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20th-century Noahs try to save vanishing species

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California condors at the San Diego Zoo, pandas at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., Siberian tigers at the Minnesota Zoological Garden - three of more than two dozen animal species that are the subjects of a 20th-century version of Noah's Ark.

Sisquoc and Tecuya, condor chicks hatched in San Diego March 30 and April 5, recently replaced Washington's giant pandas, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, in the spotlight as central characters in attempts to breed declining or endangered species in captivity. Others are waiting in the wings, and already there are several success stories.

The baby condors ''are doing great,'' reports Jeff Jouett, the San Diego Zoological Society biologist in charge of this phase of the Condor Project. ''They're eating like pigs and gaining weight rapidly.''

A third condor egg arrived April 8 at the San Diego Zoo for incubation. Eventually, explains Mr. Jouett, the Condor Project - a joint effort of several zoological and conservation groups as well as state and federal agencies - hopes to have a breeding flock of 16 to 20.

The Los Angeles Zoo has three male condors and hopes soon to obtain a female to breed with one of them - Topa-Topa, who made headlines last year when the supposed mate that was captured for him turned out to be another male.

Reestablishment of species in the wild is the ultimate aim of such captive breeding projects. But in many cases - such as the California condor's - that goal may be decades away, if attainable at all.

The immediate goal, says Jouett, is ''to keep the condor alive as a species for some future time when humans may have gotten their act together'' enough to provide a safe habitat for the majestic vultures.

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