Arabian 'Unicorn' Back from the Brink in Middle East Thanks to Captive Breeding Program Success

arabian oryx desert dubai photo

A pair of oryx in Dubai. Photo: / Creative Commons.

A bright white antelope with long thin horns, the Arabian oryx is thought to have inspired early stories of unicorns. (Its two horns appear as one when viewed from the side.) And until recently, the real animal had become almost scarce as the legendary one, classified as extinct in the wild due to over-hunting. Now, the oryx is back from the brink in what conservation groups are calling the most successful such recovery for any species.The news of the oryx's recovery was a rare bright spot in the International Union for Conservation of Nature's recent report on threatened species. Captive breeding and reintroduction efforts have brought the wild population of the animal -- believed to have been extinguished in 1972 -- up to 1,000 individuals, allowing the IUCN to reclassify its status down from endangered to vulnerable. "It is the first time a species that was once classified as extinct in the wild has improved its fortunes to such an extent," The Guardian reported.

At Home In The Desert
Historically the animal ranged over most of the sandy deserts of the Arabian Peninsula, the Sinai Peninsula, Israel, Jordan and Iraq, according to the Phoenix Zoo, which helped with the recovery by starting the first captive-breeding herd of Arabian oryx in any zoo. A nomadic animal, the oryx it well-adapted to survive in some of the driest and hottest regions of the world; the National Wildlife Research Center in Saudi Arabia says "its pure white coat is thought to reflect direct solar radiations."

The hardy animal has long been hunted, but in the past bagging an oryx was no easy feat, Sports Illustrated wrote in a 1973 article:

Only the best hunters of a Bedouin tribe -- those able and willing to endure long periods living on dried meat and camel's milk -- attempted to overtake the oryx. This often entailed trailing the animal for days under the scorching desert sun. For many, the quest ended in death for the hunter rather than the hunted. The few who succeeded were lionized for their bravery, and the Arabs believed strength, endurance and virility were derived from eating the flesh of the oryx.

'Massacred' By Hunters With Helicopters
Cars, machine guns, and then airplanes and helicopters turned the tables in favor of the hunters, the magazine wrote: "What had once been a test of hunting skill and stamina degenerated into mechanized massacre." It chalks part of the credit for eventually saving the animals up to hunters as well, though, with American and European hunters participating in the attempt to capture some of the few remaining oryx and install them in zoos and other breeding programs. In what has happily turned out to be a prescient analysis, the 1973 Sports Illustrated concluded by saying:

"The day when the herds of oryx on this side of the world will be large enough to return to the wild deserts they once roamed is still far in the future, but the fact that there is any future at all is a dramatic example of international conservation on a grand scale."

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