The Arabian oryx, once extinct in the wild, has been given a second chance
Among the horned heads of deer and antelope with which hunters used so proudly to decorate their walls, pride of place in many collections went to a noble-looking animal with a black and white face and two long, slightly curving horns: the Arabian oryx. In antiquity, this creature was revered by the Arabs, who bound its horns together, creating the original unicorn.
For centuries the oryx had been a prized trophy for hunters living in the Arabian peninsula. A tough and elusive antelope, it was hard to track down on horseback in the desert, and to kill one with primitive firearms was considered a high test of manhood.
The oryx has remarkable stamina, migrating over vast tracts of desert in search of new feeding grounds, but it is not a fast runner. Against a new breed of hunter, armed with an automatic rifle and riding in a four-wheel-drive vehicle or even a light plane, it stood no chance. The animal was hunted to extinction in the wild, the last one being shot in October 1972.
Luckily, some far-sighted conservationists had prepared for this eventuality. They had started 'Operation Oryx' in the early 1960s, breeding a captive herd in the United States from animals brought in from the Arabian peninsula. By 1975, this herd was over 100 strong, while zoos and private collections in the Middle East had preserved a similar number of captive animals.
In 1980, five oryx were flown to Oman from the San Diego Zoo. To allow them to become acclimatised and establish their identity as a herd, they were kept in an enclosure for nearly two years, during which time five more animals were added to their number.
This caution was rewarded, for, since their release, they have survived and bred. Now, with the support of local people, the Arabian oryx is a wild animal again, its future safe in the hands of those who once hunted it.