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Volume 33, Number 4July/August 1982

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Return of the Oryx

Written by Paul F. Hoye
Photographed by Mark Stanley-Price

On January 31, in central Oman, the Arabian Oryx, a rare and beautiful 'antelope, returned to the wild - from the very verge of extinction.

It was a dramatic moment. Though the 10 animals, grazing peacefully in a large, chain-link enclosure did no more than drift hesitantly through an open gate, one by one, onto an arid plateau stretching off toward the desert they call the Empty Quarter, it was, in fact, the fulfillment of a 20-year-old dream and a milestone in man's effort to preserve the world's endangered species. On the Arabian Peninsula, in fact, it marks what may be the single most important victory in a struggle to preserve such endangered creatures as the fleet-footed Arabian gazelle (Gazella arabica), the nimble mountain goats called the tahr (Hemitragus jayakar) and - a prize - the white Arabian Oryx (Oryx leucoryx) whose great, gently curved horns may have spawned the myth of the unicorn.

To desert hunters, the oryx has always been a prize, but the oryx, which can for months live in totally waterless terrain, was an elusive quarry and, despite the hunters, managed to survive. Back in the 194Cs, in fact, the Arabian oryx seemed to be everywhere. In Kuwait, Violet Dickson, wife of the famous H. R. P. Dickson, had a pet oryx given to her by King Abd al-'Aziz of Saudi Arabia, and in Saudi Arabia geologist Tom Barger, later to be Aramco's chairman, saw two herds in a matter of days.

In the 1950's, however, hunters in Arab countries began to use modern weapons and vehicles and by the late WSO's were routinely using helicopters and two-way radios in the hunt - with a devastating impact on the Peninsula's wildlife. Spotted by aircraft or chased in rugged, off-road Land Rovers and picked off by marksmen, creatures like the oryx - exposed on the open desert - didn't have a chance. By the 1960's, the herds were decimated; according to one estimate there were no more then 100 still alive in the wild.

Somehow, though one herd continued to survive in the region called Jiddat al-Harasis, an immense gravel plain in Oman until, in October 1972, near a remote well called al-Ajaiz, the hunters closed in, engines roaring, guns chattering. From that day on, the oryx was never seen in the wild again.

By then, fortunately, concerned individuals and organizations - such as the Fauna Preservation Society in London (FPS) - had already taken what have subsequently proven to be crucial steps. As early as 1962, for example, the FPS, seeing that the oryx might not survive the ruthless and unequal contest with modern weaponry, had, with financial help from the newly organized World Wildlife Fund (WWF), dispatched an expedition to South Yemen - then Aden - to scour the frontier in search of surviving specimens.

The expedition, led by Major Ian Grimwood, was successful. It found and captured two males and one female and these animals - with four others donated by King Sa'ud of Saudi Arabia, one lent by the Zoological Society of London and another presented by the Ruler of Kuwait —became what was to be called the "World Herd," in the Phoenix Zoo in Arizona.

Even at that early stage, the ultimate goal of the FPS, WWF and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) was to return the oryx to its own habitat - a desert wilderness - as soon as one key question could be answered: how could the safety of the oryx be guaranteed? Since the oryx had been hunted to the verge of extinction once, couldn't it happen again?

Obviously, it could. With modern automatic weapons, even a handful of hunters could wipe out any new herds that might be bred from the survivors in Arizona.

Another problem concerned adaptability. If the oryx did breed in captivity, Would they then be able to survive in the wilderness on their own? In what is, unquestionably, one of the most difficult habitats in the world?

On the basis of past evidence, most laymen would have immediately said yes; the oryx and its kin have lived and flourished in or near such deserts as the Kalahari, the Sahara, the Rub al-Khali, or Empty Quarter and the Jiddat al-Harasis, an area in Oman that, at the time of the oryx returned to the desert, had had no rain in five years.

Survival in such habitats, obviously, required special adaptation and the Arabian Oryx had indeed adapted. Its hooves, for example, are larger than those of the African Oryx — to give increased purchase in sand; its coat is whiter, to reflect heat; it can, in effect, survive on little more than dew or condensation for up to a year by licking it off leaves during the night. Another characteristic is the ability to somehow detect rainfall from great distances. As a result the oryx travel swiftly and spontaneously; they have moved up to 55 miles in 18 hours, according to one biologist.

On the other hand, wildlife experts warned, there was the distinct possibility that life in an Arizona zoo might erode these finely tuned survival mechanisms. In captivity, for example, the oryx was drinking up to nine liters of water a day - a far cry from a few drops on a leaf at night.

The decision, therefore, was to find a proper habitat, assemble a herd and, in effect, try to revive the animals' dormant instincts before releasing them.

The first need - a habitat - was provided by Qaboos ibn Sa'id ibn Taimur the Sultan of Oman.

A young, relatively untried leader when he assumed his father's throne in 1970, Sultan Qaboos ought to have been the last person on the Peninsula concerned with ecology. Since his accession he has been inundated with other problems: rebellion in his southern province, upheaval in Iran and the unsettling realization that Oman, with more than 1,600 kilometers of coastline (960 miles), was the guardian of the strategic Strait of Hormuz, gateway to the Arabian Gulf- and much of the world's oil.

Surprising everyone, however, the Sultan turned out to be very interested in conservation of the environment and its wildlife. He supported efforts to protect Oman's turtles, tahr and ibex and, to one correspondent, made it clear that the oryx was special. "We intend to make sure that the oryx is preserved," he said.

Earlier, he had signaled his special interest in the oryx with a question to Ralph H. Daly, now Advisor for Conservation of the Environment. "What," he asked Daly, "are we to do about the oryx?"

Until then, Daly had not been directly involved in any way with ecology. As a member of the Sudan political Service, Daly had come to Oman with an oil company; his only real connection with ecology was a passion for bird-watching. But he had, in 20 years of service, been inescapably involved in numerous rural development projects, and when the Sultan, realizing that Oman's wildlife was in trouble, asked him to "stay and look after the oryx," he did.

"At that stage," Daly said, during an interview in Muscat, "the World Wildlife Fund had hardly even heard of Oman... but then it went into action, and that led to our marine turtle and Arabian tahr projects [also endangered] and then to the oryx."

One step was to engage a WWF expert -Dr. Hartmut Jungius - to find a suitable area for the reintroduction. In 1977, after a feasibility study, Dr. Jungius reported that he had found the perfect place: the Jiddat al-Harasis. Ironically, yet logically the Jiddat al-Harasis is the same area in which the last wild herd was wiped out in 1972.

Meanwhile, Daly himself, at the Sultan's urging, was moving to establish a home for the oryx in Oman. One step was to employ Mark Stanley-Price to be manager of the project.

A Yorkshire man with a distinct resemblance to a younger Teddy Kennedy, Dr. Stanley- L Price had spent nearly six years in Africa attempting to domesticate the eland and the African oryx. "Because," he explained, "both the eland and the oryx are naturally immune to the tsetse fly. We thought it might be possible to develop them as livestock."

In a sense, that experience would seem useless in Oman since the Omani goal was precisely the opposite; instead of domesticating the oryx, Stanley-Price would be trying to wean it from the habits of domestication, and train it to live in the wild. In fact, though, his experience with oryx herds in Kenya was vital, since no one knew very much about the behavior of the oryx in its natural habitat - an environment that Stanley-Price described as a "remarkable desert eco-system."

A stony limestone plain measuring 50,000 square kilometers (19,300 square miles), the Jiddat al-Harasis stretches from the edge of the Empty Quarter in the west and north to the shore of the Indian Ocean, and, deep in the interior, offers something that the oryx and other desert creatures very much need: vegetation.

In the patois of the ecologist, this vegetation is referred to as a "woodland" and though occasional clusters of sparse grayish-green vegetation and the occasional acacia tree hardly qualify as "woodland" to visitors brought up near, say, the forests of Maine and New Hampshire, Stanley-Price is very serious. To him - and the oryx - this is woodland and its existence on the "Jiddah" (the plain) is the reason that the area once teemed with wildlife: the Arabian Gazelle (Gazella arabica), the goitered gazelle (Gazella subgutturose) and such other creatures as wolves, hyenas, lynx, foxes, reptiles, lizards, and birds. And driving south from Muscat-via Nizwa, with its great walled fort-visitors enroute to Yalooni, the desert station where the oryx were eventually released, soon come to realize why naturalists call that vegetation "woodland."

Outside Muscat, the terrain first offers impressive examples of the strange, harsh geology that is so much a feature of the Omani landscape: massive escarpments lurching out of the ground with great striations clawed into barren, beige-brown flanks. Later, though, as the road dodges Nizwa and heads south, the great ridges of rock begin to shrink and soon, through a gap, the desert appears.

Initially, the Jiddah is simply flat and empty — an almost restful contrast to the harsh cliffs in the north. But then on the horizon you see the soft shape of dunes and eddies of yellow sand flowing east from the Empty Quarter and forming small crescents on the flat, pinkish surface of the plain.

At that point, a gazelle, startled by the sound of the car, may suddenly dart across the road in a frantic race for safety and in the sky, an eagle may glide down for a closer look. Mostly, however, there is only an empty silence, and, occasionally, a dust-devil spiraling at a furious pace by the track.

The track, Stanley-Price said, has been deliberately not paved - nor graded -because they didn't want casual visitors. "It is one way of protecting the oryx," he said, as he led a two-car caravan toward Yalooni, the desert station to which the oryxes were transferred. (See page 18) "We thought that casual visitors would not be a good thing and that anyone willing to hire a proper vehicle to drive this track for three hours would probably have a good reason to come."

At the point where the track left the paved north-south highway - a 1,000 kilometer (600 mile) link between Muscat, the capital, and Salalah the southern capital - central Oman is a dry, deserted region, but as it penetrates the Jiddat al-Harasis, the terrain subtly changes until, on every side, there is vegetation, first shrubs, then the trees identified, with relish, by Stanley-Price as Acacia-tort His, A. ehrenbergiana andProsopis cineraria. And though they are by no means redwoods, in contrast to the arid plain to the north they indeed look, even to a layman, like a "woodland."

To Dr. Jungius, this region was "ideal" for the reintroduction of the oryx. For one thing there are few natural predators, leopards and wolves being as scarce as the oryx themselves. For another, the oryx's original habitat in Oman is only 100 kilometers (60 miles) away. And, unlike Jordan, which was also under consideration as a site for reintroduction, the Jiddat al-Harasis is relatively safe from hunters; except for such intruders as the raiders who entered Omani territory from the Emirates just to hunt the oryx, few strangers visit the "Jiddah."

Eventually, therefore, Oman and the trustees of the World Herd agreed to establish a station at a place called Yalooni: a generator, storehouses, Portakabin living quarters and offices, and a complex of pens within a one-kilometer square area of woodland enclosed by a chain-link fence. Here, they decided, the oryx could rediscover its previous origins and resharpen its unique survival mechanism.

There are disadvantages, to A be sure. The only water is at al-Ajaiz - 50 kilometers distant (30 miles) - and even that is . showing signs of drying up. But because of the heavy fogs that roll in from the sea at night and drift inland on prevailing southerly winds, the grasses and shrubs that the oryx need for grazing stay green, edible and nourishing throughout the year, and the overnight condensation would probably provide enough water for them to survive.

The overriding factor, however, was the decision of the tribe called "Harasis" to protect, rather than hunt, the oryx.

This was partly a practical decision; the tribesmen knew that their agreement would mean jobs as herdsmen or rangers as long as the project went on. But it was also a matter of tribal honor. A peaceful, pastoral people, the Harasis, numbering today about 350, had been outraged when the hunters drove into their territory in 1972 and wiped out the last herd; they thought of the oryx as tribal property and, as a consequence, pledged the support of the v/hole tribe.

To Stanley-Price, this was not unusual. "The Harasis have an ingrained respect for nature, like all Bedouin. They do not, for instance, tear up or cut any living tree; they only use dead wood. Thafs instinctive. The oryx is a part of this."

As proof of this, Stanley-Price cited his own 1981 report on the project: "By general consent the area is recognized by the Bedu as a grazing reserve for the oryx and it has not been grazed by goats for nearly two years, now."

Asked if there wouldn't be a strong temptation for the Harasis themselves to hunt and kill the oryx when food was short, both Stanley-Price and Sa'id al-Harasi, the head ranger, quietly but indignantly said no. Stanley-Price's answer was reasonable - "if goats and camels aren't enough to live on, a few oryx won't help -" and Sa'id's was moving: "They're ours," he said quietly.

Tribal assistance - as well as the cooperation of the Royal Oman Police and the North Oman Border Scouts who patrol the area - will be crucial. Though Stanley-Price and his staff have equipped five animals with radio collars so that they can be tracked even when out of sight of the rangers, the ability of the oryx to sense water, and its instinct to move suddenly toward it, might eventually result in the oryx spreading out over a territory larger than the rangers could easily cover. Should that happen, sightings and information from other tribesmen will be helpful - particularly if any hunters should appear.

At present, the rangers don't expect the oryx to wander very far. As Stanley-Price put it in a report in September:

We consider it unlikely that the released oryx will travel very far from Yalooni, at least initially... any wanderlust will be tempered by the knowledge that Yalooni is the only source of water and lucerne [alfalfa]. Adjusting and reducing the frequency with which these are available, the amounts as well as their locations, will be the means by which we influence the development of the herd's home range and then increase their independence from man's assistance.

Oman is by no means the only country on the Arabian Peninsula trying to save the oryx. Qatar has a herd of about 90 and by 1980 eight oryx from the San Diego Wild Animal Park had been shipped to Jordan in hopes that reintroduction might be feasible there too. Near Azraq, Jordan is fencing a 250-square kilometer enclosure for 22 oryx. And in Bahrain, where a major effort is underway, a wildlife park has assembled a herd of 14 oryx and has reported the birth of nine calves.

According to Faisal A. Izzeddin, deputy director of Bahrain's al-Areen Wildlife Park and Reserve, this is not unusual; unlike many endangered species, the oryx has bred well in captivity. In Arizona, for example, the World Herd bred so well that the Phoenix Zoo was able to send animals to several zoos in the U.S.A. and Europe.

One result of this success in breeding is that the oryx is no longer in danger of extinction. As a study by Izzeddin showed, there were 150 animals in the United States and 202 in the Arab World in 1980; by now the total may be 450.

Bahrain's contribution to this project is the al-Areen Park; founded in 1946, al-Areen, roughly 2,000 acres in size, has nine oryx in enclosures in its public park, and five in its restricted reserve.

As in Oman, Bahrain's wildlife people would like to release animals like the oryx," once we are confident that they would not come to any harm." To that end, a conservation-education and wildlife appreciation program is just beginning at al-Areen, aimed at the public at large and especially at children. "The more successful we are in captive breeding," Izzeddin said, "the more oryx can be released in the wild and the more the release of the oryx in the wild is likely to succeed."

Success with the oryx has also been reported at the al-'Ain zoo in the United Arab Emirates, where, in 1969, Shaikh Zayed, president of the United Arab Emirates, presented three wild Arabian oryx confiscated from a hunter; the herd now counts 22 animals.

At al-'Ain, particular stress has been put on the oryx diet- largely fresh alfalfa, with a 15 percent local cereal mix and hay - but al-'Ain has also compiled breeding data. So far, according to veterinarian Chris W. Furley and curator Peter Dickinson, the success rate in rearing calves is high; only two deaths have been recorded and only one calf had to be removed for hand-rearing.

Currently, though, the spotlight is on Oman where, in the Yalooni woodland, the oryx since January 31 have been exploring their new habitat and, in subtle ways, demonstrating that they feel right at home.

At first, Stanley-Price reported, the staff and the rangers had to encourage the oryx to venture into new territory - by moving the feed troughs further away from the enclosure - except for one evening when eight animals traveled 16 kilometers (nine miles) from their corral in a circle.

"This was expected," he said. However, the picture was altered drastically when, on the evening of February 24, good rain fell on Yalooni and a large portion of the Jiddah... flooding the camp."

As a result, Stanley-Price wrote, "new green grass started to sprout in early March and the oryx gradually became independent of the supplementary feed that we were providing. At the same time they began to ignore the water we provided - apparently because the dew on the grass met their needs."

In another development, three of the females went into heat almost immediately. This in turn upset the herd as females and males started to stray. "Such groups were eventually located by the rangers," Stanley-Price said, "either by using the radio collars on five of the oryx, or by tracking their hoof prints. Interestingly, the oryx-found 20 kilometers (12 miles) from Yalooni-showed that they knew their way back."

Interest in the experiment, of course, remains high. Just prior to the release, for example, the Sultan flew into Yalooni to inspect the project and on February 24 -His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh, president of WWF International, came to see the oryx in the wild. There have also been innumerable requests from the press for information and photographs.

Until March 12, however, neither Ralph Daly nor Mark Stanley-Price was inclined to predict what would happen. Knowing the uncertainties of life in the desert they simply could not say with any confidence that the oryx were definitely going to readapt and survive. Nature simply doesn't surrender that easily.

But, on March 12, the oryx reached a turning point: one of the females went | into labor and on March 13 produced a live calf- the first to be conceived in Oman and born in the wild in 10 years.

This, Stanley-Price said, signals a change since, earlier, the same female had borne a calf in the enclosure and had refused to nurse it. This time she took it over instantly and the father, the herd bull, began to stand guard over mother and calf. The oryx, it seems, might make it after all.

Paul F. Hoye is the editor of Aramco World Magazine.

This article appeared on pages 14-17 of the July/August 1982 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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