Friday, March 23, 2012

The Arabian Oryx

            At one time extinct in the wild, this desert antelope can once again be seen wandering the dry Arabian Peninsula. The Arabian oryx is an antelope that is highly specialised for its harsh desert environment. The bright white coat reflects the sun’s rays and the hooves are splayed and shovel-like, providing a large surface area with which to walk on the sandy ground. The legs are brown in colour, with white bands on the ankles, and there are also brown markings on the face, on the bridge of the nose, the cheeks and a triangular patch on the forehead. Arabian oryx of both sexes have magnificent straight, ringed horns that can reach up to 68 centimetres in length; those of the female are thinner and longer than the male. Males have a tuft of hair on the throat, and the tails of both sexes are tufted at the ends and dark brown/black on the lower half. Arabian oryx calves are brown with markings on their tail and knees, gaining adult markings by six months.

            The Arabian oryx is classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List, and listed on Appendix I of CITES.

            Once widespread on the Arabian Peninsula, reaching north into Israel, Jordan, Iraq, Syria and Sinai in Egypt. The last wild oryx was shot in 1972 and the species persisted only in captivity for a decade. Thanks to re-introduction efforts, wild populations now occur in Israel, Oman and Saudi Arabia, and it is likely that, with additional re-introduction programs currently taking place, this range will increase into other countries within the Arabian Peninsula. The Arabian Oryx formerly occurred through most of the Arabian Peninsula, north to Kuwait and Iraq. The species' range had already contracted by the early years of the 20th century and the decline accelerated thereafter. Before 1920, oryx distribution was separated into areas over 1,000 km apart: a northern population in and around the Nafud, and a larger southern population in the Rub Al Khali and the plains of central-southern Oman. Oryx disappeared from the north in the 1950s. In the south, their range steadily decreased due to hunting, and by the 1960s oryx were restricted to parts of central and southern Oman. The last wild individuals were probably shot in 1972 on the Jiddat al Harasis.

            Arabian Oryx have been reintroduced to Oman (Arabian Oryx Sanctuary, from 1982); Saudi Arabia (Mahazat as-Sayd Reserve, 2,244 km² from 1990; Uruq Bani Ma’arid Reserve, 12,000 km² from 1995), Israel (three sites in the Northern Arava and Negev Desert, from 1997); United Arab Emirates (Arabian Oryx Reserve, Abu Dhabi, from 2007); and Jordan (Wadi Rum, beginning 2009).

            Reintroductions in Kuwait, Iraq and Syria have also been proposed. There is a small introduced population on Hawar Island, Bahrain and large semi-managed populations at several sites in Qatar and UAE.

Regionally extinct: Egypt (Sinai); Iraq; Jordan; Kuwait; Syrian Arab Republic; United Arab Emirates; Yemen
Reintroduced: Israel; Oman; Saudi Arabia
Introduced: Bahrain; Qatar

            Inhabits the arid plains and deserts of Arabia, where temperatures even in the shade can reach as much as 50ºC in the summer months.

            Arabian oryx are gregarious animals forming herds containing five to thirty individuals. The herds increase in size in good conditions, however, in poor conditions the group size is usually composed of a male, a couple of females and their young. Other males adopt a more solitary existence and hold large territories. These antelope seem to be able to detect rainfall from a great distance and have an almost nomadic way of life, travelling vast areas in search of precious new growth after intermittent rains. Females give birth to a single calf once a year if conditions are good; births can occur in any month and calves are weaned after three and a half months of age.

            These antelope graze on grasses and herbs and will also take roots and tubers; they can go without direct water sources for long periods of time. Most activity occurs in the early morning and late evening with groups resting in the shade during the searing midday heat. Using their front hooves, oryx excavate depressions in the ground, which allow them to lie in cooler sand, and provide some protection against the fierce desert winds.

            The Bedouin people of the Arabian Peninsula traditionally hunted Arabian oryx for their meat and hides. The total decimation of the species did not occur until after the Second World War however, with the availability of firearms and motorised transport, and the demand for sport hunting. The species became extinct in the wild in 1972 when the last recorded animal was shot. Following the success of re-introduced herds during the 1990s, poaching once again has become a serious threat and has devastated the Oman population.

            The rescue of the Arabian oryx began in early 1960s when Fauna and Flora International had the foresight to capture wild oryx and transfer them to Phoenix Zoo in Arizona. Operation Oryx, as it became known, succeeded in establishing a large captive herd in the USA that could later be used for re-introductions. The first herds were released in Oman at Jaaluni in the Jiddat-al-Harasis in 1982, with more populations subsequently established in Israel and Saudi Arabia . Over the years the wild population has grown, and in 2008 was estimated to number 1,100 individuals. The most recent conservation efforts for the Arabian oryx have taken place in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, where a release program that was begun in 2007 has released around 100 animals into the wild. The United Arab Emirates government is also funding re-introductions of this species into Jordan and is also considering releases into Yemen. Currently, an inter-governmental body known as The Coordinating Committee for the Conservation of the Arabian Oryx oversees the coordination of conservation efforts for this species within the Arabian Peninsula. Despite the unfortunate poaching problems affecting the Oman population, the re-introduction of the Arabian oryx represents a remarkable conservation success story and an example of what international cooperation can achieve.



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