Back from the brink

Arabian oryx a conservation success story
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A few decades ago, the odds of seeing an Arabian oryx in the wild were every bit as good as the odds of seeing a unicorn.

In profile, the two long horns of the mostly white antelope appear as one, leading to speculation that the Arabian oryx was the basis for the legend of the unicorn.

For centuries, herds of oryx roamed the desert and steppe areas of the Arabian Peninsula. Images of the white antelope appear in ancient rock carvings throughout the Middle East, and the "wild ox" described in the Bible is considered to be a reference to the oryx.

Hunting of the Arabian oryx surged in the early 20th century, however, and was so excessive that by 1972, the iconic antelope was extinct in the wild.

Arabian oryxes
Once extinct in the wild, the Arabian oryx is making a modest comeback, thanks to breeding and reintroduction efforts at Jordan's Shaumari Nature Reserve and elsewhere. (Courtesy of Dr. Gary West)

Yet, this year the status of the Arabian oryx was upgraded from endangered to vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List of Threatened Species—the first time any species declared extinct in the wild has been upgraded. The Red List is considered the most comprehensive, objective global approach for evaluating the conservation status of plant and animal species.

Today, the wild Arabian oryx population stands at approximately 1,000 animals with herds in Oman, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Israel, and Jordan, according to the IUCN, which had listed the species as endangered since 1986. As many as 7,000 oryx are believed to be held in zoos, reserves, and private collections.

"To have brought the Arabian oryx back from the brink of extinction is a major feat and a true conservation success story, one which we hope will be repeated many times over for other threatened species," announced Razan Khalifa Al Mubarak, director general of the Environment Agency–Abu Dhabi in the UAE.

The achievement is due in no small way to the Phoenix Zoo. Since 1962, the zoo has played a key role in an international breeding and reintroduction plan known as Operation Oryx. Stuart Wells, director of conservation and science at Phoenix Zoo, says the Arabian oryx's recovery is an example of what global conservation efforts can achieve.

"It also shows that these things take time," Wells said. "There's no instant success with these kinds of programs, but if you're persistent and have a lot of collaboration, you may make a difference in saving a species."

A decade before the last wild oryx was killed in 1972, three of the few remaining animals were brought to Phoenix Zoo—the same year the zoo opened its doors. The hot, arid climates of Arizona and the Arabian Peninsula are similar enough that the zoo was an ideal venue for breeding the desert antelopes. The three oryx joined six others acquired by Phoenix Zoo from private owners, and together they formed the "world herd."

Since 1962, 240 Arabian oryx have been born at Phoenix Zoo, and many have been donated to breeding programs in North America and overseas. By 1982, the world herd was robust enough to begin reintroducing the oryx back into its native habitat, starting in Oman.

It's encouraging to have the numbers up, but I know they're still teetering on the edge of several potential disasters.

Dr. Gary West, executive vice president of animal health and collections, Phoenix Zoo

One of the breeding programs Phoenix Zoo supported is in Jordan at the Shaumari Nature Reserve. In 1978, the zoo sent four oryx to the reserve, which the late King Hussein established to reintroduce the antelopes in Jordan, where they'd been extinct since the 1920s. Today, the nature reserve is managed by the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature in Jordan with assistance from the International Programs Office of the U.S. Forest Service.

Dr. Gary West, executive vice president of animal health and collections at Phoenix Zoo, was part of a delegation invited by the RSCN to the Shaumari Nature Reserve in 2010. Working in conjunction with the USFS, Dr. West and his team conducted health examinations of the reserve's oryx herd and trained staff in basic animal care. They also collected DNA samples from the oryx to assist the reserve in promoting genetic diversity within the herd.

Dr. West, who described the oryx as "a beautiful, incredibly resilient, adaptable animal," admitted having mixed feelings about the species's improved status on the IUCN Red List. "Part of my hesitation is the oryx still faces a lot of threats," he said, listing drought, habitat destruction, and poaching as ever-present dangers. "Yes, it's encouraging to have the numbers up, but I know they're still teetering on the edge of several potential disasters."