Return to the wild
Of the Arabian Oryx
the story from extinction to Reintroduction

By Marijcke Jongbloed

H. H. Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme commander of the UAE Armed Force, during the release of the first group of Arabian Oryx

The headlines in the newspapers of March 5th said: “Environment Agency’s Arabian Oryx Release Project Well Underway - More than 95 Oryx released into the wild so far.”  For those who had long admired the graceful antelope in zoos, the idea of their return to the open deserts of the country was exciting. The journey of the Arabian Oryx from extinction to reintroduction had been long and tortuous but seemed now to come to a good end.

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. Locally called “Al Maha”or “Albaqr Al Wahshi”, the Arabian Oryx is large in size, weighing between 80 and 100 kg and 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 they have leg and face markings that are black or chocolate brown in winter and lighter coloured in 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 only of indigestible plant fibers. 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. Trips of up to 100 km in 24 hours have been recorded. However, while endurance is their outstanding characteristic, speed is not. They can be caught quite easily if chased by vehicle.

Arabian Oryx

Females may conceive in their second year and usually have one calf per year, born in the winter months when grazing is good. Once the fawn-coloured calf is born it goes through a lying phase, which may last for a month. During this phase the calf has only short periods of activity and spends most of the day lying down, largely hidden and motionless. Then the Arabian oryx exhibits some very unique and interesting behavior: the female is consorted by at least one adult male, who is usually the dominant male of the female’s herd. As soon as the lying calf rises to approach its mother, the male takes up position behind it and directs it with lowered head towards its mother. When suckling is complete, all three move off, with the female leading and male herding the calf after her. Then the male seems to decide that the calf should lie again and gently knocks it flat with the base of his horns. When the mother attempts to return to the calf, he drives her away. Both adults then start grazing at distances of up to 1 kilometer while they keep watch over the lying place of the calf.

Apart from promoting the calf’s survival, this behavior of the male affords him the advantage of staying close to the female who has a post-partum estrus and can become pregnant again within 10 days of giving birth. By controlling the calf, he controls the female and ensures that he gets the best breeding opportunity.

The Oryx prefer 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. After rains herds will increase in size, while the range that they will travel decreases. When the grazing is good, Oryx can live for up to 20 years, while in times of drought life expectancy is reduced.

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) or browse on trees such as Acacia Spp.

Tribulus omanese, food plant for the Oryx

For many centuries the Oryx lived a peaceful life in the solitude of the great deserts. If some Bedu 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 young that were born after the females had been pregnant for eight and a half 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 4WD vehicles and machineguns were combined, 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 in the wild.

At this point concerned wildlife conservationists set up a rescue operation and in 1964 four Oryx were captured in south Yemen. Other Oryx were found in private collections. All these Oryx were first quarantined in Italy and then 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 of Arabian Oryx was called the “world herd”.

After initial difficulties this world herd eventually grew to over 200 animals and in 1982 and 1984 small groups were brought back to Oman, where they were released in their native habitat 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. The herds multiplied continuously and had reached a number of 400 when poaching that started in 1996 intensified in 1997. When the number of free roaming females became dangerously low due to this illegal activity, the remaining 28 females 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 Saudi Arabia, where the herd grown from Oryx released in 1995 in Uruq Bani Ma’arid, a 12.000 square kilometer reserve at the edge of the Rub’ al Khali, reached a number of 200 by September 2001.

Actually, even in the early sixties when the numbers of oryx in the wild had dwindled so severely, there were still several groups that thrived in captivity. The former UAE president and Ruler of Abu Dhabi, HH Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan, had changed from hunter to conservationist many years ago. In his own words: “Once upon a time, I went on a safari where I found plenty of antelope herds. Then, I started chasing and shooting them. Around three hours later, I counted what I shot and found out that I killed 14 antelopes. Then, I pondered the whole thing and thought carefully, and I felt that hunting by using the rifle would be a direct cause that would endanger such species. After that, I refrained from doing that”.

Arabian Oryx

Not long after he ordered that hunting the endangered animals be banned and established the Al Ain zoo as the largest zoo in the Middle East where many local and African species of antelopes thrived. This zoo started with 4 Oryx wild caught in the early 1960’s and 14 animals from private collections. Already in the 1980’s the Al Ain zoo had herds of more than 200 animals.

In the gardens of many of the local sheikhs there were also smaller groups that 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 27 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 over 240. The Sharjah Desert Park also has a breeding group of Oryx of several dozen animals.

Baby Oryx

As a result of the poaching problems experienced at the reserve in Oman, the Committee for Coordination of the Conservation of the Arabian Oryx (CCCOA) was founded in March 2001.
Amongst its purposes are

• To encourage the establishment of wild populations of Arabian Oryx in their historical distribution range in accordance with IUCN guidelines on reintroduction,

• To establish an active communication network and databases to serve programs of conservation of the Arabian Oryx.

• To help coordinate efforts to eliminate illegal trade of Arabian Oryx and to organize the trade process in accordance with International Conventions

The UAE was appointed as Secretariat for this organization and thus became intensely involved in Oryx conservation, which has resulted in the recent release of a first group of Arabian Oryx into the wild at a 10.000 square kilometer reserve in the deserts of Abu Dhabi. This release was attended by HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces. The interest in promoting of the Crown Prince in the conservation of wildlife has been known since the 1980’s when he was one of the founders of the National Avian Research centre which later developed into the ERWDA (the Environmental Research and Wildlife Development Agency), now known as the Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi (EAD). He represented the vision of his late father who once ordered the capture from the wild of the four Oryx that started the herd at the Al Ain zoo.

The press release of the EAD announced:  “With this release the Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi’s plan to reintroduce the graceful Arabian Oryx back into its natural habitats, after 40 years of extinction, is now well underway”.

This reintroduction is part of EAD’s long term commitment to conserve our precious biodiversity. The project will be termed a success when the status of this beautiful creature, in the wild, is significantly improved. Our Terrestrial Environment Research Center has been releasing these Oryx in the hope to create a self-sustaining population that roams freely in our deserts,” said Majid Al Mansouri, Secretary General of EAD.

Over the next four years, 100 captive-born Arabian Oryx individuals will be released during the cooler months into a site that covers a total of 10,000 sq. km. The Agency has already submitted a proposal to the Abu Dhabi Executive Council to declare this area a protected area.

Meanwhile, following each release, monitoring of the animals will continue and the Agency’s Desert Rangers will patrol the area.

H. H. Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan

The EAD selected the release sites very cautiously based on several criteria. More than 30 shelters and feeding stations have been temporarily installed to provide the Oryx with shade and water. This is done to support the Oryx in their learning process of surviving in the wild. The shelters and feeding stations will be gradually removed as the Oryx learn to depend on their natural environment for survival.’

According to the EAD, the Al Ain Zoo has been a strategic partner throughout the project. The Zoo helped in selecting the release areas, building the fences, transportation of the animals and donating some Oryx from the zoo. Veterinaries at the zoo also helped to prepare the Oryx for release, in terms of medical check ups and necessary vaccinations.

The creation of large, well protected and properly managed nature reserves for large antelopes will also benefit the smaller animals, like gazelles, foxes, sand-cast, hares, reptiles and birds. Soon there will be some large tracts of land in the Emirates where the desert can be enjoyed and studied in the pristine state in which it once was.


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