- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 1, 2009

At the top of a hill lying in the middle of a grassy plain, a female cheetah seems to barely notice a vehicle full of enamored onlookers. Nearby, scimitar-horned oryx graze and a clouded leopard stalks patiently back and forth, waiting for a chance to find food.

But this is not your typical safari, and this scene is not set on the savannahs of Africa or in the tropical forests of Southeast Asia. Welcome to Virginia, home of the National Zoo’s Conservation and Research Center (CRC), where you’ll find plenty of animals but far fewer amateur enthusiasts.

“We’re unique in that we can tackle problems here in a way that typical zoos cannot,” says Steven L. Monfort, the center’s associate director for conservation and science. “For a zoo, conservation is more than just about one species. It’s about understanding the ecological system.”

While most area residents know the District’s National Zoo as a place to admire pandas and take pictures of elephants on a free afternoon, this lesser-known home to vitally important programs of conservation and biology research sits outside the Beltway and out of the sight of Washington tourists.

The center, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Front Royal, is a 3,200-acre facility that houses roughly 30 endangered species and is a front line for much of the work vital to the success of the zoo and the future of animal species around the world.

The zoo took over the grounds of a former U.S. Cavalry remount installation in 1973. Dotted by warning signs and barricaded by chain-link fence, the center resembles its military roots more than its true identity - a place where avid devotees of science work to preserve nature and, in some cases, save a species.

Two-thirds of the center’s grounds have been set aside for ecological studies, and officials also grow hay on-site to feed its animals. The sprawling expanse of the estate allows scientists to do more than study one or two members of a struggling species, enabling them to take a more in-depth look at what it takes to keep animals alive.

“People think we do some weird stuff,” Mr. Monfort admits.

That perception is not entirely off-base. Among the procedures performed at the center: the boiling of animal feces in alcohol to extract and measure hormone levels and the banking of frozen reproductive cells from roughly 80 species for later use in assisted reproduction.

Such techniques have led to success. Hormones extracted from clouded leopards show that the endangered species - an unknown number of which are estimated left in the wild - are less stressed in a vertical enclosure compared with a horizontal habitat.

The information is vital for a species that has struggled to reproduce at the center and whose males have been known to kill females when put together with food nearby.

The center houses 12 clouded leopards, including four from a breeding project partnership with officials in Thailand and two - named Hannibal and Jao Chu - officials hope to soon breed.

“Every day, I walk in and think she’s going to be in estrus today,” Ken Lang, the facility’s mammal unit supervisor, says of Jao Chu. “This one has just eluded us.”

The center’s assisted reproduction recently led to the birth of two black-footed ferrets using banked semen from males dead for roughly a decade. And the facility boasted the birth of three red pandas last year, a number Mr. Lang says marks 25 percent of the North American population successfully born in 2008.

Those infamous panda-pregnancy reports - when the zoo updates the intensely interested public about whether its female panda, Mei Xiang, has conceived a cub - also start with urine analysis of her hormone levels at the Front Royal facility.

Roughly 600 animal species are listed as endangered or threatened in the United States alone, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. More than 200 animals reproduced at the center have been successfully reintroduced into the wild.

But aside from the challenges of correctly pairing potential mates and providing them with the proper environment, center scientists also must manage animal populations to avoid inbreeding that can occur in species with a limited genetic pool.

“It’s kind of like eHarmony for an endangered species,” Mr. Monfort says. “In this case though, how unrelated you are to others of the population is how valuable you are.”

Veterinarians at the center additionally work on at least five animals each day, performing routine physicals to ensure they are healthy enough to mate and developing drug and vaccine protocols to better ensure species survival for animals outside of the zoo’s care.

“We want to make sure when we vaccinate them they’re protected from disease in the wild,” staff veterinarian Luis Padilla says. “It’s kind of being a bit more proactive about having sound, scientific veterinary information.”

The center’s conservation efforts stretch beyond on-site animals. In its Geographic Information Systems lab, workers track the movements of Asian elephants and Przewalski’s Horse - an animal that went extinct in the wild but has been reintroduced in China and Mongolia.

The animals wear brown, beltlike collars that cost roughly $4,000 and emit a satellite signal. Lab workers can track their movements and plot their courses, studying where the mammals travel in search of ideal habitat.

“People don’t really know what is the best habitat for them,” says Jeff Kerby, a 23-year-old intern working in the GIS lab.”So we’re learning as they go, so to speak.”

In some cases, the information is used for “ground-truthing” - predicting ideal spots for nature reserves and where nearby reserve habitats can be connected.

An important issue confronting most animals is their clash with humanity, Mr. Monfort says, a conflict that enhances the need to help them find ideal environments.

“We have to figure out different solutions,” he says. “This is a tool in the toolbox.”

The center holds an annual open house each year, which allows the public to take behind-the-scenes tours and witness the facility’s focal points firsthand.

But officials are hoping to help visitors learn even more about what goes on at the “Lost”-like complex of labs and on-site housing, bringing in focus groups and consulting with experts on an expansion plan that includes building a visitor center and adding animals on 150 acres.

The goal of placing new species on the center’s grounds would be primarily to expand the CRC’s science programs rather than providing additional public exhibits. But the animals could include anything from carnivores like clouded leopards and maned wolves to rhinos and zebras.

“We’re trying to lay the framework for a vision that goes way beyond where we are now,” Mr. Monfort says. “The first objective is to make a free experience to orient the public to what we’re doing so we’re not a secret.”

The visitor center may be a phased-in project first incarnated as a ranger post. Officials also hope to expand the center’s recently developed partnership with George Mason University that allows undergraduates and postgraduate students to live on-site and learn conservation practices and procedures firsthand.

Roughly 15 students participate in the program, now in its second year. Center officials plan $35 million in infrastructure upgrades that will include the construction of dorms housing 120 beds - room for 60 students and 60 professionals to live and work at what Mr. Monfort calls a “great living laboratory of 3,000 acres.”

The facility upgrades correlate directly to the center’s overall purpose of ecological conservation - a task confronted by numerous challenges that don’t stop, even when a species is considered saved.

“This could take somebody’s entire career or multiple careers,” Mr. Monfort says. “You gotta have people to pass the torch to, or else this will all go away.”

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