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Arabian Oryx Faces Second Extinction

The last wild Oryx was killed in 1972
The magnificent Arabian Oryx, which once ranged deserts throughout the Middle East and probably inspired the legend of the unicorn, is facing extinction in the wild for the second time in 30 years.

Ralph Daly, an environmental adviser for the Royal Court in Oman, delivered his warning at the recent International Arabian Oryx Conference in Abu Dhabi. "The great herd of some 400 wild Arabian Oryx in Oman's re-introduction project has been so ravished by poachers since 1996, that it is no longer viable," he said. Efforts by the Swiss-based Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF), and the Sultanate of Oman to save the remaining Arabian Oryx were the focus of the conference.

By 1960, only about 100 Arabian Ortx were still alive in the wild. A desperate rescue operation mounted the next year and named "Operation Oryx" ensured that a small number of animals were transferred to zoos for captive breeding. The last wild Oryx was killed in 1972, probably by poachers.

Able to thrive in the open desert without shade or standing water, they store moisture from their food and have kidneys that conserve water remarkably. Their white fur helps to deflect sunlight, although the skin under their coat is dark. Both male and female carry a pair of curved horns that can grow to a length of more than 3 feet. As the horns are so symmetrical that only one can be seen in profile, it is believed that the Oryx inspired the unicorn myth.

The animals saved in the 1960s formed the nucleus of what came to be called the "World Herd." Unlike most of the species in captivity at the time, the World Herd was intended to breed animals that would be reintroduced into the wild.

The descendants of the World Herd animals were reintroduced in the deserts of central Oman in 1982. "We were optimistic that the long battle to return the Arabian Oryx to the wild was being won when their numbers reached 400 in 1996," said John Newby, Head of WWF International's Species Conservation Unit. "Unfortunately, the increasing numbers of oryx also attracted the poachers back."

But between 1996 and 1999, the numbers of Arabian Oryx ranging in the Oman deserts fell from 400 to 100 -- poachers had removed or killed half of the oryx. The situation became so precarious that 39 wild oryx were moved to enclosures to protect them from poaching.

Poachers have been capturing the animals for sale to private zoos. They mainly target female oryx and their calves, many of which certainly die from stress or exhaustion during their capture. Others die during transportation or shortly afterwards, and their bodies are then abandoned. Of the 100 or so oryx left in the wild, only 11 are female, reducing even further the species' chances of recovery.

The recent conference recommended the creation of a coordinating body to help cooperation and exchange information about the Oryx across the Arabian Peninsula. Also called for were the tightening of regulations and better regional cooperation to prevent illegal border crossing of poachers.

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Albion Monitor June 3, 1999 (

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