Bay Area volunteers hatch high-tech plan to save North African ostrich

Friday, April 6, 2018
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It's a majestic animal whose time could be running out -- and now, a team from the Bay Area has a plan to save the North African ostrich from becoming extinct.

NOVATO, Calif. (KGO) -- It's a majestic animal whose time could be running out -- and now, a team from the Bay Area has a plan to save the North African ostrich from becoming extinct.

"It is the largest bird on the planet. Over 9 feet tall," said Stephen Gold, volunteer manager for the Wildlife Conservation Network. "There were 8 breeding pair of ostriches when we started this about a year and a half ago. Now, there are five."

Gold said local wildlife biologists in Niger reached out for help, and found his organization. He and a team of volunteers have now hatched a plan to help save the ostrich by building a high-tech field station for local researchers and veterinarians.

"I think that when this lands in Niger, it will be analogous to flying saucers landing in your front yard," Gold said as he strolled between the white corrugated shipping containers that make up the complex.

Two of the containers are for incubating and hatching the giant ostrich eggs -- up to 90 of them at a time, in equipment adapted from the farming industry. The same incubator could hold over 1,000 chicken eggs. Next to the incubation room, a second shipping container is devoted to hatching and observing the chicks during their first days of life.

"I like to call it ostrich nursery school," said assistant project manager Henry Cundill.

Gold said It's the same method that worked for the reintroduction of the California condor.

"The difference is this is in the Sahara Desert, as opposed to the San Diego Zoo," he said.

Working to save a species is one thing, but doing it in such a remote location is quite another. In California, a building can be hooked up to water and power. In the middle of the desert, those two utilities are nowhere to be found.

"We have 17,000 pounds of batteries," Gold explained as we toured the third shipping container.

Those batteries are charged by an expanse of solar panels that will cover the four containers and everything in between. The system powers enough air conditioners to battle 130-degree temperatures, and also supplies some power to the neighboring village.

It also provides power to the fourth container -- which houses the office, the satellite telephone and Internet station, and the water pumping and filtration system. It brings water from a hole in the ground over a mile away and makes it drinkable. Cundill said he's excited to see what other applications this sort of shippable complex could have -- from farming to medical care.

"You know, whatever you want to accomplish, you're gonna need power and water to do it," he said.

Right now, it's all powered up and running in a Novato RV park.

"Making sure that it all works and fits together -- then, it's all gonna have to be disassembled," said architect Pete Retondo.

The volunteers have just two weeks to find any problems, disassemble the facility and load it onto a container ship at the Port of Oakland if they want to make the start of the breeding season. The stakes are high -- and so are the rewards.

"It's not very often someone has a chance to possibly save a species," said construction manager Peter Amick. "I sure hope it works."

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