O’FALLON, Mo. (AP) — The St. Louis Zoo plans to use land it owns in a rural area of Missouri as habitat for a wolf breed on the verge of extinction, zoo officials said Monday.

Only about 20 American red wolves remain in the wild due mostly to illegal hunting, vehicle strikes and habitat loss. Plans call for wolves to live and breed on the Sears Lehmann Jr. Wildlife Reserve, a protected setting that was donated to the zoo in 1993. The reserve is in Franklin County, Missouri, about 40 miles (65 kilometers) southwest of St. Louis.

Zoo officials said 20 of the reserve’s 355 acres will be set aside for 12 mating pairs of wolves, which will be brought in from other conservation organizations in 2022. The site will not be open for visitors because the wolves need to learn natural survival skills while avoiding human interaction, zoo leaders said.

The zoo describes American red wolves as secretive and elusive, mostly active after dusk. They typically have one breeding pair in each close-knit pack.

“American red wolves are key species,” zoo CEO Jeffrey Bonner said in a news release. “Once populations are restored, they should create a balanced natural environment, fulfilling their predator-related roles to maintain stability within the ecosystem.”

The effort is in collaboration with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Conservation Centers for Species Survival, which is providing grant money. Private donors also are supporting the habitat, the zoo said.

The zoo has a long history in wolf conservation. Marlin Perkins, who gained fame as the host of TV’s “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom,” retired as director of the zoo in 1970 and was part of a group that founded the Endangered Wolf Center in St. Louis County.

The center remains a leading advocate for protecting endangered wild canid species, including the American red wolf, and worked with the zoo in planning the new habitat.