By Carrie Flood

Phoenix Zoo Arabian Oryx

First Arabian oryx calf born at the Phoenix Zoo in 1960

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums are leaders in tackling the conservation problems facing the planet today. In 2017 alone, AZA-member institutions contributed about 160 million dollars to over 2,500 conservation initiatives in more than 100 countries. We support the efforts of local communities all over the world to save species in their own backyard through monetary grants, education programs and staffing.

Research conducted in zoos has helped protect endangered animals and their habitats around the world. Did you know, for example, that zoos are pioneering in vitro fertilization techniques that may one day be used to boost wild populations of tigers?  It’s true! And there is so much more! Recently the technique was successful with white rhinos, raising the possibility that the Northern white rhino could be brought back from the brink. With just two female Northern white rhinos left, the species would be considered lost if not for the work of zoos.

My name is Carrie, and I work as an educator at Phoenix Zoo. I try really hard to get people excited about animals, and I hope that I inspire some people to help out our planet and care about the animals we share it with.

One thing I know for sure is that most people have no idea how much conservation work goes on at zoos. So that’s what this blog is about: all the important stuff going on that you don’t see when you’re eye to eye with one of our Sumatran tigers.

I’ll take you behind the scenes here at the Arizona Center for Nature Conservation (ACNC) and share some of the amazing conservation stories we are working on. But if you’re going to understand how committed we are to conservation, we’ve got to go back to the very beginning…

6.2 million years ago… haha…  just kidding.

The year is 1962. The Phoenix Zoo has just opened and is struggling to get off the ground. (Our origin story is pretty cool. You can read all about it here.) On the other side of the globe, the Arabian oryx, a beautiful white antelope, are disappearing fast. Poaching has reduced the number of wild oryx to fewer than 100, although no one is sure exactly how many are left because there is precious little information about wild oryx populations.

Conservation agencies around the world decide that the best hope for the oryx is to establish a breeding captive population as a safeguard against extinction. The Phoenix Zoo, though young and unproven, is selected as the breeding facility because it has a desert climate similar to the native habitat of the oryx.

With that, “Operation Oryx” was launched to capture a few wild oryx and establish a herd in captivity. In April 1962, a team that included a pilot, a veterinarian, capture experts, game wardens, translators, and local guides headed out from the City of Mukalla near the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula and into the habitat of the last remaining wild oryx. A difficult overland journey of almost 400 miles, extreme heat, close quarters and constant equipment failures were not enough to deter the team, and after several days they had successfully captured 2 males and a female. These three animals were shipped to the town of Senau, where they were cared for as preparations were made to fly them to their new home in Phoenix.

After a quarantine period in Africa, the three oryx arrived in Phoenix via New York on June 25. Realizing that three animals are insufficient to start a viable captive population, organizers of Operation Oryx began searching for animals in other zoos and private collections. By 1964, with the addition of a young female from the London Zoo, and an additional five animals from private collections in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, Phoenix was home to the “World Herd;” a total of nine Arabian oryx. This wasn’t going to be easy even if nothing else went wrong, but something did. Two of the oryx turned out to be incapable of breeding, so that effectively placed the future of the species squarely on the graceful horns of seven animals. Luckily, success came early in the form of a male calf born in October of 1963. The next calf was also a male. So was the next one, and the next. The first six calves born in Phoenix were all males, leaving experts scratching their heads as the outlook for the species began to look bleak.

Within two years female calves began to arrive, and the herd steadily began to grow throughout the 1960s and 1970s. In 1966, the Los Angeles Zoo acquired two oryx from a private owner in Saudi Arabia and began a breeding program of their own. In 1972, the last wild Arabian oryx disappeared, and the animals were declared extinct in the wild. The Phoenix Zoo was still home to the World Herd, which by then numbered just 35 individuals. Experts decided to place animals at other zoos to guard against disease and promote genetic diversity. The first six individuals went to the San Diego Zoo, and by 1979 the Phoenix Zoo was sending oryx to zoos around the country and in Europe.

In 1980, with the captive population at approximately 400 individuals, the Zoo sent three female oryx to a fenced reserve in Jordan that was part of the historical range. With the yearly addition of animals from captive herds in other zoos, by 1995 the wild population had grown to approximately 400 oryx in several countries. Since then, there have been setbacks and successes in the wild. The future is brighter, but not yet guaranteed for this magnificent animal. Next time you’re at the Zoo, swing by and say hi to the great-great-great-great… (?) grandkids of those animals that made up the World Herd. The Phoenix Zoo is proud to have played a role in saving Arabian Oryx from extinction and continues this legacy of conservation that began with nine animals in 1962.

Check back here for more conservation stories. I think you’ll be surprised. Until next time….