By Matthew Teller
A fingernail moon hung over the table-flat desert as Salah al-Mahdhoury, my biologist guide, and I are served dates and fresh fruit by Shaykh Muhammad bin Thamna al-Harsusi, one of the leaders of the Harasis tribe of central Oman. We rest on cushions and talk into the night over spiced tea and unsweetened coffee about the Arabian oryx, the long-horned white antelope that is symbolic to many Omanis. “This is the original place for the oryx,” the shaykh tells us. Members of his family and others join amiably in the conversation.
“Oryx think like human beings in organizing themselves. The leaders take shifts at the head of the herd.” It feels like a recounting of knowledge accumulated over generations. “The Harasis are caretakers. This is the meaning of the word,” the shaykh continues. “But despite all the promises, we cannot see the future, because the future is not in our hands.”
Since 1972, when the last wild oryx was shot in Oman, the sultanate has taken a leading role in regional attempts to save the species from extinction. The focus of its efforts has been largely here on this stony, semi-arid plain of karst limestone covering much of central Oman, known as the Jiddat al-Harasis. Here, beginning in 1979, oryx were bred and released into the Arabian Oryx Sanctuary, a vast unfenced area the size of Massachusetts or Belgium. By 1996, two years after being named a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the sanctuary was home to more than 450 free-roaming oryx, and the project’s success was acclaimed worldwide: The oryx, it seemed, was safe.
Yet as Mohammed Shobrak points out, “most of the countries starting out on rein-troductions have the big picture—it’s all about conservation, bringing animals back to the wild—but they don’t have a detailed plan. So you start to see problems developing after a few years.” Shobrak is a biologist at Taif University and a consultant to Saudi Arabia’s National Commission for Wildlife Conservation and Development (NCWCD), which coordinates the kingdom’s oryx conservation. More....