting rays of early morning light. Though obscured by shadows they turned the gaze of the beautiful cat from engaging to downright mesmerizing. For a moment it seemed as I were in the wild, locking eyes with this magnificent animal but in reality it occurred in the Asian domain of the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans.
Housing a vast collection of animals ranging from African plains game to denizens of southern U.S. Swamps the Audubon Zoo gives visitors a chance at viewing some of the world`s most unique and endangered animals.
And in no part of the world is wildlife in more danger than in the jungles of Asia. A combination of a quickly growing human population, trade in illegal wildlife goods and shaky politics give the Asian continent the dubious honor of being the home of many of the world`s most critically endangered mammals.
The Amur leopard for example is a highly endangered subspecies of a cat fairly common in Africa and scattered throughout much of Asia. Inhabiting the eastern fringe of Siberia into Korea, amur leopards are quite possibly at the no turning back point in the wild.
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) estimates there are only 25 to 34 of the graceful animals still living in the wild.
"The numbers are very disappointing and the long-term prospects are that they will not be able to survive unless urgent measures are taken," said Igor Chestin, head of WWF in Russia in a Reuters story.
The Audubon Zoo participates in the Amur leopard`s species survival plan and a pair on display here has contributed several litters to the zoo population helping to ensure a captive gene pool.
Although not as close to extinction as Amur leopards, Asiatic elephants number only around 30,000 in the wild, making them nearly 20 times lower in number than their African counterparts.
The Audubon Zoo features Panya and Jean, two Asiatic females and the staff work hard to educate visitors on the differences between African and Asian pachyderms and also addresses their problems in the wild.
"A lot of people do not realize there are more than one type of elephant and that problems with one species is not necessarily the problem with the other," said elephant handler Joey Ratliff.
Ratliff said while ivory poaching has historically been a big problem for African elephants, habitat issues are a much bigger problem in Asia.
One that has been happening is the explosion of tea plantations. All of these different kinds of teas are very popular now and they clear the forest to make plantations and when an elephant comes tromping through it is often killed," he added.
Just down from the way from the elephants at the Audubon Zoo is a pair of white Bengal tigers, two brothers that represent a species quickly spiraling toward extinction in the wild.
Bengals are the most abundant of the five surviving tiger subspecies with recent estimates putting their numbers between 1,350 and 1,800 specimens found mainly in India. At the turn of the previous century however, the population was at least 20 times that according to most experts, but a combination of habitat loss and illegal trade in tiger parts have caused the Bengal and all other subspecies of tiger`s decline.
One of the more unusual animals on display in the Asian domain is the babirousa; a creature that looks like a pig but some scientists believe could actually be related to the hippopatamus. The males have tusks that grow out of their mouths like a typical wild hog but they also sport tusks coming out of the top of their snout that curve backwards toward the head.
The species is on the endangered list but very little is actually known about their wild populations, as they are very shy and inhabit thick, dark forests.
Such forests are places few Americans will ever tread, which is why zoos like the Audubon are so important. The chance for people to get close to an elephant, experience the majesty of a Bengal tiger and see hundreds of species from al around the world in the flesh is invaluable to the future of wildlife conservation.
While photographing the leopards, a little boy and his mother walked up to the cage and I could hear her tell him, Look, there`s a jaguar. "
He quickly corrected her by saying, No mom, those are leopards. You see the spots are different. We learned that last time we were here. Remember? "
That reminded me of a little boy I once knew who so relished the time his parents would take him to the zoo. Those early experiences helped forge a lifetime fascination with wildlife that exists to this day.
I should know because that little boy was me. I may be a few decades older but the passion for wildlife still burns inside. Like my early zoo visits, time spent at the Audubon Zoo has helped fuel my desire to learn more and work toward the conservation of the world`s endangered animals.
The next time you are in New Orleans check it out for yourself. You will walk away with a greater appreciation for earth`s wild inhabitants and might even awaken the child within yourself.
Speaking of children, bringing them along could help inspire the next Marlin Perkins, Jack Hannah, Steve Irwin, Jeff Corwin or Jacques Cousteau. Wildlife needs a new generation of advocates and kids are not going to get that kind of motivation from video games and the Internet.
In a very positive way, that is what zoos are for.
For more information, go to http://www.audubonzoo.org.
To check out photos from the Audubon Zoo`s Asian domain, go to http://www.projectzooquest.org.