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New Orleans, La., November 5, 2014 / PR Newswire / - These are fertile - and historic - times at the Audubon Zoo Reptile Encounter. In recent weeks, Zoo staff has welcomed the first-ever births of critically endangered false gharials at Audubon.

Gharials, a freshwater crocodilian native to Southeast Asia with a very thin and elongated snout, have been housed at Audubon Zoo since the mid-1980s. But the species has not been bred in captivity anywhere in the United States since 2009 and never at Audubon Zoo until now.

Two gharials were hatched in September, doubling the Audubon population to four. Currently, there are only about 30 gharials on exhibit in American zoos.

Breeding false gharial crocodiles is difficult because they require settings similar to their natural swamp and river habitat in the jungles of Malaysia, Borneo and Sumatra.

The species is considered to be one of the most critically threatened of all crocodilians, and was alarmingly close to extinction in the 1970s. The major threat is habitat loss due to human encroachment and disruption of populations through fishing and hunting activities.

In recent years, however, there have been signs of recovery. Audubon Zoo has been trying for years to mate one of its false gharials with one on loan from the Houston Zoo.

Melanie Litton, senior reptile keeper at Audubon, said the success story may be due, in part, to putting the male gharial on a diet. "Obesity can effect potency in all kinds of animals, including humans," Litton said.

Of a clutch of about 20 eggs, two were successfully fertilized, she said. Audubon Zoo will keep one gharial while the other will go to the Houston Zoo.

They are only a few inches long now, but will grow up to 15 feet - a testament to the advanced care and expertise of the animal staff at Audubon Zoo.

Audubon Nature Institute is a 501(c)3 not for profit that operates a family of museums and parks dedicated to nature. These New Orleans facilities include: Audubon Park, Audubon Zoo,Woldenberg Riverfront Park, Audubon Aquarium of the Americas, Freeport-McMoRan Audubon Species Survival Center, Entergy IMAX® Theatre, Audubon Center for Research of Endangered Species, Audubon Wilderness Park, Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium and Audubon Nature Institute Foundation. Ron Forman is President and CEO of Audubon Nature Institute.