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Back From The Brink

Many of America's wild animals are fighting to survive. Urban sprawl and hunting are just two reasons for why some species are dying off.

Joan Embery, conservation ambassador for the San Diego Zoo, is working to help save them. A "Condor Ridge" exhibit opened May 27 at the zoo's Wild Animal Park presenting some endangered species, in settings resembling their natural environments.

Embery visited The Early Show in May with a few of her feathered friends to discuss the challenges of reintroduction of species.

Some endangered animals have been saved from extinction by reintroduction, a relatively new method by which scientists and researchers capture endangered animals, breed them in captivity and then release them into their natural habitat.

Once the animal is released into the wild, it is monitored for many years to assess its progress and adjustment. Twenty to thirty years may be invested in reintroducing a single species.

The condor, the thick-billed parrot and the ferret are still on the endangered list and have begun the slow process of reintroduction.

See a photo essay of more endangered species.
The alligator is a success story, however. It has not only been reintroduced but has also been removed from the endangered list.

Here are some facts about endangered species, according to the San Diego Zoo:

California Condor

The California condor is a large, distinctly marked vulture, with a 9-foot wingspan, glossy black feathers and white markings on its wings. A dark ruff borders its bad head and neck.

These condors lived in California's Los Angeles and Santa Barbara counties and are thought to have formerly ranged along the Pacific Coast from Canada to Mexico and across the southern United States.

They are carrion eaters, feeding on the carcasses of dead deer, cattle and sheep. Years ago, when their range was wider, they fed on elk and antelope carcasses and on dead seals, whales and fish along the coast.

Condors are monogamous and pair for life. The females lays one egg every other year in cliff caves. If an egg is broken or taken early in the breeding season, they will often lay another. It may take a baby chick more than two years to grow from an egg to independence.

In 1983, the world population of California condors was reduced to about 23.

These condors became critically endangered due to loss of viable habitat and environmental hazards:

  • Lead poisoning, caused by eating carrion shot by hunters.
  • Pesticide poisoning, which weakens their eggs.
  • Accidental and deliberate shootings.
  • Strychnine and cyanide poisoning intended for coyotes.
  • Collisions with high-power lines.
  • Changes in its habitat as a result of a growth in the human population.
  • A naturally low reproductive rate.
The last 27 California condors were placed into a managed breeding program at the San Diego Wild Animal Park and the Los Angeles Zoo. The last free-flying condor was taken from the wild in April 1987.

By 1992 successful breeding at these two facilities doubled the number of condors in the world. Today the California condor population numbers more than 150.

California condors were reintroduced to the wild beginning in 1992.

In 1996, six captive-reared condors were released into the Grand Canyon at Vermillion Cliffs, a habitat the species had not flown in for more than 75 years.

Today more than 50 California condors fly free. Condors have been released
in Southern and Northern California and Arizona.

The California Condor Recovery Program is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with the Zoological Society of San Diego, the Los Angeles Zoo, Peregrine Fund, California Fish & Game, Arizona Game and Fish and the Bureau of Land

Thick-Billed Parrot

Thick-billed parrots have green bodies and red patches on their forehead and wings. They are the only parrots native to the United States.

They used to flock in groups of seven to 1,000 birds. They lay one to four eggs that reach maturity in seven months.

Researchers aren't exactly sure why the thick-billed parrots disappeared from the United States but suspect logging and hunting by settlers.

In 1965, the San Digo Zoo established a parrot breeding program. The Sacramento, Phoenix, Cleveland Metroparks and Reid Park zoos are now also involved.

The reintroduction program has relied on smuggled birds confiscated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. These birds are released in the Chiricahua Mountains, mostly within the Coronado National Forest in Arizona. The birds are trained for their release and learn to eat pine seeds.

Extensive rehabilitation of the wings and repair or replacement of the feathers is sometimes necessary because of damage by smugglers.

Once the birds are released into their natural habitat, some fall prey to hawks or other predators but most have survived. Now there are 5,000 to 10,000 of them in the wild.

Much of the thick-bill's habitat in the United States is now protected as national forest; hunting the parrots for food is no longer practiced. (In nearby Mexico, they are still hunted, however.)

Black-Footed Ferret

A member of the weasel family, the small carnivore eats prairie dogs.

The loss of habitat and poisoning of prairie dogs caused the black-footed ferret to become one of the most endangered mammals in North America.

Listed as an endangered species in 1967, by the mid-1970s, they were thought to be extinct in the wild.

But in 1981, there was a discovery of a small, but thriving population. Finding that group of ferrets offered hope that the masked prowlers might again live on the prairie grasslands of North America.

Reintroduced populations now live in Wyoming, Montana, South Dakota, Arizona, Colorado and Utah.

American Alligator

These are the largest reptiles in North America and are distinguished from crocodiles by their broad, rounded snout. They hibernate in dens in the winter and eat fish, small mammals, birds and turtles. The cold-blooded species basks in the sun on shore.

Found in wetland habitats in the southeastern United States, these predators can live 30 or more years. Older males can reach up to 14 feet in length and can weigh 1,000 pounds.

The animals mate from April to May after emerging from hibernation. In June the females build mound-shaped nests about 5 feet to 7 feet in diameter and deposit the hard-shelled eggs in the nest, which they covers and guard until hatched.

The calling of hatchlings prompts the females to uncover the nests to free their young. Once hatched, the young arabout 9 inches long.

At one time alligators were listed as endangered; hunters were killing them so that purses, boots and shoes could be made from their skin. Although conservation measures have resulted in the recovery of this alligator species, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service still regulates trade in alligator skins and products.

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