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Arabian oryx back from brink of extinction

From Rima Maktabi, CNN
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Searching for the Arabian Oryx
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Hunting drove the once-abundant Arabian oryx to extinction in the wild in the 1970s
  • The last wild Arabian oryx was believed to be shot in Oman in 1972
  • A herd was established in captivity before a series of successful re-introductions
  • Today there are 1,000 animals in five countries

Dubai (CNN) -- Forty years ago the Arabian oryx was extinct in the wild.

Today this large antelope, native to the Arabian peninsula, is back from the brink with 1,000 animals across five Middle Eastern countries, thanks to a breeding program and series of re-introductions.

It is an unprecedented conservation success story, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which recently re-classified the Arabian oryx from "endangered" to "vulnerable."

The organization said it was the first time that a species which was once "extinct in the wild" has improved in status by three full categories out of six on its Red List.

The conservation organization said it is believed that the last remaining wild individual was shot in Oman in 1972.

Thabet Zahran Al Abdessallam, of the Environment Agency, Abu Dhabi, said: "Hunting was the principal reason, but of course the loss of habitat due to the development and population increases (is) another reason. Now after the re-introduction into the wild, poaching is a threat."

Operation Oryx, which included the World Wildlife Fund and Phoenix Zoo, in the United States, was set up in 1962 to establish a herd in captivity -- comprising the last remaining animals and those in royal collections -- to prepare to reintroduce them into the wild.

They were hunting them traditionally but with new technology and sophisticated equipment.
--Thabet Zahran Al Abdessallam, Environment Agency, Abu Dhabi
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The first re-introduction of 10 animals was in Oman in 1982, and it was subsequently extended to Saudi Arabia, Israel, the United Arab Emirates and, most recently, Jordan.

Re-introductions in Kuwait, Iraq and Syria have also been proposed, according to the IUCN.

The animals were introduced to the United Arab Emirates 10 years ago, and the Al Maha Desert Resort, established in 2004, now has at least 450 oryx.

Al Abdessallam said: "We have formed an Oryx Conservation Group covering the original countries, and we are cooperating.

"United Arab Emirates is in the forefront. We have been responsible in the past few years (for) re-introducing them to Jordan, we have also a bilateral agreement with Syria.

"We re-introduced 20 oryx in Jordan the intention is to re-introduce 100, and we also just recently sent 100 oryx to Oman."

Al-Maha Resort in Dubai has been created to give an ideal habitat for the oryx, with 6,500 trees planted and man-made water holes -- although staff do not interfere in the animals' breeding, birth or death.

The majestic creatures were once abundant in the Arabian Peninsula and were often the subject of classical Arabic poetry. The Bedouins coveted them for their meat and skins.

Al Abdessallam said: "The Arabian Oryx is a traditional symbol of this region of the Bedouins. It was, at one point, an animal that used to exist in big numbers in the wild, and the Bedouins were primarily hunting it for food and their skin.

"They were hunting them traditionally but with the new technology of guns and cars and sophisticated equipment. They were quickly wiped out."

Riaan Tolmay, senior field guide at Al-Maha Resort, said it took a "very, very long time" for the animals to pass out of danger of extinction.

"If you take these oryx, we started already in 1960s and in 2011 these animals are still endangered," he said.

The Arabian oryx is uniquely adapted to living in harsh desert conditions, with wide hooves helping it walk across shifting sand, an ability to smell water from miles away, and living in small herds to reduce stress on individuals, according to the IUCN.

Its two horns can appear as one when viewed in profile, leading many to believe it is the source of the unicorn legend.

Tolmay said the black markings on their faces work like sunglasses in protecting their eyes from the bright desert sunlight.