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Phoenix Zoo’s Operation Oryx Celebrates 50 Years

The Phoenix Zoo may have been voted one of the top 5 zoos for kids, but it has also emerged as a powerhouse in a more sophisticated arena–that of science and conservation.  Located in the northeastern region of the Sonora Desert– in what is truly the hottest climate for a major US city– the Phoenix Zoo...

The Phoenix Zoo may have been voted one of the top 5 zoos for kids, but it has also emerged as a powerhouse in a more sophisticated arena–that of science and conservation. 

Located in the northeastern region of the Sonora Desert– in what is truly the hottest climate for a major US city– the Phoenix Zoo is a specialist in conserving fauna native to desert biomes.  This includes the Southwestern United States and regions as far away as the Arabian Peninsula.

Most recently, the Zoo has focused resources on recovering wildlife populations that include native species such as the rare Chiricahua leopard frogs and the black-footed ferret.

This year, however, the Zoo celebrates the 50th anniversary of Operation Oryx–which began as the institution’s inaugural species restoration program and ultimately has become an iconic conservation success story for captive wildlife facilities worldwide.

In 1963 the zoo established the ‘World’s Herd’ of Arabian oryx just a year after opening its doors to visitors.

With three of its own individuals and additional founder stock from a few other zoos and private menageries, the Phoenix Zoo began breeding these endangered antelope that actually became extinct in the wild just 10 years later.

At the onset of the breeding effort the “real challenge” according to Stuart Wells, the Zoo’s Director of Conservation and Science was “could we get enough to reproduce enough so that we could actually send them back to their natural habitat?”

Since the first offspring of Arabian oryx were born at the Zoo a half century ago, nearly 240 oryx calves have been produced through the facility’s successful propagation program. In fact, after only a decade the herd had grown to be sustainable enough to move animals out to satellite breeding programs at other public zoological facilities.

In 1982 the first successful reintroduction of Arabian oryx took place in Oman, Jordan. Today there are now 1,000 free-ranging oryx in the wild with a captive population of about 7,000 individuals.

Last year a team of animal care experts from the Phoenix Zoo traveled to Jordan as a gesture of goodwill.  The trip around the globe offered an opportunity for the zoo professionals to assess the health of the oryx managed in a semi-wild herd at Jordan’s Shaumari Wildlife Reserve in the Eastern Desert or Badia region of the country.

In addition the staff conducted an assessment of husbandry programs for the semi-captive goiter gazelles and onagers–Asian wild asses– that also inhabit the reserve.

Aside from performing health exams and taking skin biopsies to determine genetic relatedness among the Shaumari oryx,  the Zoo staff advised the reserve managers on some specific animal management issues. For instance, Dan Subaitis (Director of Animal Management) described how to better design flood-resistant fences to secure the perimeter of the refuge.

Dan also demonstrated how to use a tamer and trained the Jordanians on the safe movement of individual antelope through the restraining chute. A tamer suspends the animal in the air to allow for horn trimming and other physical procedures, reducing stress and risk of injury to both the animal and the manager.

The visit  provided an opportunity to strengthen ties with Jordanian officials in an effort to build collaborative partnerships between two progressive conservation organizations.

The Phoenix Zoo’s relationship with Jordan’s Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature, the organization with oversight over the oryx program in Jordan and Syria, is only in its infancy. None-the-less, Dan and his colleagues were immediately impressed with how well trained the Arabian biologists and reserve managers were in antelope biology and husbandry. The team from Phoenix also met with contingents from Iraq, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia.

At one time Jordan was home to charismatic species such as lions, bears, zebras, rhinoceroses, and elephants. These species are now absent from the region.

Jordan has been trying to restore functionally extinct species to the Middle East for over forty years. The iconic species of the region, the Arabian or white oryx represents a come-back story for a beautiful antelope species that was extirpated as a result of over-hunting.

Conservation-minded from its inception, the Phoenix Zoo was quite a critical player in one of the first wildlife reintroduction programs of any zoo in the world. With financial assistance from the World Wide Fund for Nature (Formerly the World Wildlife Fund) and the UK’s Fauna and Flora International (the Fauna and Flora Preservation Society of London), the zoo embarked on Operation Oryx.  Fifty years later the Phoenix Zoo is still committed to the survival of the World’s Herd.

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Meet the Author

Author Photo Jordan Carlton Schaul
With training in wildlife ecology, conservation medicine and comparative psychology, Dr. Schaul's contributions to Nat Geo Voices have covered a range of environmental and social topics. He draws particular attention to the plight of imperiled species highlighting issues at the juncture or nexus of sorta situ wildlife conservation and applied animal welfare. Sorta situ conservation practices are comprised of scientific management and stewardship of animal populations ex situ (in captivity / 'in human care') and in situ (free-ranging / 'in nature'). He also has a background in behavior management and training of companion animals and captive wildlife, as well as conservation marketing and digital publicity. Jordan has shared interviews with colleagues and public figures, as well as editorial news content. In addition, he has posted narratives describing his own work, which include the following examples: • Restoration of wood bison to the Interior of Alaska while (While Animal Curator at Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center and courtesy professor at the University of Alaska) • Rehabilitation of orphaned sloth bears exploited for tourists in South Asia (While executive consultant 'in-residence' at the Agra Bear Rescue Center managed by Wildlife SOS) • Censusing small wild cat (e.g. ocelot and margay) populations in the montane cloud forests of Costa Rica for popular publications with 'The Cat Whisperer' Mieshelle Nagelschneider • Evaluating the impact of ecotourism on marine mammal population stability and welfare off the coast of Mexico's Sea of Cortez (With Boston University's marine science program) Jordan was a director on boards of non-profit wildlife conservation organizations serving nations in Africa, North and South America and Southeast Asia. He is also a consultant to a human-wildlife conflict mitigation organization in the Pacific Northwest. Following animal curatorships in Alaska and California, he served as a charter board member of a zoo advocacy and outreach organization and later as its executive director. Jordan was a member of the Communication and Education Commission of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (CEC-IUCN) and the Bear Specialist Group of the IUCN Species Survival Commission (BSG-SSC-IUCN). He has served on the advisory council of the National Wildlife Humane Society and in service to the Bear Taxon Advisory Group of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA Bear TAG). In addition he was an ex officio member of council of the International Association for Bear Research and Management. Contact Email: