Beyond the Imagination: Zoos in Conservation Chapter 2: For Greater Purpose

If you ask a child to draw a picture of a zoo, it could be some animal behind the bar or in the cage. Modern zoos are changing that perception and building a new story for the coming generations to see zoos differently. Contemporary zoos are not housing animals in exhibits for people to just glance at them, for the zoos there is a greater purpose – conservation of the species.

Mission Arabian Oryx – saving species

The journey from extinction in the wild and rewriting their fate in the early 1960s at Phoenix Zoo with only nine individuals to currently being over 1000 individuals flourishing in the wild – the Arabian Oryx or White Oryx (Oryx leucoryx) has been the success story in the history of ex-situ species conservation and reintroduction. Most of the wild Oryx individuals can trace back their origin to the Phoenix Zoo.

The one-horned unicorn myth is maybe based on Oryxes that have lost one horn.

Currently estimated 6000-7000 individuals are under managed care worldwide. It’s an absolute delight to watch the roughly milky white antelope painted with black legs and a short tail. Black patch marks at the nose and lower jaw. Both sexes crowned with slightly curved slim aligned horns. Historically the species was plausibly distributed all through most of the Middle East but in the mid-twentieth century, they were restricted to the northwestern part of Saudi Arabia and south of the Rab Al Khali. They prefer hard sand and gravel desert areas. Oryxes mainly had gone extinct due to excessive hunting activities in their range. Phoenix Zoo and, Fauna and Flora International with financial support from the World Wide Fund for Nature had started Operation Oryx.

Operation Oryx

The goals of operation Oryx were to capture a possible number of Oryxes from the wild and lay the foundation of Arabian Oryx captive breeding programme – first ever of its kind and once a sufficient number of individuals reached in captivity initiate the reintroduction programme. Two male and a female were captured from the Mukalla region in Yemen. A young female donated by Landon Zoo, two males and two females provided by King Saud of Saudi Arabia and a female contributed by H. E. Sheikh Jabir Abdullah al Sabah of Kuwait form his private collection. The founder stock of nine individuals was ready to save the species.

Oryxes able to detect rainfall from a distance and direct themselves to fresh plant growth, they mainly feed on grasses.

Phoenix Zoo has bred over 240 Oryx individuals and transferred to several zoos. The first-ever release of the Oryxes was in Oman in 1982 followed by the second release in 1984 and by the end of 1990 there was a self-sufficient population of 100 individuals using the range of over 11000 sq km, the population continues to grow. Later on, the reintroduction of Arabian Oryx took place to several states – Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Israel and the United Arab Emirates.

Arabian Oryx at Char Bar Yotvata, Israel (Source – internet)

Collaboration is a Good Idea

The success of the Arabian Oryx project was due to uninterrupted diligent efforts of several state governments, multiple zoos and dedicated conservation organizations across the globe. The immense cooperative approach by the stakeholders involved in the Oryx project paved the animal conservation that becomes the predominant model in the history of species conservation and reintroduction under human care. The success articulates that different organizations, governments and other stakeholders can work collectively and collaboratively towards conserving an animal species. The Arabian Oryx being relisted from extinct to vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), it is also protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) under Appendix I – the highest possible protection under the treaty.

Zoos in collaboration with multiple agencies created a unique platform for species conservation which otherwise would never be possible.

Successful conservation needs effective collaborations.

Reference and further reading

Greth, A., & Schwede, G. (1993). The reintroduction programme for the Arabian oryx Oryx leucoryx in Saudi Arabia. International Zoo Yearbook, 32(1), 73–80.

Spalton, J. A., Lawerence, M. W., & Brend, S. A. (1999). Arabian oryx reintroduction in Oman: successes and setbacks. Oryx, 33(2), 168–175. 10.1046/j.1365-3008.1999.00062.x

Chapter 2 For Greater Purpose
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