The Alliance for Sustainable Wildlife is "the new ark of the future, created to preserve species many people have never heard of," said Rick Gulley, board chairman of San Diego Zoo Global, during Wednesday's groundbreaking with officials from the Audubon Nature Institute.
It's the first time two zoos in this country have put up money, resources, people, time and space for a breeding facility to help all zoos keep up their collections without taking animals from dwindling wild populations, said Paul Boyle, the American Zoo Association's senior vice president for conservation and education, in a telephone interview Wednesday. He said five zoos or other organizations with 1,500 to 10,000-acre properties, including the San Diego Zoo's wildlife park, have done excellent work on their own - sometimes all working with the same species - but this is a new kind of collaboration.
Since Audubon and San Diego announced their plans a year ago, he said, several other institutions have taken a new look at smaller sites, saying, "Maybe we don't have 1,000 acres, but somebody donated property that's 500 acres or 300 acres.
The Alliance will use most of the 1,400-acre grounds around the Audubon Center for Research of Endangered Species, where scientists began breeding endangered cranes, hoofed animals and cats in 1996.
Behind the speakers, four tan eland (EE-land) browsed in a fenced-off corner of their paddock. They've been at ACRES since the 1990s, when scientists tried unsuccessfully to use those common antelope as host mothers for endangered antelope called bongo.
There's still one bongo and a bongo barn at the center; four more bongo are among the animals scheduled to arrive in the fall, along with 10 giraffes and four okapi, giraffes' only living relatives.
The only new buildings in the first phase will be barns for the giraffes and okapi: early construction will be mostly roads and fences.
"It's huge and exciting and I just can't wait," said senior keeper Carol Allen after the ceremony. Allen started at the zoo in 1980 and is now at ACRES. One of the best features, she said, is that the animals will be able to walk from place to place rather than being loaded onto trailers.
The Coast Guard is among agencies that must approve any plans because the agency leases the land to Audubon, Joel Hamilton, Audubon's vice president and general curator, said late last week.
He said Alliance officials hope to get the first okapi, bongo and giraffes into their pens in October.
"Giraffe aren't classified as endangered, but they are declining. We're focused on those that are declining," said Robert J. "Bob" Wiese (WEE'-see), chief life sciences officer at San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy. He said sable antelope, which have sweeping horns and Mohawk-style manes, also are likely to be early arrivals.
"The idea would be to grow to herds of 20 to 30. But during that whole time we'll be exchanging animals out to other zoos that we partner with. We'll be able to hold a large number there and supply the other zoos if needed," he said.
The spacious paddocks wouldn't mean rounding up animals that need checkups.
"We usually train them to come to a certain area on a daily or weekly basis, so that if we needed to catch somebody for a medical exam or somebody being shipped out, they're used to that," Wiese said.
Two endangered crane species already at Audubon, whooping cranes and Mississippi sandhill cranes, will become part of the project, though they'll remain paired in cages aimed at the best genetic match.
Hamilton said a pond will be dug for water-based birds such as flamingos and pink pelicans. Some African crowned cranes likely would live there, too, he said.
Organizers hope to work out final details this week and then send the project out for bidding, Hamilton said.
"We spent the year planning and drawing plans and policies and structures for collaborating together with Audubon," Wiese said. "It's a great time to break ground and get some dirt moving."