The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA


October 22, 2013

Big undertaking in region

Zoo looks to build population of species

JOHNSTOWN — Somerset County isn’t the most likely spot to begin revitalizing the world’s African elephant, rhinoceros and cheetah populations, but if the experts from Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium have their way, that is exactly what will happen.

The zoo announced on Saturday that it plans to build a 1-acre barn on the 724-acre International Conservation Center in Fairhope to house its four current female elephants and provide space for elephant calves. The center also has a male elephant, Jackson, that it hopes can help repopulate the species.

The World Wildlife Federation says that there may have been as many as 5 million African elephants roaming the planet in the 1930s and ‘40s. Recent estimates show the population at one-tenth of that.

“We want to breed and protect them in captivity because heaven forbid there would be a time

when the African elephant was no longer in the wild,” Barbara Baker, the zoo’s president and chief executive officer, told our Patrick Buchnowski.

We agree. Although the animals raised in captivity would not be able to fend for themselves in the wild, it is a noble project for the zoo and conservation center to try to build the elephant population.

The fact that they are doing it in our backyard is just a bonus.

While the Fairhope location is mostly associated with elephants, Baker said the group has a broader goal in mind.

“What we want is to breed endangered animals,” she said, noting that includes rhinos and cheetahs as well.

Baker said the project has drawn interest from a rhinoceros conservation group and that the work being done in Somerset County has attracted officials from a zoo in Oregon that is breeding Asian elephants.

Support much closer to home has also come through for the project. Somerset Trust Co. is providing a matching grant of up to $50,000 to build the new facility.

“Their vision to protect the species is great,” said G. Henry Cook, the bank’s president and CEO. “Who would have thought that people would raise elephants in the Laurel Highlands on the Allegheny Ridge?”

Not us, but we’re proud that our region is playing a part in this ambitious project.

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