The goal is not simply to keep a few rare creatures alive, but also to find better methods of breeding them back to healthy numbers. In setting aside a protected space where the animals can safely breed, and in helping them to breed if necessary, the center is trying to ensure that its resident marvels won't be lost to history. For creatures such as the Arabian oryx, which looks like a deer except for its two nearly straight horns, breeding in captivity represents the best hope for survival as a species.
"Ultimately, you want to bring them back to their [homelands] one day, but in most cases that simply isn't going to happen," says Conway.
In addition to breeding, abundant research takes place in this outdoor laboratory. Tim Keith-Lucas, a professor of psychology at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., knows the benefits of working in such a sanctuary. Last year he and two colleagues released five black-and-white-ruffed lemurs from their enclosures. Based on their observations the scientists suspect that while these lemurs are polygamous when living in close confinement, they are monogamous when given room to roam. If they can confirm their hypothesis, that information will be useful should these animals be returned to Madagascar. "This is an extremely valuable resource for primatology," says Keith-Lucas.
On the southern end of St. Catherines, lion-tailed macaques climb freely through dense forests of live oak. Elsewhere there are spacious aviaries. Two researchers who observed the behavior of a dozen wattled cranes from inside a blind thought these magnificent birds appeared bored with their confinement—not exactly earth-shaking news, but useful because the birds' range continues to shrink.
Several threatened or endangered local creatures also take refuge on St. Catherines: Native osprey, bald eagles, wood storks, sandhill cranes and sea turtles are all protected and studied on the island by experts from around the South. Recently biologists added a group of gopher tortoises from a south Georgia site where bulldozers stood poised to break ground for a shopping center. Now ensconced on St. Catherines with transmitters attached to their shells, the tortoises are thriving while researchers track their movements with receivers.
So what's the catch to this little sliver of paradise? Just one. Outsiders are decidedly unwelcome. The center is one of just a handful of facilities doing this kind of work (others exist in Florida, Virginia and Louisiana), and it can't accommodate visitors the way zoos can. One may not land a boat on the island except by special invitation; photographs and interviews are discouraged; and the foundation that operates the island is self-supporting, eliminating the need for donations or grants.
The center fears that the island would be compromised by casual visitors. Tourism on any scale could start the ecology of St. Catherines down a slippery slope toward the fate of other islands that have been compromised by human disruption. There is also the unspoken fear that poachers might get wind of the place. "We neither wish for nor need the publicity," is how one overseer puts it. "All it takes is one pleasure boat to begin ruining the place."
He's right, of course, but researchers, including Keith-Lucas, feel confident that ruin will never come, that outsiders will continue to respect the island's particular need for privacy, as they always have. "The [owners] have the resources to protect the island, to keep it from becoming another Hilton Head," says Keith-Lucas. "And they're doing a wonderful job of that."