The Arabian Oryx: A Conservation Success Story

While plant and animal species around the world are at risk of extinction because of human activities, an analysis by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) shows how one spectacular species recovered from the brink of eradication thanks to conservation efforts.  Today the story of this species, the beautiful Arabian oryx, shines as an example of how careful conservation work can rescue a species from imminent extinction. 

The Arabian oryx, a large antelope remarkable for its white coloration and long horns, is found naturally only in the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula (those at left are captive animals at the Edinburgh Zoo).  The species has long occupied a special place in Arabic culture, and was admired by poets, artists, and royalty of the ancient world.  Some experts believe the oryx was the original inspiration for the mythical unicorn, because when seen in profile the antelope’s two horns give the illusion of fusing into one. 

Yet like many large mammals throughout Africa and Asia, the Arabian oryx became a prized victim of big game hunters.  By 1972 only six wild oryx remained: along with captive populations kept by royal families in a few Arab countries, these six animals composed the entire world oryx population.  Extinction for the species seemed almost inevitable, even as conservationists prepared a last-minute effort to save the oryx.  In 1972 five of the last wild oryx were captured in hopes of starting a captive breeding program.  The last wild individual was shot in Oman before it could be rescued.

With the five formerly wild oryx safe in captive breeding facilities, conservation nonprofits began working with zoos and government agencies to form a “worldwide herd” of oryx.  The rescued animals were bred with Arabian oryx living in royal collections in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates.  Eventually enough oryx existed in captivity that small groups could be re-introduced to the wild.  Captive-born oryx were introduced in protected areas where they would be safe from hunting, but it remained to be seen whether animals born in zoos and other breeding facilities could establish themselves in the wild.

As feared, some oryx populations failed to adapt to the dangers of the wild life.  However others became established and began to grow.  Today around 1,000 wild oryx live on the Arabian Peninsula, the legacy of a true environmental success story.  In a sign of how the species’ fortunes have changed, last week the IUCN upgraded the conservation status of the Arabian oryx from “endangered” to “vulnerable” on its Red List of threatened species.  Plants and animals considered vulnerable are still rare enough to be at risk of extinction, but the new status of the oryx is almost a good thing, considering it was once extinct in the wild.

“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,” said Razan Khalifa Al Mubarak, of the Environment Agency in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

Other new updates to the Red List are less encouraging: around the world the list of vulnerable, endangered, and critically endangered species continues to grow.  Habitat destruction, over-hunting, pollution, and climate change are pushing more and more species towards the brink of extinction, making conservation work more critical than ever. 

However the story of the Arabian oryx shows there is hope for a species once conservation efforts get underway.  When the right choices are made, even a species as rare as the Arabian oryx once was can be brought back from near-certain extinction.  

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