San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park enjoys baby boom

Special to the Los Angeles Times

I admit it: I fall in love easily. First, it was with a 268-pound guy. Despite his youth, he was gray and wrinkled. But there were others as the day wore on. One had a face like a horse. Another was nice-enough looking, but that neck — oh, heavens, that neck. And yet another was way too fast for me.

Oh, baby.

Or, more correctly, babies. These were all animal babies — an African elephant, a zebra, a giraffe and a cheetah, respectively — I saw on a two-hour photo caravan at the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park. I developed innumerable critter crushes on my February visit, and with the advent of spring, there are even more objects of my affection.

San Diego Zoo director Charles Schroeder, a.k.a. “Mister Zoo,” began dreaming of a new kind of zoo in 1959. He envisioned wide-open spaces that would provide a breeding ground to help populate the world’s zoos and to avoid depopulating the wild. Schroeder theorized that happy animals with a lot of space — in this case, 1,800 acres — would be more apt to do what comes naturally.

Randy Rieches, curator of mammals at the Wild Animal Park, which opened in 1972, says captive breeding has helped several endangered species, not only here but at other facilities as well (see sidebar). Among the species and the progeny from the Wild Animal Park:

Arabian oryx: 324 babies since 1973. In the late 1960s, the world population of these antelope cousins was fewer than 20. Oryx from this program have been returned to a preserve in Senegal and introduced to the deserts of Oman and to reserves in Amman, Jordan.

Simitar horned oryx: 500-plus babies in the zoo and Wild Animal Park. They are no longer found in the wild, but some offspring have been returned to a preserve in Senegal and sent to zoos in Cape Horn, South Africa.

Przewalski’s wild horses: 142 babies to date. They have been reintroduced into native habitats in Kazakhstan, China and Mongolia.

Addax: 474 babies. The park is helping reintroduce these large, whitish antelope into their native homelands in Tunisia.

Chinese dholes: eight babies in the last year. Few institutions will work with these Asiatic wild dogs (nicknamed “Whistling Hunters”) because they are difficult to manage and can take down prey much larger than they. The dholes are not currently on display. (The Wild Animal Park also funds conservation efforts in Asia.)

Rhinos: 163 babies (92 Southern white rhinos, 59 Indian rhinos and 12 East African black rhinos). The Wild Animal Park has become the world’s leading breeding authority on rhinos, thanks to the temperate climate, the large rhino habitats and a staff that knows the nuances of rhino husbandry, Rieches said. “The Southern white rhino population was down to 100 animals in the world in the 1960s,” he said. “Now there are about 18,000 in the wild. It’s one of the biggest conservation success stories out there for a species that was never listed as endangered.”

Indian rhinos are especially rough courters, Rieches said, so keepers are prepared to intervene if necessary. “They use tusks for fighting, and sometimes we have to use vehicles to separate them,” he said. Indian rhinos in the wild number about 2,400 in India and about 300 in Nepal.

The black rhino population has been hit hard by poaching throughout Africa, Rieches said. About 3,000 black rhinos remain in the wild, victims of poachers who want their horns, which consist of matted hair and keratin (similar to a human fingernail). Chinese apothecaries use ground rhino horn, and some dagger handles in the Middle East are made from the horns.

“There isn’t any rhino species that is safe,” Rieches said. “Poachers will kill rhinos in a reserve in the middle of the day or night.”

Condors: About 300 condors have been hatched at the Wild Animal Park, and 180 have been released into the wild. By the early ‘80s, only 20 California condors remained in the wild. By ‘91, they were being reintroduced into the wild, about half of those hatched at the animal park.

Elephants: 14 babies, one Asian, 13 African elephants and two more babies on the way — one in June and other next year.

“Spring is a busy time of the year for us because it is the time of year when we have the most babies born and hatched,” Rieches said. “But because animals all have different gestation and breeding cycles, we have animals born almost every day of the year, so any day is a good day to visit.”

Oh, baby.