Thursday night, THV 11's Liz Massey took you on the hunt for the Ozark Hellbender, which is animal many people don't even know exists.

The mission to save their lives is underway and it's happening across the border in Missouri.

The Eleven Point River in Randolph County is considered by many to be the most pristine in the Ozarks. It's a place of beauty, a place of peace, and a place home to a big problem.

"We're catching fewer and fewer animals, but most importantly we're not catching baby animals anymore. The numbers are dropping, we're not seeing recruitment behind them so that tells us there's a problem with these animals and we have to reverse this," said Jeff Briggler, a Herpetologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation.

If you're lucky, just below the surface you'll see what Briggler is talking about. The Hellbenders are slimy, slippery, live under the rocks, and look like prehistoric creatures. They're also in danger of becoming extinct.

"Once these older and bigger animals die off, there is nothing behind them to replace them," said Briggler.

Briggler is on the mission because Arkansas and his home state are trying to save the Ozark Hellbender. You can't find them anywhere else in the world except in Arkansas and the Ozarks of southern Missouri.

That's why Arkansas Game and Fish herpetologist Kelly Irwin partnered with Briggler and Trisha Crabill with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Missouri to bring back this giant aquatic salamander from the edge of extinction.

"In one of our Ozark Hellbender rivers we haven't been able to find a hellbender probably in the last 20 to 25 years," said Briggler.

With less than 1,000 Hellbenders worldwide, flooding and erosion kill more of their habitat every year, but there is hope at the Saint Louis Zoo.

"Because the numbers are declining dramatically, in the population, we feel like we have to breed this animal and captive propagate it so we've been working with the Saint Louis Zoo since 2002 bringing animals into captivity to try and get them to breed naturally," Briggler said.

They do this by recreating the Hellbenders natural habitat with two outdoor streams, which are 40 feet long and 6 feet deep. There are also two large indoor rooms that serve as the headquarters for the Hellbender program. Just a few weeks ago, the zoo announced eight Ozark Hellbenders laid about 2,800 eggs. There are now more than 200 larvae.

This marks only the second time the endangered Hellbenders have bred in captivity nesting in artificial boxes that Briggler and a colleague developed a few years ago.

"There are only so many places these animals are going to reproduce and they feel safe to use these boxes," said Briggler.

Outside the zoo, they sink the boxes into rivers packing rocks around them. Briggler and his colleague put out the first seven boxes in Missouri, in June 2010. Five months later, he opened the lids.

"I could feel something was different here cause I've been working with this animal for so many years, and I said I got to get my camera, and I took the camera and set it there. He opened that box, and they were like golden nuggets. They got big yellow yolk sacks, and they were out to hatch in a week, and they all flittered in their yolk sacks."

That's when Briggler said they started building more nesting boxes.

"We came out to the rivers. We collected animals from the wild," including 6 from the Eleven Point in Arkansas, according to Briggler.

"We put them in an artificial raceway with the nest boxes, and to our surprise last year, we pulled off one of the lids and had a cluster full of eggs. And, we've been working so hard to get to that point since 2002. It was just like a golden moment for us all because we've got to be able to do this to save this animal," says Briggler.

Then a the second golden moment happened just a few weeks ago at the zoo.

Another surprise last happened last month on the Eleven Point River in Arkansas. Irwin and Briggler found a nesting box with about 500 eggs.

Back at the zoo, Briggler said, in 4 to 6 years, when these Hellbenders are big enough, they'll be released back into the river.

"Five years ago, if someone asked me if we could save this animal from going extinct I would have probably told you 'no,' and today, I am so much more hopeful. I mean we have a lot of problems to deal with from habitat changes, but we are buying time for this animal. I think we're going to save this animal. I really do," said Briggler.

Briggler said in Missouri, they released their first group of Ozark Hellbenders. Thirty-six animals were raised at the zoo and sent back into the wild in 2007. They monitored them over a two year period and about 50 percent survived at one site while 75 percent survived at another.

One day soon, Briggler and Irwin hope to release Hellbenders back into the Eleven Point River in Arkansas.

Today's THV 11 would like to thank the Saint Louis Zoo and Beyond Motion Productions for providing video about the program.

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