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Oryx from unicorns grow
Virginia Kraft
February 05, 1973
The two-pronged Arabian oryx was becoming as much a fable as its one-horned cousin until an international rescue team got to work
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February 05, 1973

Oryx From Unicorns Grow

The two-pronged Arabian oryx was becoming as much a fable as its one-horned cousin until an international rescue team got to work

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"The world is changing too fast," Machris said, "to try to protect an endangered species by merely protecting its habitat. Too many factors, most man-created, upset the balance of nature in a wild reserve." He called the project "the most important example in history of international cooperation to save a single species of animal from extinction."

But before the Arabian oryx could be saved, it had to be caught. Ian Grimwood, chief game warden for Kenya, was chosen to lead a seven-man capturing expedition into the barren wastes of the Empty Quarter. It was a formidable assignment. Because of the climate and nature of the terrain, horses and dogs were ruled out as possible capturing aids. A special car—tough enough to withstand rough terrain, and large enough to take the animals aboard—had to be designed and built. Because so little was known about the oryx' tolerance for drugs, tranquilizers were ruled out in favor of old-fashioned cowboy-style lassos. Once caught, there was the problem of getting the animals out of the desert and then of where to put them.

One objective was to find a location as similar as possible to the oryx' natural habitat. The animals needed long-term protection so that they would have optimum chance to breed and increase to a point that might someday make it feasible to reintroduce the oryx into its native Arabia.

After months of consideration, it was finally decided that the climate and terrain of Phoenix, Ariz. were best suited for the animal's survival. Temporary or interim holding quarters were set up at Isiolo, Kenya. The East African Wild Life Society made a Piper airplane available to the expedition for spotting, and the RAF volunteered its services for transporting equipment into and animals out of Arabia. The governments of Kenya, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Arizona Air National Guard and the Naples ( Italy) Zoo all contributed in one form or another to the project.

"It is interesting to note," says Machris, "that American and European hunters played a vital and primary role in saving the Arabian oryx, although neither the animal nor its habitat had ever been a customary target for them. This preservation attempt stemmed solely from a genuine concern over a threatened species rather than from a possibly selfish desire to see the animals listed as one of the world's big-game trophy animals."

It is interesting, too, that the seven men on that original capturing expedition had among them virtually no specialized knowledge of the Arabian oryx or long-term interest in the animal. They were principally scientists—zoologists, botanists, a veterinarian—selected because of particular skills or talents they might lend to this unusual search.

The expedition moved into the Empty Quarter—a still comparatively unknown country—and began the search. Beset by sand, sun and heat, plagued by equipment breakdowns and frustrated by the elusiveness of the animal, the men began to question its very existence. But the determination of Anthony Shepherd, who wrote a book, The Flight of the Unicorns, about the adventure, and his associates finally succeeded in rescuing the first three animals that would become the World Pool of Arabian Oryx. Its numbers were swelled almost immediately by the contribution of a female, one of two oryx from the London Zoo. Encouraged by worldwide publicity, the sheikh of Kuwait donated a female from his private collection. Not to be outdone, the ruler of Saudi Arabia contributed two males and two females.

The first members of the World Pool were delivered by Shikar-Safari to The Phoenix Zoo in Arizona in the winter of 1963. On hand for their arrival were Maury Machris and a group of zoo officials. They had good reason for anxiety. There were few precedents for the raising of oryx. So little was known about the animal that even its gestation period was a mystery. And no one could be sure the animal would adapt to its new environment.

In its native desert, the oryx eats scrub vegetation with a nutritional content about equal to week-old clippings of Bermuda grass. It drinks about two ounces of water daily, extracted as moisture from leaves and plants. In the desert it is accustomed to temperature extremes ranging from 130� to freezing. Few forms of animal life exist in much of its environment, thus there are limited outside sources of infection.

Each day officials at the zoo recorded weather, temperature, food and water consumed and dozens of other related facts and observations about the new inhabitants of Phoenix. Except for large saguaros with spines clipped up beyond reach of the animals, all cacti were removed from the oryx enclosures, leaving only paloverde and ironwood trees and creosote bushes. Double fences with wooden boards at eye level were erected to give the animals greater security than chain link fences.

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