Born to be wild: the Arabian oryx's sad demise

Born to be wild: the Arabian oryx's sad demise
During the 1960s, the oryx, a symbol of the Arabian Peninsula, were annihilated by hunters. A project to reintroduce oryx was launched, but their struggle against human interest met failure.
5 min read
05 August, 2015
The Arabian oryx once thrived in the Arabian Peninsula [AFP]

Last week Cecil, a 13-year-old lion, died a slow and miserable death after being shot with an arrow during a macabre hunting trip. It was the latest act of cruelty of species unique to Africa that for centuries has been hunted for sport by outsiders.

Global warming, hunting, and environmental devastation could see Africa become barren of great game in the coming decades, killing opportunities for tourism, farming and trade.

In some ways, Africa's experience mirrors that of the Arabian Peninsula. For many years, the headland was fertile enough to support an impressive ecosystem reminiscent of Africa.

Rock art found in the deserts depict lions, wild asses and ostriches but hunting and environmental damage drove these animals to extinction.

Symbol of survival

The Arabian oryx were once a regular feature of the Arabian sands, until tribes armed themselves with rifles and 4X4s to penetrate the most remote stretches of the deserts and hunted them. In 1972, a mechanised hunting party in Oman wiped out the last Arabian oryx in the wild.

Its huge protruding horns gave it a mystical quality, and the animal became the inspiration for the unicorn myth. Locals were known to butcher the oryx in sustainable numbers to help supplement their diets.

Later, its head also made a popular hunting trophy and its beauty became its downfall. 

But the Bedouin of the Arabian Peninsula also admired the antelope's resilience and ability, like them, to survive the inhospitable desert. Since the 1980s, many Gulf leaders - often with Bedouin roots themselves - gave up hunting and looked into wildlife conservation. 

Sheikh Zayyid Sultan al-Nahyan, the principle founder of the UAE, led early conservation efforts to save the animal after a hunting trip when he shot 14 antelopes.

"I pondered the whole thing and thought carefully, and I felt that hunting by using the rifle would be a direct cause that would endanger such species. After that, I refrained from doing that."

Since then, the symbol of the Arabian oryx has been used in business logos, newspaper mastheads, bank notes and even football crests. 

Although the oryx was wiped out in the Arabian Peninsula by the mid-70s, Phoenix Zoo kept a "world herd" of captive antelope.

     I felt that hunting by using the rifle would be a direct cause that would endanger such species.
- Sheikh Zayyid Sultan al-Nahyan, former UAE president

In 1979, an ambitious reintroduction programme was started to see a herd of the antelope from San Diego Zoo's stock returned to their original habitat in Oman.

A massive stretch of rocky land in Jiddat al-Harasis, central Oman, was given for the Arabian Oryx Sanctuary and the herd prospered to reach 450 heads. It was such a success that the sanctuary was placed on UNESCO's World Heritage List in 1994.

Caught up

It wasn't long until the hunters caught up with the oryx. Troubles emerged when the authorities employed the local minority tribe - the Harasis - as guards, rather than the majority Janaba.

The United Nations Environment Programme said at the time that "[the oryx] were committed to the care of the local Harasis tribe who regarded the [them] as their own private property, welcomed their return and were prepared to guard them" while the neighbouring tribe felt ignored.

It became easy for animal collectors to exploit the frustrations of the rival tribe who felt locked out of the project and had scores to settle with the Harasis.

With thousands of dollars exchanging hands for the female antelope, collectors found many willing poachers in the area.

As the herd was decimated UNESCO suspected that oil exploration was being carried out in the sanctuary and that rights had been given for mining inside the park. 

Captive breed

The sanctuary was left with just eight rangers to guard tens of thousands of kilometres of land and the herd fell to just a handful of female antelopes and a few dozen males.

Most oryx live in semi-wild captivity or in huge enclosures [AFP]

Christina Simmons of San Diego Zoo, told this reporter shortly after the event that they were extremely disappointed about the decimation of the herd in Oman.

"Reintroduction of species is challenging because usually the conditions that caused a species to become endangered still exist. The Oryx population was steadily increasing until people started capturing animals for their private collections."

Oman reduced the size of the sanctuary by 90 percent and the step led it to being the first World Heritage Site to be delisted in 2007. UNESCO said that the site now longer carried "outstanding universal value" and that after the delisting and reduction of the size poaching appeared to have stopped.

The sanctuary still exists and Oman's mammal breeding centre has been bringing in oryx from private collections, but the park itself is a shadow of what it could have been. 

Not far from the site Duqm's mega port is in the final stages of construction, and minerals from the Wusta area are due to be mined. The dream of reintroducing the oryx back to the wild in the peninsula remains largely unfulfilled, except for in Saudi Arabia.

The Arabian leopard could be one success story for conservationists in Oman. The animal once roamed the mountains of the southern Arabian Peninsula but was hunted by farmers and herders who tried to protect their flocks from the big cats.

They have survived in the minutest numbers in the neglected hills of Dhofar in southern Oman, and eastern Yemen, a massive conservation project was launched to save the leopard and 4,500 km of protected land in Oman has given hope for the leopard's survival.

There are huge environmental concerns for the Gulf in the coming years.

Swelling desert sands are swallowing up more agricultural land, and 60 million people are dependent on the Arabian aquifer system - one of the world's most overstretched water sources. 

With this, the Gulf risks losing its unique species, such as the Arabian oryx, which have become icons of this peninsula's resilient nature and hardship.