The Arabian oryx: how Qatar's national animal came back from the dead
The Arabian oryx - the national animal of Qatar - had been hunted to extinction by the 1970s. But a remarkable and historic conservation effort restored this beautiful species to its desert home.
Orry the Oryx stands 10m tall at the water’s edge, and the sun glares from the ocean and the glittering skyscrapers of the Doha Corniche. The symbol of the Asian Games held here in Qatar in 2006, he reminds us of the importance of the Arabian oryx as Qatar’s national animal.
Indeed, it’s hard to miss – this elegant antelope features on every Qatar Airways tailfin and gives its name to, among others, a Doha football club, two hotels and an international school. The next sporting milestone for this tiny oil- and gas-rich state, sandwiched between Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf, is the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
Not without controversy over migrant workers and human rights, hosting the World Cup would be a big deal for any country, let alone one of just 3 million people, which you can drive end-to-end in two hours. But I am not here for football. I am here to uncover the extraordinary story of the Arabian oryx.
The Al Mas’habiya Reserve
The Al Mas’habiya Reserve is in the far south of Qatar. This is stony, scoured, hilly desert with bleached rocky outcrops, from where you can squint at Saudi Arabia. Occasional sand squalls half-heartedly set off across the scorched plain. On the skyline are a few bushes, their blackened branches bearing just the faintest sign of green. And, barely visible against the white of the rocks, clustered in the shards of shade, are oryx. Arabian oryx, to be precise, sometimes known as white oryx.
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Standing only about a metre tall at the shoulder, they are unmistakable. Almost white, wearing black, full-length stockings with a black chest line and face markings that include, as Stuart Wells, former oryx-keeper at Phoenix Zoo, Arizona, puts it, “a Nike swoosh” . And then there are those extraordinary horns: black and slender, almost as long as the animal is tall, and very slightly swept back at their sharp, pointed tips.
What is the Arabian oryx?
The Arabian oryx is a true desert specialist. Look down at its white feet and you will see its hooves are a little too big for its diminutive body – they are shovel-like, splayed for walking in sand. Its white pelage (the whitest of all the oryx species) reflects the heat of the sun (which in summer can reach 45˚C or more), but darkens in the colder winter months (when it drops to less than 10˚C at night).
Beneath the silvery coat lies black skin, which holds warmth on chilly desert mornings. The white-and-black patterning makes the oryx inconspicuous in light and shade. But most impressive is its ability to manage with minimal amounts of water, often garnered only from plants or condensed fog, thanks to its specialised ability to conserve moisture.
Spend an hour or two sweating it out in the humidity of the late summer desert and you’ll see that the oryx is no skittish, fast-running antelope. Instead, it steadily plods across the dusty plain. If it does run, it’s not very fast, nor very far.
There is something slightly rotund and cow-like about these mostly placid beasts, who eye me with curiosity. But, as Stuart says, “they are extremely powerful and compact. And can be pretty feisty.”
What was Operation Oryx?
By 1960, the Arabian oryx was in real trouble in the wild. Climate change and increased drought frequency may have played a part in the antelope’s demise, and capture for private collections will not have helped.
But the real cause of ruin was hunting parties armed with motorised machine guns, seeking glory in trophies and the magical power of oryx horns, which are prized as charms. Reports of a hunting party, likely from Qatar, that included the pursuit of one of the last remaining herds and resulted in the killing of at least 48 animals, was the final catalyst for action.
Operation Oryx was launched by the Fauna Preservation Society (now Fauna and Flora International) in 1962. The plan was to catch enough animals to establish a captive-breeding herd with the goal of re-introduction to the wild. This may now be a well-established strategy for restoring endangered species, but at the time the idea was revolutionary.
The measures were timely. A decade later, in October 1972, reports were received that the last wild herd of six animals had been slaughtered by poachers in Jiddat al Harasis, Oman. With that, the Arabian oryx was declared extinct in the wild.
Looking back on the 1962 expedition, it feels like another age: there was a homemade ‘catching car’, which looked like something from the Wacky Races, and beer was donated by the brewery Messrs Ind Coope to help cope with the gruelling desert conditions.
This was a time of daring expeditions, David Attenborough’s Zoo Quest and Gerald Durrell’s A Zoo in My Luggage. A small British team was gathered under the leadership of Ian Grimwood, then Kenya’s chief game warden. They worked with local Bedouin tribes in what is now Oman and South Yemen, seeking to find – and then capture – an almost extinct needle in an intimidatingly vast desert haystack.
Peter Whitehead (now 98 years old) is a surviving member of the Operation Oryx team. “It was unpleasant and arduous,” he tells me, “but luck, good leadership and a determination to do the very best we could made what little success we had possible.”
And with hindsight, what success! Despite broken vehicles and broken ribs (of Ian Grimwood) the operation captured three wild animals. These, along with some captive individuals donated by the ruler of Kuwait, the King of Saudi Arabia and the Zoological Society of London, formed the basis of the seven-strong ‘World Herd’. Phoenix Zoo in Arizona was selected as the herd’s home for its desert conditions.
When the team held a press conference in London in June 1962, the Duke of Edinburgh sent a telegram of congratulations, noting that this “Noah’s Ark operation is a splendid precedent for future efforts to save the world’s endangered species”. This certainly proved the case.
Did Operation Oryx succeed?
Within a year, there was breeding success at Phoenix. Gradually, the World Herd was distributed across Los Angeles Zoo and San Diego Zoo in California and, later, the Gladys Porter Zoo in Texas. Spreading the animals out reduced the risk of total extinction in the event of a catastrophic outbreak of disease.
“The breeding programme was carefully managed,” explains Gary West, a vet at Phoenix Zoo. “A studbook was established and breeding carefully controlled to avoid genetic problems.” The programme still continues at Phoenix, where 242 oryx have been born to date, with the newest arrival last February. “These kind of programmes really show where zoos can contribute to nature conservation.”
The next phase of the conservation plan began in 1982, with the reintroduction of Arabian oryx from the World Herd to the wild in Oman. Further reintroductions followed, to Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates. Though there have been significant pressures from development, poaching and refugees fleeing war, numbers have slowly increased in the wild, so much so that in 2011 the species’ status was downgraded from Endangered to Vulnerable. The most recent assessment (2016) revealed a wild population of 1,200 individuals, alongside a managed population of 6,000-7,000. There may be more.
“The Arabian oryx was basically gone and is now back in the game,” says Stuart. “For a species to go from classified as Extinct to Vulnerable is unique and phenomenal.”
How did the royal family help to save the oryx?
Few people realise that around the time of Operation Oryx, several prominent members of the Qatari royal family, the Al Thanis, were making their own mark on oryx conservation. HE Sheikh Qassim bin Hamad Al Thani established an oryx reserve in Qatar; a year later HE Sheikh Faisal bin Qassim Al Thani launched an expedition to Shisr, Oman, to capture oryx to secure the species.
“It was not hard to catch the oryx,” he tells me over a mint tea in Doha. “We used two Dodge pick-ups and threw a rope over the horns. Oryx are not very fast. It only takes 10 minutes to catch one.”
The five animals he caught in 1967 became a breeding group in Qatar. This, along with other private collections, became known as the Royal Herd. “Oryx from Qatar have been sent out to be preserved in various parts of the world,” he tells me. One of the most recent oryx rewilding projects in Shaumari, Jordan, included animals from the Royal Herd.
In 1979, the Qatar government created an oryx park, bringing together selected oryx from different collections. These animals have been gradually spread across more than 10 protected areas; many more exist in private collections.
Back in the Al Mas’habiya Reserve, with the sun beating down, I admire a small herd traipsing across the sand. The reserve is fenced, but absolutely vast, so the animals here are semi-wild. “There are around 1,000 oryx in this reserve alone,” says manager Mohammed Nasser Al Henzab. “They are not fully in the wild to protect them. There could be as many as 10,000 wild and semi-wild oryx in Qatar now.”
Whatever the precise numbers, the Arabian oryx has come a long way in the past 50 years. “The story of the oryx set the stage for many other successful conservation programmes,” says Stuart. “The pattern has been repeated many times – think of the black-footed ferret in North America, the Mexican wolf and now the scimitar oryx.”
But there are still concerns and threats to the Arabian oryx. Genetic problems are a risk. “It was certainly a bottleneck with such a small population of descendants, but they don’t seem to have a lot of genetic disease issues,” says Phoenix Zoo veterinarian Gary West. “I think we were fortunate.”
Hybridisation with other species of oryx, which is a risk in captive groups, is another concern. And across the Middle East, where hunting is an important part of cultural identity, poaching remains a threat – the Arabian oryx is valued for its meat, skin and the supposed medicinal value of its blood.
But here on the Saudi border it’s a time to celebrate the return of a beautiful animal, back from the very brink. As we watch a dominant male lead his harem up a desert hillside, reserve manager Mohammed tells me: “If you see oryx, you know it’s going to be a good day.”
Main image © Getty
Simon Payne is a nature writer specialising in conservation, extinction and rewilding, and is also emeritus professor at the University of Plymouth