By Matthew Teller
Yesterday, twenty Arabian oryx – a kind of white antelope, native to the Middle East – were released into the wild at Wadi Rum in Jordan, as the latest step in efforts to reintroduce the animal to the wild after its near-extinction in the 1970s.
A bit of background: oryx once roamed widely from Egypt to Syria to Oman. They were a prize target for hunters, who celebrated the chase in epic poems: oryx became symbols of grace and fortitude, mythologized like bulls in Spanish culture or stags in British culture. The arrival of 4WD vehicles and automatic weapons in the 1940s meant that hunters could finally outpace the oryx – and in twenty years, they massacred virtually the whole population. A few breeding pairs were saved and flown to Phoenix, Arizona, to form the nucleus of a ‘World Herd’, from which all surviving oryx are now descended.
Since then various countries have brought in reintroduction programmes, but almost none meets international guidelines. Oman could not control poaching at its huge reserve on the Jiddat al-Harasis plain, reduced the boundaries and was struck off UNESCO’s World Heritage Site list. Dubai has a desert reserve, centred on the Al-Maha luxury hotel. Abu Dhabi has crammed hundreds of oryx (along with giraffe and heaven knows what else) onto the small Sir Bani Yas island and called it a wildlife park with – predictably – a luxury hotel. They’re repeating the theme at a desert reserve in the south, due to open later this year with another luxury hotel, Qasr al-Sarab. Jordan’s habitats have been destroyed by overgrazing of sheep and goats; its oryx have remained penned in a small reserve at Shaumari for the last 30 years.
Only in Saudi Arabia, where there is much less pressure for tourism development, has oryx reintroduction worked, at the immense Uruq Bani Maarid reserve in the Empty Quarter. More....