Today we see national and international news coverage announcing that the Arabian oryx is officially saved in the wild. This is a tremendous step for endangered species and shows what collaborative conservation can do. The San Diego Zoo Safari Park was instrumental in this recovery effort, as most of the animals that are in the wild today have descended from individuals born at the Park or were collected from other institutions, brought to the Park, and readied for their return to Oman in the early days of our endangered species breeding program. These animals, more than 20 in all, were sent back to Oman from 1980 to 1989 in a series of 6 moves.
Back then, reintroducing animals to their native country was a new thing. I remember the first flight: long journeys from the Safari Park to New York, then to Amsterdam, and finally to Oman. The last flight was in a small cargo plane flying 300 miles (480 kilometers) into the desert to the reserve area with just me and a few young oryx. It was a long flight for the animals as well as the staff who took care of them en route. I will never forget unloading the oryx at the site. I am still not sure who was more relieved when they were unloaded—the animals or me!
Because animals like oryx are naturally shy of predators and flighty in their behavior, we usually moved oryx that were young and very used to the presence of humans. Once they arrived in Oman, they were placed in highly managed areas and supported by people caring for them—surrounded by the desert but cared for much as they had been at the Safari Park. It took years for them to become fully acclimated, and it is really their descendants that are truly wild again in the deserts of Arabia.
Any animal release into the wild is wonderful. But I wish you all could have been there to see these beautiful, long-legged white antelope as they moved out into the pale desert sands of their native home—and the look of pride and caring given them on the faces of the Omani caretakers. These memories will always be some of my best.
Randy Rieches is curator of mammals at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.