Extinct. A very scary word. A word that brings up images of dinosaurs and dodo birds; animals and plants that were once but now no longer are. Extinct is a word that can only mean something has gone terribly wrong and unfortunately, it’s a word that aptly describes the scimitar-horned oryx. The scimitar-horned oryx is a gorgeous long-horned antelope that once roamed the Sahara desert from Mauritania to Egypt. There is some evidence that they were partially domesticated by the ancient Egyptians and bred by the Romans. Now they are extinct, or at the very least “Extinct in the Wild” a very special status granted to them by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature in the year 2000. “Extinct in the Wild” means that the scimitar-horned oryx has slipped beyond the definition “critically endangered”; at this point, they simply do not exist outside of fences. At the moment the entirety of the global population is restricted to zoos and wildlife parks along with a handful of reserves in Senegal, Tunisia, and Morocco.
The scimitar-horned oryx is a truly fascinating antelope for reasons beyond its extreme scarcity. For one, it is among the most well-adapted animals for the desert living. True desert nomads, wild scimitars will traverse tremendous distances in search of scrubby desert grasses and shrubs. They are only able to make these extended treks through the Sahara by carefully conserving their water supply. Incredible adaptations like specialized kidneys that severely restrict urinary water loss and an ability to allow their body temperature rise to 116-degrees before perspiring let these animals go weeks or even months between drinks.
Those beautiful scimitar-shaped horns of theirs are another tremendous adaptation. Not just for looks, those horns also help the animal keep cool. As the desert temperatures rise and their body temperatures creep up to the point of water-expensive perspiration, the scimitar-horned oryx pumps its increasingly hot blood up into those long slender horns where the heat radiates out into the environment. The mechanism is not unlike what a radiator accomplishes in our cars and keeps the animal from overheating.
Our own herd of scimitar-horned oryx numbers seven animals; not a large number to be sure, but compared to the zero that exists in the wild it’s huge. Come visit us and take in the incredibly rare sight of our healthy herd right here in (thankfully) temperate Sonoma County. If you find them as fascinating as we do, stop by our Conservation Pumpkin Patch on the way out and learn something about the Sahara Conservation Fund, an incredible organization we are supporting who have begun to take the first steps toward reintroducing these animals to the wild and pulling them back from the brink of true extinction.