by Betsy Taylor
Associated Press Writer
May 5, 2004

ST. LOUIS — The St. Louis Zoo has launched a global conservation effort, hoping to go beyond mere sheltering of endangered species to fostering sustainability of animals and their environments worldwide.

The new St. Louis Zoo WildCare Institute -- scheduled to have been formally unveiled Wednesday -- will focus on a dozen "conservation centers," from Niger to Nicaragua and Missouri to Mount Arafat. Among other things, those sites will work on managing natural resources and protecting habitat, as well as research and community development.

The institute's partners are to include 40 other zoos, 17 universities, 17 conservation agencies and seven research and community development groups.

"It's a new approach for us," said veterinarian Eric Miller, director of the new privately funded institute. "It's easily a tripling of our conservation efforts, across the board."

Miller, who has worked at the zoo since 1981, said the zoo is stepping up conservation efforts for a few reasons, including an "alarming" rise in the loss rate of endangered species. Throughout Africa, he said, there are less than 10,000 cheetahs -- smaller than the human population of the St. Louis suburb of Webster Groves.

But the zoo won't simply study animal populations or breed them, with hopes of adding to numbers in the wild.

"Zoos used to think their conservation role was to reproduce endangered species. Now we realize that's not going to be enough," Jeffrey Bonner, the St. Louis Zoo's president, said in a statement.

Hence, the new approach.

At the Bosawas Biosphere Reserve in Nicaragua, for instance, a program aims to help indigenous people gain legal title to their homelands while training native biologists to manage wildlife so that people can hunt sustainably.

On the Galapagos Islands, the zoo will study birds to prevent extinction from disease. The zoo, in cooperation with the University of Missouri-St. Louis, also will train Ecuadorean scientists and rangers on how to test for disease.

A Missouri project will look at the quality of water in the habitat of "hellbenders," a type of giant salamander with declining numbers.

Information and updates on the work will be provided at the zoo, with education for visitors on how they can support conservation efforts.

The zoo received a $19 million pledge from the St. Louis Zoo Friends Association -- a group of zoo supporters -- to create an endowed fund, zoo officials said. Money from rides on the zoo's conservation carousel also will help to pay for the work. The carousel has hand-carved zoo animals for riders, many of them representing endangered species.

Last year, more than three million visitors came to the St. Louis Zoo, making it the nation's fourth most-attended zoo. The St. Louis Zoo listed the top three as Disney's Animal Kingdom, Busch Gardens Tampa, both in Florida, and the San Diego Zoo.