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Scimitar-horned Oryx

Conservation Corner: Stepping Back from Extinction

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Of the many endangered species represented in the collection at Safari West, only one has the dubious distinction of carrying the label “Extinct in the Wild”. Most of our visitors are familiar with the idea of endangerment and understand that when we point out an animal as being “critically endangered” they are looking at a species in crisis. What comes as shocking news to many is that the word “extinct” doesn’t only apply to dinosaurs and wooly mammoths. Extinctions are going on every year and at an alarming rate. One of the great benefits of zoos and wildlife parks like Safari West is that when we can see it coming, we can sometimes act as a life preserver for these fragile species.

Among the 800 or so animals making their home at Safari West, you can find seven beautiful scimitar horned oryxes. The scimitar horned oryx is an incredible desert antelope. Typically white in color with sandy colored necks and incredibly long, backward curving horns, the scimitars are startling on first look. Some estimates claim that there were once over a million scimitar horned oryx ranging across North Africa. A sad convergence of factors drove the oryx from that population high to the point of eradication. Resources are limited in the desert and so the oryx proved especially vulnerable to competition with livestock and the constant encroachment of human habitation. These beautiful antelope have also been hunted extensively. Historically they were hunted as a food source, a fact which makes a great deal of sense as they are a large, heavy-bodied antelope occurring in an area otherwise mostly devoid of protein sources. In modern times, they’ve also been targeted as trophy animals. One look at the graceful curve of those long slender horns should give a clue as to why.

The combination of these factors led to a string of localized extinctions. By the end of the 1800s, the oryx was extirpated from Egypt. Shortly thereafter they disappeared from Senegal and Burkina Faso. The belief is that the very last wild scimitar horned oryx was shot in Chad in 1998. In the year 2000, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) declared the scimitar horned oryx extinct in the wild.

In the 16 years since then, places like Safari West have done what we can to keep the captive members of the species healthy and successfully breeding while outfits like the Sahara Conservation Fund (SCF), the Zoological Society of London, and the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi (EAD), have worked at finding ways to re-establish wild populations.

The Sahara Conservation Fund may sound familiar to you. If you happened to visit Safari West last fall, you’ll have wandered through our conservation pumpkin patch where our hoofstock department raised funds for the SCF. The fund has been doing incredible work for years including a partial introduction of scimitars in Tunisia. Starting in March, however, conservation efforts surrounding the scimitar horned oryx are stepping up to a whole new level.

Historically, reintroducing extinct species has been a complex and frustrating endeavor. Typically these efforts amount to limited introductions in fenced off reserves encapsulating fairly small areas. For example, a previous introduction project involved releasing 8 scimitars into the North Ferlo Wildlife Reserve in Senegal. The population grew to 120 animals over the course of a decade. An impressive recovery to be sure. It is important however to bear in mind that the Ferlo reserve is only 3,000 acres in area and is entirely fenced and patrolled. The scimitars making their home in the Ferlo reserve are protected from human interaction and any interloping cattle or sheep are quickly escorted off the premises. Not only that, but the vegetation in Ferlo is significantly different from what can be found beyond the fences. If the scimitars were to cross the fence line, they’d find themselves competing with millions of cows, sheep, and goats for a much more restricted supply of nutrition.

The Senegalese scimitar reintroduction project (as well as similar projects in Morocco and Tunisia) has been successful but with severe caveats. These populations do not qualify as truly wild and are most definitely managed by humans even if their interaction with their managers is limited. These reserves are in many ways Safari West writ large.

Beginning in March, the government of Chad, in concert with SCF and EAD will begin a grand experiment. They have selected the Ouadi Rime-Ouadi Achim Game Reserve in central Chad as the new home for 500 captive-bred scimitar horned oryx from Abu Dhabi. This reserve spans nearly 19-million acres as opposed to Ferlo’s 3,000. Not only that, but it is unfenced and straddles the oryx’s historical range in the Sahel grasslands. This area is large enough that the oryx will be able to engage in more natural behaviors than are possible in fenced reserves. In part, this means that the highly nomadic and migratory species will finally regain the ability to truly stretch their legs.

SCF and the Chadian government will not release all 500 animals en masse. They are beginning with a small population, 25 individuals to start, and at the outset there will be temporary fencing in place. This will help protect and contain the animals as they acclimate to their new home. As the animals acclimatize, the fences will expand to encompass new territory and with time, will disappear altogether. When that happens, the Chadian population of scimitar horned oryx will become the first wild population the planet has seen in nearly two decades.

This is a huge reason to celebrate. It’s not often that we get to see extinction run in reverse and a species on the edge begin to regain a toehold. Beyond the excitement for the species in question, there is also a great deal of evidence that these animals will have a beneficial impact on the ecosystem. This has been the case with wolf reintroductions in Yellowstone. Ecosystems tend to be thrown out of balance when pieces of them are lost and re-balanced to some extent when they are returned.

But is that the whole story? It’s important to note that the success of this project is in no way guaranteed. There have been reintroductions in the past that were less than successful. The Arabian oryx was once incredibly endangered to the point that it too was considered extinct in the wild. A successful reintroduction of the species in Oman eventually collapsed as the species suffered untenable pressure from poachers. The few remaining individuals had to be recaptured and relocated. Luckily for the Arabian oryx, reintroductions in other parts of the Middle East saw better results and on the whole the population has now recovered to the point of being classified as “vulnerable”.

Likewise, the Northern Bald Ibis (5 of which make their home at Safari West) has been making a bit of a comeback of late. The last wild population of these mid-sized black birds has rebounded in the last year or so. Though their numbers are climbing, this Morocco based population doesn’t migrate as it once did. Likewise, a satellite population in Yemen is captured each year to prevent them from migrating, mainly because the birds don’t often survive the trip. They simply encounter too many obstacles, some man-made, some natural along the way.

The question has to be asked, at what point does it no longer make sense to expect a species to compete with humanity when the scales are so heavily weighted? We like the idea of these animals existing in a wild state. They have a documented impact on the welfare of the environment, and the environment has a direct impact on us. On the other hand, even the wilds of Ouadi Rime-Ouadi Achim are no longer truly wild. A pre-release survey study noted that vegetative cover was diminished in the west of the park, an area in which the survey team had the most encounters with domestic livestock. Markus Gusset, chief conservation officer at the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums made this concession in a discussion with PBS;

“Every ecosystem on earth is somehow impacted by human activities and most wildlife populations will need to be managed in the future.”

At some point, what we are doing is not bringing back an animal to an ecosystem from which it’s been lost, but introducing a novel organism into an ecosystem to which it no longer belongs. The scimitar horned oryx reintroduction in Chad presents a remarkable and unprecedented opportunity to find out whether or not we’ve crossed that line.

Jared Paddock

Jared Paddock

Safari West staff and conservation writer.