Soul of the desert: How the Arabian oryx was saved from the brink of extinction

The Arabian oryx was classed as extinct in the wild but now thriving herds can be found throughout the Kingdom. Ahmed Boug of Saudi Arabia’s National Centre for Wildlife, explains what’s next for this extraordinary conservation success story

Wednesday 03 November 2021 09:43
<p>Arabian oryxes at National Wildlife Research Centre in Taif, Saudi Arabia</p>

Arabian oryxes at National Wildlife Research Centre in Taif, Saudi Arabia

With a pair of dramatic, ringed horns that project like scimitars from its skull, and a milky, almost luminous white coat, the Arabian oryx is an instantly recognisable wildlife icon of the Middle East.

“Merely the beauty of its eyes was enough to inspire the poets of the Arab world,” wrote scientists from Saudi Arabia’s National Wildlife Research Centre (NWRC) in a 1998 paper published in – appropriately enough – Oryx, the journal of Fauna and Flora International, to celebrate a decade of conservation action.

“Unfortunately,” the authors continued, “this beauty did not confer immortality, and over hundreds of years the Arabian oryx was pursued and hunted in its most remote desert strongholds.”

Once found throughout the Arabian Peninsula, its range had already severely contracted by the year 1800, and human pressure on the species merely increased during the 19th and 20th centuries.

The explorer and writer Wilfred Thesiger, renowned for his love of Arabia, described in his 1948 travelogue, Across the Empty Quarter, how new wealth across the peninsula had allowed hunters to pursue oryx in greater numbers in motorised vehicles. The construction of new roads meant the hunters could suddenly reach previously inaccessible areas across borders until 1972, when the last-known wild Arabian oryxes were recorded as living in Oman and were then killed a few weeks later.

Arabian oryx at National Wildlife Research Centre in Taif, Saudi Arabia

Overgrazing of their natural desert habitat by livestock, and some taking of oryx for private collections, were lesser contributory factors in the species’ demise. But as Ahmed Boug, director general of terrestrial studies at Saudi Arabia’s National Centre for Wildlife, points out, this last factor was also the Arabian oryx’s saving grace.

“In the beginning it might have been a problem, that they were taking animals from the wild. But in the end, it saved the species from going extinct,” he says.

Back from extinction

Today, the population of the Arabian oryx – one of four species in the Oryx genus, with the other three found exclusively in Africa – is estimated to be 1,200 in the wild in Saudi Arabia, with a further 6,000 to 7,000 in captivity.

It’s the first species to have gone from being classified as extinct in the wild to vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the world’s authority on threatened species.

So how was this achieved?

It was no easy feat. With no wild animals left, captive-breeding was the only possible route by which the oryx could be saved. In Saudi Arabia, this process began in 1986, when some 50 individuals held by the King Khaled Wildlife Research Centre were transferred to Prince Saud al-Faisal Research Centre, a purpose-built facility in Taif, south-west Saudi Arabia.

At this time, there were no more than a few hundred individuals in existence – the species was right on the edge of a precipice. In order to maximise genetic diversity of the stock, oryxes were also obtained from other private collections and zoos in Jordan, Qatar and the USA.

To add to the challenge, wildlife managers immediately discovered a problem that could have spelled disaster for the nascent programme – many animals were riddled with tuberculosis (TB).

The standard way of dealing with this is to cull. “The species was critically endangered at the time, so we couldn’t do that,” says Boug. “We called in overseas veterinary experts, and they put a health protocol in place to rid the oryx of the TB; they isolated individuals into pens and got them to drink the necessary medicine in their water.”

No detail was overlooked; calves born to infected females were taken away from them and hand-reared because TB could be transferred through the mother’s milk. This rigorous approach and science-led methodology produced offspring that were entirely free from TB, and this so-called “A generation” was essential to the long-term strategy – reintroduction into the wild.

The 1989 restoration of Arabian oryx into Mahazat as-Sayd, a protected area in the centre of Saudi Arabia, was a highly significant moment. “I was there during the release ceremony,” Boug says with evident delight. “I was one of the secret soldiers of this conservation success story.” At the time, Boug had only recently joined the NWRC. He went on to play a critical role in the on-going and still vital captive-breeding programme.

Arabian oryx in nature reserve near the ancient city of Hegra in AlUla

The decision had already been taken to enclose all 2,553 sq km – an area the size of Dorset – of the Mahazat reserve with 240km of fencing. This was deemed necessary to keep livestock and poachers out and the wildlife in. Other native species, including Arabian gazelles, red-necked ostriches and Houbara bustards, were also released.

Today, the IUCN estimates the population at Mahazat at around 500, making it the single largest wild population anywhere in the Arabian peninsula.

The next goal was to bring the oryx back to southern Saudi Arabia.

Wildlife managers decided on the huge 12,000 sq km Uruq Bani Ma’arid Wildlife Sanctuary, which sits on the western edge of the Empty Quarter, the vast desert area where Thesiger saw them being hunted in the 1940s. Oryxes started being introduced here in the mid-1990s, and now there’s an estimated 100 animals, making them another significant population, and the largest truly free-ranging group in the world.

An icon of Arabia

The work of the National Centre for Wildlife over the past 35 years has allowed scientists to discover much about the biology of the species that was previously unknown or unclear.

Arabian oryx in nature reserve near the ancient city of Hegra in AlUla

The Arabian oryx survive mainly on grasses, but they will also eat roots, tubers, and buds and leaves from acacia trees. All their water requirements come from what they eat, and physiological adaptations that allow them to closely control their body temperature mean they can reduce water loss to an absolute minimum. Females start breeding from roughly the age of two, with a lifespan estimated at about 12 years in the wild.

In normal circumstances, these animals form herds of between roughly 12 and 18 animals – but in fertile wadis with trees and good vegetation cover, they can number up to 60. Each herd has one dominant male, and a few other sub-adult males that do not get to breed. The rest are females.

The dominant animals will sometimes leave the herd when a female is calving. And when they return, they must battle to win back their dominance from whichever of the other males has taken over their position.

“Normally, the new one wins,” says Boug. “The previous alpha male is pushed out of the herd and becomes a solitary male. This behaviour was documented in ancient Arabic poetry – any time that a man was pushed out of his tribe, he would compare himself with an Arabian oryx that had lost its harem.”

Continuing conservation efforts

In 2021, and exactly 35 years after it was established, the National Centre for Wildlife put together a new strategy to make the return of the Arabian oryx as a wild species – both within the country and in others where it previously roamed – irreversible.

Its first target was to bring a self-sustaining population of oryx back to the northern part of Saudi Arabia, in the Sharaan Nature Reserve. This part of AlUla, a region of desert and sandstone mountains in north-west Saudi Arabia, has also been identified as a potential location for reintroducing Arabian leopards, another endangered species.

Some oryx releases have already taken place in Sharaan, but more will be needed over the next decade, and in other reserves in Saudi’s northern region. “The plan is to carry out releases in 15 different locations every year,” says Boug. Safe corridors linking protected areas will also be included to permit gene-flow between different populations, adding to the long-term security of the species.

Arabian oryx in nature reserve near the ancient city of Hegra in AlUla

A lot of work goes into establishing whether the habitat of a particular area is appropriate for reintroducing oryx, how many it can hold and whether released animals will be sufficiently secure. “The carrying capacity [the maximum number of animals a particular reserve can sustainably hold] is one of the most important issues, but in deserts this is not easy to calculate,” says Boug.

Much depends on what happens in the rainy seasons – the oryx will only breed if there is a good rainy season, because that’s the only way the females can be certain they will be able to provide for their calves – but this can vary dramatically over time and is unpredictable. “In general, desert animals such as the Arabian oryx are opportunistic animals, moving from one area to another in search of food,” says Boug. “That’s why they have huge home ranges – up to 2,000 sq km.”

But bringing back the oryx is more than just about rescuing a species from extinction. “From a cultural point of view, the Arabian oryx is the soul of the desert,” says Boug. “If you look at the ability of these and other desert animals to survive in the harsh environment of the desert, there are lessons for us there.”

Ultimately, Boug and his colleagues want to establish cross-border reserves with Saudi’s neighbours – the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Yemen – to make the oryx a truly established feature of the Arabian peninsula once again. As Boug says, “When you release the animals, you cannot control where they go, they’ll wander wherever there is good habitat.”

The Saudi Green Initiative is Saudi Arabia’s whole-of-government approach to combat climate change.

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