The scimitar-horned oryx, a big desert antelope with horns that sweep back gracefully over its neck and back, once roamed across North Africa, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Nile. It still lives there in 8,500-year-old rock paintings on the Saharan massifs and on the walls of Egyptian tombs. But the last individuals in the wild vanished in the early 1980s, in the aftermath of a civil war in Chad.
Now a global team of conservationists, led by the Sahara Conservation Fund, plans to bring the oryx back to what is still one of the poorest and most politically troubled regions in the world. Beginning late next year or early in 2015, large numbers of oryx will return to the site of their last stand, the 30,000-square-mile Ouadi Rimé-Ouadi Achim Game Reserve in central Chad.
Past restoration efforts have been limited to 10 or 12 animals at a time, in small fenced enclosures in Tunisia, Morocco, and Senegal. Those efforts were more about repatriation than reintroduction, says John Newby, a desert ecologist and chairman of the Saharan Conservation Fund. The habitat was often unsuitable and food and water had to be artificially supplied.
But if all goes well this time, groups of 100 or so oryx at a time will go through a brief period in holding enclosures, to become reacquainted with difficult habitat they have not encountered in generations. Then the scimitar-horned oryx will once again be free to wander.
Despite their collapse in the wild, the oryx have been a spectacular success in captivity. They have reproduced almost too well, sometimes overwhelming the capacity of zoos and game ranches to keep them. Texas alone has 11,000 of them, descended from a group of about 50 animals collected in Chad in the 1960s and shipped to the United States and Europe. Game ranches in Texas charge a trophy fee of $5000 to hunt them. (Though the scimitar-horned oryx is protected as an endangered species, the law allows an exception for some captive-bred animals.)
The pioneer animals in the reintroduction program will come from captive-bred populations in the United Arab Emirates, according to Newby. They’ll be fitted with satellite collars, he says, “not just to follow individuals, but to get an understanding of migratory patterns, social dynamics, how they pair up.” Later introductions may include animals from Europe and the United States to increase genetic diversity.
The Saharan Conservation Fund is still raising the estimated $10 million cost of the program. Is it worth the effort? That is, does it have much chance of succeeding? In 1982, the Fauna and Flora Preservation Society, together with the Phoenix Zoo, launched a reintroduction program for a cousin species, the Arabian oryx. Wild populations continue to breed in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates., with a total of about 1,000 animals in the wild. But the Oman program collapsed after the government opened its Arabian Oryx Sanctuary to oil companies.
Newby says the program in Chad has direct support from President Idriss Déby. But it also faces challenges from increased livestock grazing in the region. Unlike some other reintroduction efforts, it also cannot promise local communities direct benefit, for instance, from ecotourism income. “A much stronger argument in working with the local population,” says Newby, “is custodianship of a species that is important to them.”
The scimitar-horned oryx was once a major part of the culture for desert people, who used to hunt them on horseback. “The old guys remember not only seeing them, but eating them,” says Newby. “Their eyes light up and they remember what it was like back then. Luckily I worked in Chad then and was able to experience that with them.”
Newby thinks it’s possible for local people to make the transition from hunting to caretaking, as they begin to understand what has been lost. “I have really exciting discussions with people under the acacia trees,” he says. “They don’t have the idea of extinction. ‘They’re not gone, they’re gone somewhere else.’ ” They don’t have the perspective of traveling the landscape by helicopter and seeing that the oryx are gone everywhere. “At the end of the day, they believe me,” says Newby. “But they’re reluctant to believe me.”
In any case, he says, they are welcoming and excited about reintroduction, though with the livestock herder’s usual disdain for predators. “They tell me, ‘Bring back the oryx, bring back the gazelles, and the ostrich. But in the name of Allah, don’t bring back the hyena.’ ”