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Conservation of the Oryx

Back from the Brink of Extinction - The Tale of Two Oryx

‘Extinct in the Wild’ is the penultimate step on the road to extinction. There are two species of Oryx that have reached this precarious point and before taking a U-turn. Both the Arabian (Oryx leucoryx) and Scimitar Horned Oryx (Oryx dammah) have been returned to their natural habitats and reintroduced to parts of their former range. Without an insurance population of Oryx held and managed in captive breeding programmes in zoos and wildlife parks, extinction of these animals would have been inevitable.

Oryx are antelope. As a group, antelope have horns that are neither branched nor are they ever shed. Oryx horns have ridges and curve backwards. The Arabian Oryx is the smallest oryx, has fairly straight horns that grow up to 75cm long, stands about 1 meter at the shoulder and has a white coat that reflects the sun. Until the 1940s the Arabian Oryx ranged over the Sinai Peninsula, Jordan, Iraq, what is to-day Israel and the Arabian Peninsulai . The Oryx was hunted for meat, its hide and horns and it became extinct across its range except on the Arabian Peninsula. However, with the advent of 4 wheel drive vehicles and automatic weapons this southern population followed its northern cousins to become extinct in the wild by 1972ii .

Phoenix Zoo is credited with establishing the first captive breeding programme for the Arabian Oryx in 1962. They had 9 animals. By 1990, there were over 1300 Arabian Oryx, including 112 captive bred animals that had been released. Releasing zoo-bred animals into the wild isn’t simply a case of crating, transporting them and then letting the animals free in their former homeland. The process has to be carefully managed. Phoenix in Arizona is climatically an ideal staging post in the release process. It was necessary to establish social groups and after transportation, allow the Oryx to establish familiarity with local terrain and vegetation. The Oryx were initially confined to fenced enclosures and before being progressed through larger and larger enclosures before their final release into the deserts of Jordan and Oman.

Today with a wild population over 1000 animalsiii, the Arabian Oryx has the distinction of being the first animal to take a U-turn from extinction and is no longer rated as ‘Extinct in the Wild’, nor the immediate lesser categories of ‘Critically Endangered’ and ‘Endangered’, but is now rated by IUCN as ‘Vulnerable’. Today, there are around 6000 to 7000 Arabian Oryx in captivity, with most of these held in the Middle East in large fenced enclosures. In every country where the Oryx have been released into reserves, there is legislation to protect the animals, but as if to emphasise the need for insurance provided by captive populations of endangered animals, the Oman population of Arabian Oryx were decimated in 1996 and 1999 by the illegal live capture of animals for resale to private animal collectorsiv.

At this time, the status of the Scimitar Horned Oryx was heading in the opposite direction to its Arabian cousin, as it moved from ‘Endangered’ in 1994, to ‘Critically Endangered’ in 1996 and was deemed ‘Extinct in the Wild’ by 2007 as there had been no confirmed sightings of wild Scimitar Oryx for 15 years. This Oryx’s range is the Sahara and adjoining arid areas, where it had been widespread. It was been over-hunted, suffered habitat loss and found itself in competition with domestic livestock, all of which combined lead to it becoming extinct in the wild.

The Scimitar Horned Oryx is slightly larger than its Arabian equivalent, and has a reddish brown chest and black markings on its face. Its horns curve backward in an arc whose shape is similar to that of a scimitar sword. Fortunately, the Scimitar Horned, sometimes referred to as simply the Scimitar Oryx, breeds well in zoos. In 2007, and Marwell Wildlife Park led a re-introduction programme to Dghoumes National Park in Tunisiav. This project had two aims: (a) to support the establishment of a population of Scimitar Horned Oryx in Dghoumes National Park and (b) to genetically augment the existing population of Scimitar Horned Oryx in Tunisia.

Initially, 9 animals that were unrelated to anyanimals already held in Tunisia were chosen from the North American and European Zoo breeding programmes. A similar process to the release of Arabian Oryx was followed, with the formation of social groups which were released and acclimatised into progressively larger enclosures before release into the Park. The animals are monitored daily by a team of locally recruited and trained eco-guards.

There had been an earlier re-introduction of 10 Scimitar Horned Oryx in 1985 of 10 animals from British zoos to Bou Hedma National Park in Tunisia. The newly arrived nine animals from America and Europe were now augmented by eight trans-located from Bou Hedma. In the first year, numbers rose to 29 with the addition of 13 calves and the death of a bull animal, probably from injuries incurred in fighting. The herd then fragmented naturally into 3 social groups and have continued to develop after more calving in the following year.

The re-introduction process is ongoing, with community engagement a priority, along with further training for the eco-guards and genetic augmentation of the Oryx from zoos, but the early signs are encouraging. With continued local backing for the project and external support from conservation minded zoos, the Scimitar Horned Oryx should follow the Arabian Oryx and successfully take a U-turn from species extinction.

David Lomas, 2012


i http://www.phoenixzoo.org/learn/animals/animal_detail.aspx?FACT_SHEET_ID=100003
ii Trudge, Colin; Last Animals at the Zoo, Oxford University Press (ISBN 0-19-286153-0)
iii http://www.iucnredlist.org/apps/redlist/details/15569/0
iv http://www.omanet.om/english/tourism/wildlife/oryx.asp?cat=tour&subcat=wild
v http://www.marwell.org.uk/downloads/DghoumesEEPreport.pdf

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Last modified: April 25, 2012