Al Shindagah Magazine The Oryx

In the second of a series on Arabia's wildlife, Zac Sharpe takes a look at the Arabian Oryx

The OryxThe Arabian oryx, with its curved, long and beautiful horns, is probably responsible for the fable of the unicorn. Once prolific throughout the Arabian Peninsula, the oryx is now an endangered species found only in captivity - a fate predicted by the hardy English explorer Wilfred Thesiger fifty years ago in his book Arabian Sands.

"The size of a small donkey, I could see his long straight horns, two feet or more in length, his pure white body, and the dark markings on his legs and face. He stopped suspiciously less than two hundred yards away. Bin Kabina whispered to me to shoot. Slowly I pressed the trigger. The oryx spun round and galloped off.

Mohammed muttered disgustedly, "A clean miss," and Bin Kabina said loudly, "If you had let Bin Ghabaisha shoot we would have had meat for supper."

In his second crossing of the Empty Quarter in 1948 Thesiger pondered on the fate of this curious inhabitant of the arid lands skirting the region's deserts.

He later prophesied with an almost unerring accuracy, unlike his shooting, that the oryx faced imminent extinction. It is sad to think that the Arabian oryx and the gazelles are doomed as soon as cars penetrate into the southern desert. Unfortunately oryx prefer the hard flat sands and gravel plains to the heavy dunes. Since they differ from the four species to be found in Africa, it means that yet another kind of animal will soon be extinct.

By 1960 the oryx population had dwindled to less than 50 animals in existence. At this late stage of the animal's lifeline, conservation groups stepped in to rescue and rejuvenate the unique creature.

The Operation Oryx campaign, as it came to be known, captured four animals and shipped them to the United States, although one died from a bullet wound it carried from an early fraternisation with humans. At the Phoenix Zoo in Arizona, United States, a captive breeding programme was begun which was further bolstered by the arrival of 13 oryx from a private herd belonging to King Saud of Saudi Arabia. By the mid-1970s the herd numbered more than 300 and the immediate future of the oryx, in captivity at least, was assured.

Today, thanks largely to breeding programmes in Oman dating back to the 1970s, the oryx are again roaming the Arabian Peninsula, albeit in small numbers. The animals have adapted well to the wild and numbers continue to increase each year.

The OryxAccording to Terry Bailey of the Environmental Research and Wildlife Development Agency (ERWDA) much of the success is attributable to the education of local tribesmen who had historically hunted the herds for the luxury of fresh meat.

"If it wasn't for the rebreeding programmes we wouldn't have oryx at all today," she explained. "But much of the success of the re-introduction into the wild has been because of Oman's focus on informing and changing the attitude of local people."

"The government offers a salary to certain tribes who are assigned to the protection of a particular herd. They become keepers rather than hunters," said Bailey.

Historically the oryx lived in herds of 200 or more, roaming through Arabia and the Gulf States, up through Jordan and into Syria and Iraq. It had always been a prized trophy for bedu tribesmen who, hunting on foot or from camel with a primitive rifle, were unlikely to have significantly depleted the populations.

But from 1945, motorised hunting and automatic weapons caused a severe contraction of its range and numbers. It became extinct in 1972, with the exception of a few private collections in Arabia, including the UAE, and the World Herd in the USA.

The oryx that is today reclaiming its place in the wild is a hardy creature who almost rivals the camel in tenacity and suitability to its arid terrain. In the desert environment which modern man can barely tolerate without an air-conditioned four-wheel drive, temperatures move from one cruel extreme to another. In summer months the mercury tips 50 degrees Celsius. In winter the cold nights plummet to as low as six degrees and are accompanied by strong winds.

Rain may be a mere memory for years and natural ground water in short supply. With seedlings lying dormant, food and shelter can be in short supply. If that is not enough to make life unendurable, sand storms which reduce visibility to a few feet provide the final touch.

Of all the oryx species, gemsbok in the Kalahari desert, scimitar-horned oryx in the Sahara and the Beisa of the East African Somali desert, none equals the Arabian oryx as a desert specialist. At a quarter of the weight of its Kalahari cousin, the Arabian beast lives, by necessity, on a sparser diet. Its colour patterning has been simplified to produce a predominantly white coat which helps reflect the hot desert sun. On a winter morning the oryx's coat will take on a suede tone and its hairs will stand erect to absorb the sun's warmth.

Like the camel, the oryx has splayed hoofs to increase the surface area of the feet enabling an easier gait on the soft desert sand. While the oryx is no sprint queen, it can put in a credible ultra-marathon walking performance, with one-day walks of 30 kilometres common and strolls twice that distance infrequently recorded.

The oryx used to live in herds of 200 but more usually are found in groups of 20-60. With population density kept in tight check by the adverse living conditions, oryx maintain a strictly closed membership made up of roughly the same number of males and females to ensure their survival. A strict hierarchy prevails with an adult male leading the way. But aside from this patriarch, all other males rank below the adult females of the herd.

Challenges to the leadership are understandable given the reigning bull is the only one who mates with the females. During his dominance, all calves are his half siblings.

Between males there can be severe fighting, although females also brandish the long horns in order to protect their patches of food. On the whole, however, the oryx have a relaxed attitude which helps reduce unnecessary expenditure of energy.

Their tolerance of each other allows them to comfortably spend up to eight hours a day during summer huddled under small areas of available shade. Their diminutive stature allows them to creep under small acacia canopies for shelter. These trees, like the oryx, are natives of Africa but smaller in the Arabian deserts. The oryx has sensitive hearing, highly developed vision, an acute sense of smell and its ability to go without water for long periods of time is legendary.

The oryx's thirst is satisfied in periods without water courtesy of a special adaptation of its kidneys. Feeding on plants and living on the morning dew of leaves can sustain an oryx for months or even years without it having to directly drink from a water source. If rain does fall, even many kilometres away, the oryx can home in to the spot. Although this instinct is still something of a mystery to researchers, they believe an in-built radar system is in operation.

The members of a feeding herd spread out until neighbours may be 50 - 100 metres apart. But constant visual checking, especially in undulating terrain, ensures that the animals keep in touch. Cohesion is helped by strong synchronisation of activity within the herd. When the herd is trekking, a sub-dominant male leads up to 100 metres in front. Changes of direction when feeding can only be initiated by the adult females. She will start in the new direction, then stop and look over her shoulder at the others until more or, gradually, all start to follow her. Separation from the herd seems accidental. Single oryx search for their herd and can recognise and follow fresh tracks in the sand. Moreover, as oryx are visible to the naked eye at three kilometres in sunlight, the white coat may have evolved partially as a flag to assist herd location in an open environment where merging with the environment is less necessary. Non-human predators such as the Arabian wolf and striped hyena have never been abundant.

The OryxHumans were not always the curse of the Arabian oryx and its place in Arabic folklore and poetry as the fauna of inspiration is probably surpassed only by the camel.

In the early Islamic era, the Umayyed poet Umar ibn Abi Rabi'ah wrote: "Graceful as an oryx they brought her out, slowly walking between five budding beauties".

Hafsah Al-Rakuniyah, an Arab Andalusian poetess, compared her own beauty to the oryx, albeit immodestly, when she said: "My eyes are more beautiful than those of the desert oryx and my neck is more elegant than that of a wild gazelle"; and the 13th century mystic poet, Ibn Al-Farid figuratively asked: "Have you seen a lion slain by the glance of an oryx or a gazelle?"

The Arabs have admired the oryx for its whiteness and have called it Wahedi Arabi as an indication of its clear, vivid colour. It was also called Wild Cow and it was described as a twinkling star glittering in the sky.

Arab poets have long described the oryx battles with hunters and their dogs and they never wished the hunters to win the battle. Indeed, they revelled in the oryx defeating the hunting dogs and articulated their joy in writing. The oryx was a symbol of power, dignity and pride because it never ran from a prospective battle but would consistently follow its attacker until it either won or lost the bout. Almost all Arab poems ended with the oryx triumphing over man's own hunting dogs. A herd of oryx were likened by poets to a "beautiful forest in a barren desert"

If today's young romantics are to become tomorrow's oryx- inspired poets, the concerted efforts to breed and repatriate the herds to the wild are crucial. Projects such as that initiated by UAE president, His Highness Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Nayhan on the pristine hide-away Sir Baniyas Island, off the coast of Abu Dhabi, play a vital role in boosting stock numbers and providing research opportunities.

A three and a half hour boat ride from the capital, Sir Baniyas is presently restricted to about 80 visitors a week who have been granted special permission to tour the nature reserve. The island is a secluded sanctuary for animals and a green house for the experimental cultivation of a wide variety of non-indigenous plants. It has won international acclaim and media coverage for its endeavours, not least of all for its industrious oryx breeding programme. The island is home to an estimated 22 species of mammal, including a population of 30,000 gazelles.

But it is the cautious success of the oryx programme which has warranted much of the attention. From just four females and two males plucked from the wild fifteen years ago, their numbers have blossomed to more than 120. There is speculation that the island may be opened for limited tourism in the coming years with much of the income generated being channelled into environmental projects.

Unfortunately, human greed has the potential to undermine the attempts of conservationists to reintroduce oryx to the wild. ERWDA's Bailey said that despite the best efforts of Oman's authorities in appointing local tribesmen as custodians of the endangered species, animal smugglers have still managed to bribe the locals.

"There is evidence that the smuggling cartels are bribing locals with more than the government could ever hope to pay the tribes legitimately, and importing the animals through Buraimi and into the UAE and other Gulf States," she said.

The results are catastrophic and tragic for the herds and smuggled animals alike.

"When you talk about first subduing a 100 kilogram animal against its will, then transporting it from the desert to a private collector who has little or no knowledge of how to sustain such an exotic animal, then the result is usually a drawn out death," she said. "This, all for the sake of personal status."