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The Scimitar Oryx - Charismatic Antelope of the Desert

Saturday 26 June 2010

Once one of the most numerous horned animals in North Africa, the Scimitar Oryx has now been classified as extinct in the wild. A pale antelope with a ruddy chest this almost horse-like mammal would perhaps be unremarkable save for one thing – it’s majestic and incredibly long curved horns. For this reason it was hunted almost to extinction.

Its name too comes from its horns – they are shaped very much like a scimitar, a relatively light weight sword which originated in the Middle East. When they numbered in their millions the animals would have formed mixed gender herds of up to seventy or so. When it was time for them to follow their yearly migration they would come together in groups that numbered in their thousands. Can you imagine what a magnificent sight that would have been?

The male and the female of the species both possess the remarkable scimitar horns. The male can reach 125 cm in height and weigh in at an impressive 200kg. The color of its coat is so light so it can reflect the heat of the sun in dessert conditions. Their territories used to cover an incredible 3000 square kilometers and the Oryx would know every part of their journey, avoiding unfavorable locations.

The horns can grow up to 175cm, which is an incredible length considering the height of the species. When mating season begins the males will partake in spectacular fights – and they really mean it too. Horns are often broken and sometimes one of the combatants might die. It is thought that perhaps a one horned oryx who had lost the other in a fight may have contributed to the myth of the unicorn.

The Scimitar Oryx looks a little delicate, but it is a hardy species that in the wild inhabited desert and step where their diet consisted of grasses, leaves and – when they could get it – fruit. They have specially adapted kidneys which mean that they can live without drinking any water for weeks at a time. This is also due to the fact that they can change their body temperature at will and so avoid losing water through perspiration.
They can certainly cope with extreme conditions. At 42-45 degrees centigrade most other animals would expire but the Scimitar Oryx can still survive. One thing which helps is a habit they have formed of licking dew off each other’s coats at night. When water is around they are voracious – after giving birth the female can easily consume twenty percent of her body weight in water.

There were serious droughts in the early twentieth century and the numbers declined drastically as the animals continued to be hunted by desert nomad tribes who were also struggling to survive. However, two things contributed to the downfall of this swift and gregarious animal – the development of the gun and motor vehicles.

Where they once occupied the whole of the Sahara region and numbered in the very least in their hundreds of thousands, today they are restricted to zoos and sanctuaries. There has not been a single substantiated Scimitar Oryx sighting in the wild for almost twenty years.

So, how many of these remarkable animals are left today? After a captive breeding programme began in the 1960s their numbers have risen. It is thought that around five thousand exist altogether. There are hopes that someday the Scimitar Oryx can be reintroduced in to the wild in Tunisia where there is a herd that is protected within a fenced preserve.

The Sahara Conservation Fund is researching the full reintroduction of the species in to all of its previous range. Although there are many issues to be overcome, such a geographical bottlenecks, genetics and husbandry there may well be hope for this most enigmatic antelope of the desert.

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