Maj. Ian Robert Grimwood, friend and savior of the Arabian oryx, yesterday accepted the $50,000 J. Paul Getty Conservation Prize, given by the World Wildlife Fund.

In 1962 the major could find only three of these antelopes and got them shipped to a breeding preserve in Arizona. Now they have increased to 100 and reintroduction to Arabia is planned for next year.

British Ambassador and Mrs. Peter Jay presided over tea at the British Embassy where the award was given, assisted, if that is the word, by the ancient embassy cat who at 15 years of age (the tail chewed off years ago by a raccoon, it is said) has retained a fondness for salmon sandwishes.

The dining room boasted four great urns of tea and Grade A sandwiches (most Washington functions with sandwiches economize on Grade D) and people stood in conservational virtue about the table speaking of elephants, whales and similar good things.

Jay said it was a wonderful change for him, though the problems of conservation may at last be as thorny as any - animals tend to flourish in the very regions that produce lumber and valuable farmland, and are under pressure as those lands are developed.

The British have discovered in little metal moulds like half-cucumbers, stuffed with fruit and cake. These were quite good, unless one is a snob about jelly powders.

The ambassador of Kenya was among the 50 who explored the tea table and wandered out in the sunshine as Ann Getty, granddaughter of the oilman who established the prize, and S. Dillon Ripley, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, cited the major.

Grimwood said his award was quite undeserved, but he was nonetheless chosen from 508 nominees from 59 countries.

It is one of the world's leading conductors of ecological surveys and has had an important role in wildlife parks in Zambia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Peru, Ecuador and Pakistan. He is now much interested in southern South America where he will use some of his prize money.

Someone inquired if the oryx is not rather like a small horse with twisted horns, and this brought on an animated discussion of the various subspecies of oryx, whose horns, are arcs, scimitars and spiral.

Seen from the side, at the right angle, one sort of oryx is very like a unicorn and may have been the model for that beast. Robinson McIlvaine, executive vice president of the African Wildlife Leadership Foundation (which established schools to train African wardens in Tanzania and Cameroons), said the oryx has possibilities as a domestic animal, since it can flourish on land that no cow would look at. Grimwood said that was possible, indeed, but felt the oryx (if everdone) could be as great a nuisance as the goat, which nibbles off every green thing.

But it is better, everyone agreed, to have a potential nuisance alive than an other addition to the list of extinct animals. The oryx can readily be captured and tamed, it is said, by any virgin with a lasso made of flowers. Which speaks well for the curators of Arizona, some speculated.