When the world's environmental groups first came to the defense of the Arabian oryx, one plan was to establish a herd in Kenya — where another species of oryx already lived and flourished. Because of an outbreak of hoof-and-mouth disease, however, the Kenya plan was dropped and the oryx destined for Kenya were shipped to Arizona instead.
Arizona was chosen because that state's climate was not unlike that of the oryx's natural habitat, and it proved to be successful beyond any expectations. By November 1979, offshoots from the herd were so numerous that the Arabian Oryx World Herd Trustees decided to'transfer ownership of the animals to zoos which had been sent World Herd offspring.
At the same time, the trustees recommended dissolution of the World Herd Trusteeship, since, in effect, its work was done. As Oryx magazine said in April 1980: "The World Herd had become a small proportion of the Arabian oryx now in captivity, so successful has the breeding of these animals in captivity been in recent years."
By then, obviously, the project was on the road to success — thanks to a variety of national and international organizations: the Fauna Preservation Society (FPS, now the Fauna and Flora Preservation Society), originator of Operation Oryx, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), whose money once saved the project at a crucial point, the Arizona Zoological Society and the Zoological Society of San Diego, whose zoos actually housed and bred the animals in captivity, as well as governments and individuals.
Nevertheless, the project at that point was still incomplete. From the beginning, the ultimate goal was restoration of the oryx to the wild—which was not to be achieved until the 1980's when 10 oryx were transferred from the San Diego Wildlife Park to a small desert station called Yalooni.
This transfer was by no means simple; the logistics of moving large animals halfway around the world on scheduled cargo flights are formidable. On the initial 1964 transfer, for instance, four oryx from Saudi Arabia's Riyadh Zoo, carefully crated, had a long, complicated flight to the States: by Trans-Mediterranean Airways (TMA) to Beirut, by Pan American to Rome and, after two days in quaran tine in Naples, to New jersey for another 30 days in quarantine, before going on to Phoenix. Now, in 1980, as their offspring were to make the return journey, we discovered that though the flights were faster, the logistics were virtually unchanged: documentation for the export of an Endangered Species from the U.S. as well as clean-bill-of-health certificates required for import to Oman, was copious, for example, and last minute arrangements made over the telephone were hampered by the 12-hour time difference between California and Oman.
Eventually, though, the oryx from the San Diego Wild Animal Park—crated individually in timber boxes, well ventilated with hay on the floor to eat or lie on — left California. After routings through New York and Europe and changes of planes, they headed for Muscat International Airport. There were, as noted, two consign mentsandl personally accompanied the first batch.
At Muscat, the crated oryx were shifted in Skyvan planes of the Oman's airforce and flown to Yalooni 500 kilometers (300 miles) into the desert, to be greeted by an enthusiastic crowd of Harasis rangers and spectators.
Released from their boxes one at a time, into 20 by 20 meter pens, the oryx, even though crated for 90 hours, sprang out and explored the new quarters at a spirited trot. After the first batch had arrived — restoring this species to Oman soil—the Bedu rangers murmured in agreement that these certainly were the same animals that they knew long ago and were not impostors.
At Yalooni, of course, preparations had been underway to insure that the oryx would settle into their new home as swiftly and easily as possible. In addition to a research laboratory and a number of cabins, offices and tents—to house 30 people — we also built a series of pens, the two 20 x 20 pens (60' by 60') and five smaller ones — so that the animals could be isolated when necessary — and the large one-kilometer-square enclosure with chain-link fencing two meters (seven feet) high.
The enclosure was important. Since past experiments showed that large mammals returning to the wild tend to scatter, and die as a result, we had decided to establish a cohesive herd—that is, a herd that would stay together when released. We hoped that in a large enclosure with conditions identical to their natural habitat, the physiological and behavioral adaptations needed for survival would be revived: the oryx's legendary ability to survive without drinking water, an essential characteristic in the Jiddah's waterless conditions, and knowledge of how and when to graze to mitigate the extremes of the desert climate.
Although confident that the oryx still possessed these capabilities, we weren't sure that zoo animals would know—or would learn — what vegetation might lie over the next rise in the Jiddat-al-Harasis — and survival might depend on that knowledge.
Initially, the trustees of the World Herd had agreed to provide six male and six female oryx and we had hoped to get an already "integrated" herd. Unfortunately the park had no facilities for this integration process, so the oryx arrived in Oman in batches, the March, 1980 batch, consisting of three males, of varying ages, and two females.
Nine months later, five more arrived: a male and two females from San Diego and a male and a female from the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownesville, Texas. The newcomers in the pens proved an attraction to the herd in the enclosure, but it was two months before we released the Texan pair and three weeks more before the remaining animals joined them.
Initially, each addition resulted in antagonism between the established herd members and the newcomers, in the form of threats and lunges between females, or fighting between adult males. Within a month, however, a stable social order was established, the newcomers finding their places.
As a result, the herd, by the fall of 1981, was foraging as a coherent group, usually spread over a front no more than 100 meters wide, and began to exploit the vegetation more efficiently.
Problems did occur. The youngest male was bitten by a carpet viper (Echis carinatus) and died, and the first calf born — in May 1980 — was rejected by the mother and had to be hand-reared. But our fears that the zoo-bred oryx would not know how to exploit their native environment seemed groundless. The first animals released in the enclosure started to graze on grass clumps almost immediately.
The oryx also realized quickly that the umbrella-shaped Acacia tortilis -with its dense canopy — is a fine refuge from the sun and that the Acacia ehrenbergiana, a lower, scrubby form, can be used as a night-time wind-break.
Because the desert climate is extreme— the daily temperature variation is about 20°C— the oryx must "fine-tune" the times at which they enter or leave the shade in accordance with each day's weather. In the 1981 summer, furthermore, all adults developed sparse, short coats of a blinding whiteness. These coats are thinner than those developed in the less extreme California climate; one visible proof of gradual acclimation and physiological adaptation to the climate of their new home environment.
At last, then, satisfied that the herd was as ready as it ever would be, we fixed a date for the release — January 31,1982 — and watched them go — rather like mothers taking their children to kindergarten. Though we had done all we could—and were going to be around for help for a long time — it was now up to them.
Mark Stanley-Price, a former game warden in Kenya, heads the Yalooni project in Oman.