Rare Desert Antelope is Now Thriving!

The Arabian oryx is flourishing, thanks to robust nurturing efforts in the UAE.

Jul 18, 2021
Rare Desert Antelope is Now Thriving! | The Arabian oryx is flourishing, thanks to robust nurturing efforts in the UAE.

The elegant oryx has long been a staple of the Arabian Peninsula’s desert landscape. Instantly recognizable by its long, straight horns, which jut dramatically upwards, depictions of this desert antelope have been found in the region’s ancient rock art dating back thousands of years. And thanks to a robust conservation effort spearheaded by a regional leader, the oryx is set to remain a graceful presence in the region for generations to come.

According to the United Arab Emirates’ Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi, known as EAD, the oryx population dwindled to near extinction in the 1970s due to excessive hunting and rapid development, leading to habitat loss. 

Recognizing the need to save the species, the UAE’s first ruler, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, launched a conservation program focused on captive breeding of the oryx, to build up its numbers. Later, the oryx would be released back into the wild.

Today, the UAE boasts the largest number of Arabian oryx of any country in the world. Some 7,000 of the creatures roam the vast sands of Abu Dhabi’s Qasr Al Sarab Protected Area and the Arabian Oryx Protected Area, near the border with Oman and Saudi Arabia.

Dr. Shaikha Al Dhaheri, secretary general of the EAD, told The National that the oryx is “a symbol of our cultural heritage,” noting that Al Nahyan’s foresight nearly four decades ago had brought the species back from the brink of extinction.

“Thanks to extensive captive breeding of the species undertaken by the late Sheikh Zayed, the species was saved. This project has become an example to be followed across the world and represents great success for protection and captive-breeding programs.”

In November 2020, the EAD announced that it had released some 100 captive-bred oryx back into the wild, in the Houbara Protected Area. This 774 square kilometer area was originally founded as a reserve for the rare Houbara bird, but now serves as sanctuary for various endangered desert species.

Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the head of the EAD’s board of directors and the son of Sheikh Zayed, who created the oryx conservation program, said in a press release that “the Emirates are committed to preserving wildlife and endangered species, and the release of these majestic animals into the wild constitutes a moment of pride for us.”

The UAE’s efforts, said Al Nahyan, resulted in a change of classification for the oryx on “the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, from 'endangered' to 'vulnerable to extinction.’”

“This is considered as one of the most important achievements in the field of the reintroduction of species on a global level,” he added.

The remarkable success of the UAE’s conservation program for Arabian oryx illustrates how a commitment to saving a species means much more than bolstering the region’s biodiversity. Considering the oryx’s status as a regional icon, the continued survival of the species represents the preservation of a unique desert heritage stretching back thousands of years. With the oryx now gallivanting through the sands once again, conversation programs have proven to be critical for preserving both ecological diversity and a storied cultural legacy.

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Fascinated by storytelling since childhood, Lauren is passionate about the written word. She’s a freelance writer who has covered everything from the latest developments in tech to geopolitics. When she’s not writing, Lauren is interested in genealogical research and family folklore.