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By: Marijcke Jongbloed

  One of the greatest success stories of saving an animal from the brink of extinction is that of the Arabian Oryx. I always think that by now surely everyone knows about this graceful animal and its amazing history but to my surprise I often meet people who will ask: “An Oryx, what kind of animal is that?”

  The Arabian Oryx (Oryx leucoryx) is a large antelope that crossed over to the Arabian Peninsula from Africa at the time when the two landmasses were still connected. There are several species of Oryx in Africa that have strong similarities to our local species but none are as well adapted to the harsh conditions of the desert. The Arabian Oryx, locally called “al maha” or “lbaqr al wahsh”, is large in size, reaching 1.50 m at the shoulder. Both, males and females, carry long tapering horns that are slightly curved and end in a very sharp point. When seen in profile, the two horns merge and the animal seems to carry only one horn. This accounts for the myth of the unicorn, animal of legends, that is depicted in many Medieval books and on old tapestries. The fur on the body is pure white, while the legs and face markings are black in the winter and grayish in the summer. The shiny white fur reflects the sunlight away from the body and is made up of hollow hairs that act as further insulation against the heat. Underneath, the skin is black so that the harmful ultraviolet rays of the sun cannot penetrate it. A thick fatty layer comes next – again insulation against the heat. The Oryx can allow its body temperature to go up higher than most mammals – up to 40ºC – without problems. Their kidneys have evolved to recycle their urine in order to preserve body fluids and their pellets are quite small and very dry, consisting of just indigestible plant fibbers. They have wide hooves that do not sink into the sand of the dunes, enabling them to travel fast and easy on the loose sands.

  The Oryx prefers to live on the gravel plains and wadi outflows (ramlat) at the edge of the sand dunes, where there are plenty of shade trees. Here they roam in small herds of 10 to 15 animals,  led by a dominant female. In dry times, they seek out the gullies where water drains from the mountains. And if they are disturbed they retire into the solitude and barrenness of the great red-and-silver dunes.

  They need very little water apart from the moisture in the plants and that of the early morning dew. They feed on “nussi” (Aristida plumosa), the yellow-flowered “alqa” (Dipterygium glaucum) and “sabat” (Asthenatum forsskahli). In particular they love “zahra” (Tribulus arabicus) – a beautiful yellow-flowered shrub that should in my opinion be the national flower of the UAE. They also dig for roots with their strong hooves, enjoying the succulence of “tartuth” – the red thumb (Cynomorium coccineum) and “thanun” – the desert hyacinth (Cistanche spp.). And if nothing else is available they will even eat the bitter fruits of the desert squash, “sherry” (Citrullus colocynthis).

  For many centuries the Oryx lived a peaceful life in the solitude of the great deserts. If some beduin managed to capture an animal for food, this did not deplete their numbers to any great extent. The few that were killed were replaced each year by the fawn-coloured young that were born after the females had been pregnant for eight months. They had no enemies to fear for the leopard lived in the mountains and the wolf and caracal could be easily handled by the antelopes’ sharp horns and strong hooves.

  In the middle of last century things began to go bad for the Arabian Oryx. Firearms became available, and cars, and when the combination of the 4WD and machineguns came into being, the Oryx were doomed. Hunting parties chased them far into their former safe haven, the high dunes of the Rub’ al Khali. By the early nineteen sixties only a few small herds still lived on the southern edge of the Empty Quarter, at Ramlat Shuwait. Then an expedition came from Qatar and killed 48 animals in one hunting trip and another 13 the next year. Only a handful of antelopes remained.

  Some wildlife conservationists, who had already been concerned at what was happening, now became panicky. A rescue operation was set up within a few months and in 1964 four Oryx were captured in south Yemen. They were first taken to the Hadhrami Beduin Legion fort, where a RAF transport plane flew them to Aden. There another plane took them to Kenya. There they had to wait for a few days before being transported to Italy for quarantine. Because the temperature in Nairobi was very low, the animals had to be kept warm and a private company dealing in electrical appliances brought all the electric ovens from their showroom to the holding sheds of the antelopes to help out.

  Other Oryx were found in private collections: one female Oryx was donated by London zoo, two females by Sheikh Jaber Abdullah Al Sabah in Kuwait and two pairs by King Saud bin Abdul Aziz in Saudi Arabia.

  They were transported and crated by Aramco, flown out on a special Pan-Am charter and quarantined at the expense of the Director of the Naples Zoo in Italy, together with the wild caught animals. Then all of them were flown to the United States, expenses paid by the World Wildlife Fund and many animal lovers, both private and organized in clubs. The Zoological Society of Arizona offered the facilities at the Phoenix zoo for the benefit of the small herd.

  So many people and institutions from so many different countries were involved in the rescue that it was proper that from then on the small group was called the “world herd”.

  The favourable desert climate helped them to settle down quickly and prosper. However, even then the problem of their conservation was not yet solved. The two females from Kuwait, being old, died very soon and the first seven young that were born were all males. In the end the law of averages won and some female babies were born. In time the herd grew to over 200 animals and in 1982 and 1984 small herds were brought back to Oman, where they were released in their native habitat in the wilds of the Wahiba sands near Yaluuni. At first, they were released in large fenced areas, and only after a long period of adaptation were they let out into the surrounding gravel plains.

  The Harassi tribesmen who used to hunt them in that area, were now instructed and paid to be their game wardens. The animals were fitted with tracking devices and their movements were followed accurately. After the dry years of 1987 and 1988, when food became scarce, the released animals came back to the station where they had been acclimatized to their new area and allowed themselves to receive supplementary food. The herds multiplied continuously, until there was a period of severe poaching in the early nineteen nineties. When the number of free roaming females became dangerously low due to this illegal activity, the remaining few dozen were captured and gathered within the fenced area again to recuperate. This measure turned out to be successful, the poaching activities were controlled and the Yaluuni herds are on the rebound again.

  Other groups of Oryx were successfully released in Jordan and later in Saudi Arabia.

  There were also still several groups that thrived in captivity. Al Ain zoo, which started with 4 wild caught Oryx and 14 animals from private collections, had herds of more than 200 animals at one time. In the gardens of many of the local sheikhs small groups did well and multiplied.

  Recently the Maha resort in Dubai started its environment conservation project with the protection of various local species of gazelles and the Oryx on a five square kilometer piece of rolling sand dunes. Since then its area has been extended to some 225 square kilometer and the Oryx herds in this tourist safari park now number 220.

  Other herds that are accessible for viewing are at the Sharjah Desert Park and on Sir Bani Yas Island as well as in various zoos in Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

  The story of the Arabian Oryx is one with a happy ending – a story that has brought joy to all of the many people involved in the rescue. Now it is possible to see the beautiful legendary animal roam on many of the gravel plains of the Middle East, back in the wild where they belong, while others can be admired in zoos and desert parks in many countries in the world.


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