Carole Hodgson/Kerstin Howard  
 

It seemed doomed, extinct in the wild. But a last-ditch rescue effort, by the Sultanate of Oman's Arabian Oryx Project, seems to have saved the Arabian oryx. TUNZA talks to Andrew Spalton who - first as chief biologist on the Project and now Adviser for Conservation of the Environment, Diwan of the Royal Court of Oman - oversaw this extraordinary operation.

istinctive white antelopeswith long straight horns, oryx once freely roamed the Arabian Peninsula: 2,000 years ago, Aristotle mentioned them in his History of Animals, though he thought they had just one horn, like unicorns. But by the early 1970s, the Arabian oryx (Oryx leucoryx) had been hunted to extinction in the wild. Bedouins traditionally hunted them for their meat, hides and horns. But the arrival after World War II of trophy hunters, with automatic weapons and motorized vehicles, sealed their fate.

Yet today, says Andrew Spalton, their story is 'a model of what can be done to conserve wildlife when a concerted multinational effort is made'.


Kerstin Howard

It began in the early 1960s when Fauna and Flora International (FFI), recognizing the animal's plight, launched Operation Oryx. It took some from the wild in Yemen and from collections elsewhere in the region to protect them in a zoo in Phoenix, Arizona. There they were bred, ready to be reintroduced into the wild when the time was right.

In 1979, H.M. Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman established the Arabian Oryx Project, arranging for a small group of the captive-bred oryx to be brought to the Jidda', a flat limestone plateau in Oman's central desert where their last wild relative had been killed.

 

The animals initially lived in a small enclosure to acclimatize to their new environment, but the first group was released in 1982, and thrived. In 1994 the Government of Oman established the Arabian Oryx Sanctuary - about 25,000 square kilometers of the Jidda' - which was promptly declared a UNESCO World Natural Heritage site, the region's first. By 1996 there were more than 400 oryx in the wild, and all but about 20 had been born in the desert.

The oryx, says Spalton, is extremely well adapted to the harsh life of the desert, where summer temperatures can reach nearly 50ºC, where there is no surface water, and where rainfall is minimal and sporadic. 'Its short, brilliantly white fur reflects sunlight to prevent absorbing heat, but stands up in the winter to reveal heat-absorbing black skin,' he says. 'And its large, splayed hooves allow it to dig depressions in the sand in which it lies, transferring excess body heat to the ground and minimizing exposure to drying winds.' Its hooves are also designed for migrating distances of up to about 400 kilometres across sandy terrain, as the animals follow the vegetation that quickly springs up after rain.

Most remarkably, says Spalton, the oryx doesn't need to drink to survive - fortunate, since it has been seven years since it last rained in the Jidda'. The plants it eats contain most of the moisture it needs. But, like the 250 species of plants that thrive in the sanctuary, the oryx also relies on fog. On about 54 days a year the fog forms from cool, humid air drawn in over the desert from the Arabian Sea: vegetation drips with condensation, providing moisture for animals and plants alike.

In the late 1990s, a new spate of poaching drastically reduced the herd, threatening to wipe it out again, as oryx were caught alive and sold to private collectors abroad. The Project responded by removing 39 of the remaining wild oryx to enclosures, and strengthened anti-poaching operations and legislation.

Despite this setback, Spalton and his colleagues in Oman remain positive. 'We have now experienced poaching that is common to many similar projects around the world and we hope to come through with many lessons learnt,' he says. 'The herd is now more than 100 strong in the enclosure, and we are reintroducing young bulls to the wild to join an estimated surviving population of 120. And we plan to release some more females once all signs of poaching have disappeared.'

While the population is recovering in Oman, two herds have been released into the wild in Saudi Arabia, one in the Uruq Bani Ma'arid protected area, the other into a fenced zone within the Mahazat as-Sayd reserve. The Omani sanctuary, meanwhile, continues to carry out its mission, and is putting increasing emphasis on benefiting the local community by encouraging eco-tourists to come to learn about what Spalton calls 'this remarkable animal, and the fragile but fascinatingly rich ecosystem that supports it'.

 
Kerstin Howard
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