Return of the

Arabian Oryx

Arabian oryx
Image Source: MathKnight

A vast expanse of sand and rock, the Arabian Desert is the largest desert in Asia. Covering 2.3 million square km, it spans almost the entire Arabian Peninsula and is shared among nine nations. With huge, featureless stretches of sand to the south, salt-encrusted plains to the east, and a blistering temperature that can reach 50°C, this extreme environment seems almost too harsh for survival. But despite the apparently empty, barren landscape, several desert specialists live here, including scorpions, sand cats, gazelles – and, once again, after a period of absence, the subject of today’s post, the Arabian oryx.

The smallest of the world’s four oryx species, the Arabian oryx leads a nomadic existence, wandering the arid expanses in small herds, searching for patches of greenery and distant rainfall. Its wide, shovel-shaped hooves stop it from sinking into the loose sand, while its brilliant white coat reflects the worst of the sun’s unforgiving rays, helping to keep the animal cool. It can go for weeks without water if necessary, extracting the moisture it requires from the desert plants that it eats. It’s a supremely tough animal, thriving in conditions that would quickly finish off most other large mammals.

Both male and female oryx possess long, elegant, rakish horns. Outside the breeding season, herd members are tolerant of each other, with both sexes adopting a simple hierarchy based on horn length. It is quite possible that the myth of the unicorn arose, at least in part, because this animal, when viewed from the side, looks very much like a white horse bearing a single horn upon its head.

Historically, the Arabian oryx is thought to have ranged throughout most of the Middle East. It has been hunted since ancient times – originally by men riding on camels, and more recently by big-game hunters pursuing them for trophies. As numbers dwindled, the oryx was steadily eliminated from countries such as Syria, Egypt and Israel. By the mid-1930s, it had been pushed back to Saudi Arabia, with the only remaining populations in the Nafud Desert in the northwest, and the Rub’ al Khali in the south.

Rub' al Khali, a sandy desert in Saudi Arabia
In the south of the Arabian Desert lies the Rub’ al Khali, or ‘the Empty Quarter’, a scorching area of sand roughly the size of France. It is one of the largest continuous expanses of sand on Earth.
Image Source: Nepenthes

By the 1950s, the increased availability of four-wheel-drive vehicles and automatic rifles in Arab countries made hunting both more widespread and more efficient. The hunts also grew in size, and some were reported to have employed as many as 300 vehicles. Arabian princes and oil company clerks also joined in. Entire herds were eradicated with ease. It’s little wonder that, by 1972, the Arabian oryx had become extinct in the wild.

Operation Oryx

All was not lost, however. A decade earlier, Operation Oryx was launched. This ambitious, last-ditch program had involved capturing three wild Arabian oryx and bringing them together – along with six more individuals donated from private collections – at Phoenix Zoo in Arizona. These nine animals formed the nucleus of what became known as the ‘World Herd’. This was not only the first Arabian oryx breeding program but also one of the first times that a zoo had helped with the recovery of any imperilled species.

The effectiveness of zoos in conserving endangered species has been called into question by many anti-zoo organisations over the years, but there is no denying the fact that the Phoenix Zoo, with financial aid from what is now the World Wide Fund for Nature and Fauna and Flora International, saved the Arabian oryx from complete extinction. Humans have a habit of leaving it to the last possible second to try and save a species – and many times, those efforts are too little, too late – but in this instance at least, we were fortunate. Although the entire species had been reduced to such a precarious position, the Arabian oryx took well to living in captivity, and the breeding program caused numbers to rise.

Arabian oryx in the desert
The Arabian oryx can smell rain falling up to 80 km away. The herd follows the scent, covering 30 km in one go, usually during the cooler night. When they arrive, they graze on newly-sprouted desert plants.
Image Source: Charles J Sharp

From the Phoenix Zoo, oryx were sent to other zoos and parks around the world to start new breeding herds. This was so successful that by 1980, the number of Arabian oryx in captivity had increased to the point that reintroduction to the wild was possible. Animals from the San Diego Wild Animal Park were taken to a stony desert in Oman called Jiddat al-Harasis. Initially, they were kept in large outdoor pens, but on 31 January 1982 – 39 years ago to the day as I write this – they were properly released into the desert. Twenty years after Operation Oryx had started, and ten years after they had disappeared from the wild, Arabian oryx were back in their natural habitat.

Over the next two decades, more captive-bred oryx were released into the wild. In 1986, the species’ official status on the IUCN Red List changed from being Extinct in the Wild to Endangered, and there are now completely wild populations in Oman, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan and Israel, roaming the Arabian Desert as they have done for hundreds of thousands of years. The total reintroduced population is now estimated to be around 1,000 individuals, with another 6,000-7,000 in captivity worldwide.

Threats still remain – poaching continues, for example, and the expansion of urban areas is causing habitat loss – but by anyone’s standards, this has been a hugely successful conservation story. The whole project demonstrated that it was possible for multiple zoos, societies, conservation organisations and even world governments to work collectively and collaboratively toward saving an animal species. Today, we know that this cooperative approach to conservation is not only possible, it’s necessary.

And, in what seems like a very rare occasion on this blog, I’ll end with some more good news. In 2011, the Arabian oryx became the first animal to be upgraded by the IUCN to Vulnerable status after previously being listed as Extinct in the Wild. The story of this animal is a crucial reminder not only of the impact humans can have on a species, but also how we can save them.


  • Jason Woodcock

    With a background in conservation and animal behaviour studies, Jason's passion lies in the natural world. He adores all things nature and enjoys nothing more than spotting rare and interesting species out in the wild. He has also worked in a zoo and knows plenty about keeping the animals inside our homes healthy and happy, too.

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  1. Pingback: Saola: The Asian Unicorn - The Nature Nook

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