Water, provided in rubber buckets to prevent the oryx from injuring themselves, was carefully rationed because there was danger that the animals, unaccustomed to an abundant water supply, might overdrink and become ill. All food and equipment were sterilized to prevent introduction of foreign bacteria, and personnel admitted to the compounds were first required to dip their shoes in antiseptic footbaths.
Punching-bag-like sacks were put in some of the pens to give the animals a target other than zoo officials into which to hook their horns when feeling obstreperous, which was less and less often as the normally docile animals not only became acclimatized to their new environment but appeared to thrive. Several months after arrival, one of the females captured by the original Empty Quarter expedition produced the first World Pool dividend. The new calf weighed in at 17 pounds and answered one question: the gestation period of an Arabian oryx is 260 days.
This fact has been regularly substantiated in recent years as the herd at Phoenix grew from its original nine members to 36. Such increase is even more extraordinary when one considers that animals captured in the wild, although they will and often do breed in captivity, rarely produce progeny that breeds. As experience in conventional zoos has shown, the young, usually isolated from their parents from birth, have failed to acquire the normal behavior patterns of their species. But at The Phoenix Zoo the newborn oryx were left with their mothers in their simulated wild habitats. Zoo officials gambled that this would give the young an opportunity to learn the natural territorial patterns and herd life of their family group. The gamble paid off. All of the young born at Phoenix have bred upon reaching adulthood; in six cases both parents have been second generation.
"Total success," says Machris. "Until that happened, we couldn't say that we had really turned the corner."
With the transfer of six Phoenix animals to the San Diego Zoo this winter, Operation Oryx turned still another corner. Officials had long been concerned about the risks involved in concentrating all of the animals in a single locale. The danger, for example, of an epidemic disease wiping out the entire herd was ever present. Ten years ago Shepherd had hoped, but with little expectation, that the nucleus of another breeding herd might be established as insurance against possible disaster and also to permit eventual cross-breeding of the two herds to strengthen the strain and reduce inbreeding.
The day when the herds of oryx on this side of the world will be large enough to return to the wild deserts they once roamed is still far in the future, but the fact that there is any future at all is a dramatic example of international conservation on a grand scale.