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The beautiful story of the Arabian Oryx

arabian oryx with young in wadi rum

The Arabian Peninsula has only a few indigenous mammals. One of them is an elegant antelope with beautiful eyes; The Arabian Oryx. We know the Arabian Oryx by his Arabian name, Al Maha. The Arabian Oryx is our countries national animal. In our Bedouin culture, they are important and represent beauty.

The Arabian Oryx

The Arabian Oryx is one of the four antelope species on earth. This smallest member of the family is between 70 and 83 high. Their fur is white with contrasting dark chocolate brown legs. They have a brown flank line, and their white tail ends in black. As for their faces, cheeks, and throats, these have a dark brown to almost black blaze that continues down onto the chest. Both males and females have long, slim, almost straight, black horns. They reach between 50 and 60 cm in length. With up to 90 kilos, the male weighs between 10 and 20 kilo more than the female. Youngsters are born with a brown coat, which changes as they grow up. Arabian Oryx herds are small, with eight to ten members only.

The Arabian Oryx’s natural habitat

The Arabian Oryx uniquely adapted to living in our extremely arid peninsula. They inhabit gravel plains, open wadis, and dunes. Their broad hooves enable them to walk across the sand easily, but rocky areas are more challenging. They wander long distances in search of food. Some days they cover up to 90 kilometers per day. Grasses, tubers, and shoots of trees and bushes make up their diet. Did you know, that they can root up tubers from up to half a meter underground? As for drinking, the desert is not an extremely challenging environment as they can survive for long periods without drinking. Succulent plants and tubers and occasionally dew is enough for them to survive. The fact that they can smell water from miles away is beneficial. And in the rare case that they then find water, they will drink it freely.

Extinct in the wild

After roaming the deserts of the Middle East for centuries, Al Maha became extinct in Jordan in the 1930s. Although they are so well adapted to the harsh desert environment and did not have many natural predators, they had one that almost drove them to extinction; man. Their number declined heavily due to natural disasters and mortality due to poisoning during a campaign to eradicate locusts. But most devastating was the extensive hunting for their meat, coat, and horns.

The Arabian Oryx; a wildlife success story

By the 1970s, the Arabian Oryx was extinct in the wild in the whole Arabian Peninsula. Some of the last animals were captured for a ‘world herd’ with animals from the royal collections from Abu Dhabi, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. This herd provided the stock, which is used for reintroduction programs all over the Arabian Peninsula, including Jordan. The reintroductions into the wilderness turned into a big success as over 1000 animals live in the wild once again. Therefore the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) downgraded its threat category from ‘extinct in the wild’ to ‘vulnerable’ in 2011.

Reintroduction programs in Jordan

After an absence for many decades, a captive breeding program was started. The RSCN (Royal Society for Conservation of Nature) facilitated a successful reintroduction program in Shaumari Wildlife Reserve in the 1970s. After the first Gulf War, over 1.5 million sheep and goats were brought into Jordan by refugees from Iraq. They overgrazed the pastures, rendering the planned Arabian Oryx release impossible.

In 2002 RSCN and AZESA (Authority of the Aqaba Special Economic Zone) started a reintroduction program in Wadi Rum. In a large, enclosed area behind Jabal Rum, ten Oryx from Shaumari Wildlife Reserve were set free. In 2009 twenty Arabian Oryx from Abu Dhabi were released in the Wadi Rum Protected Area. To boost the herd’s viability, another twenty followed in 2012. Some of them died, which lead to the decision to capture the ones that were still alive. They relocated them to the fenced area too. Nonetheless, we are thrilled that the Arabian Oryx once again live in our desert.

Visiting the Oryx

The RSCN offers Oryx safari’s in Shaumari Wildlife Reserve. If you want to see the Oryx in Wadi Rum, you need a special permit from the Wadi Rum visitor center. In case you are interested, please let us know. Then we will get in touch with the visitor center to check if we can make the necessary arrangements.

The featured image of the Arabian Oryx was made by nature photographer Mohammad Asfour.

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