Oryx tale soup

nationaloryxYesterday, twenty Arabian oryx – a kind of white antelope, native to the Middle East – were released into the wild at Wadi Rum in Jordan, as the latest step in efforts to reintroduce the animal to the wild after its near-extinction in the 1970s.

A bit of background: oryx once roamed widely from Egypt to Syria to Oman. They were a prize target for hunters, who celebrated the chase in epic poems: oryx became symbols of grace and fortitude, mythologized like bulls in Spanish culture or stags in British culture. The arrival of 4WD vehicles and automatic weapons in the 1940s meant that hunters could finally outpace the oryx – and in twenty years, they massacred virtually the whole population. A few breeding pairs were saved and flown to Phoenix, Arizona, to form the nucleus of a ‘World Herd’, from which all surviving oryx are now descended.

Since then various countries have brought in reintroduction programmes, but almost none meets international guidelines. Oman could not control poaching at its huge reserve on the Jiddat al-Harasis plain, reduced the boundaries and was struck off UNESCO’s World Heritage Site list. Dubai has a desert reserve, centred on the Al-Maha luxury hotel. Abu Dhabi has crammed hundreds of oryx (along with giraffe and heaven knows what else) onto the small Sir Bani Yas island and called it a wildlife park with – predictably – a luxury hotel. They’re repeating the theme at a desert reserve in the south, due to open later this year with another luxury hotel, Qasr al-Sarab. Jordan’s habitats have been destroyed by overgrazing of sheep and goats; its oryx have remained penned in a small reserve at Shaumari for the last 30 years.

Only in Saudi Arabia, where there is much less pressure for tourism development, has oryx reintroduction worked, at the immense Uruq Bani Maarid reserve in the Empty Quarter.

Now Abu Dhabi has struck a deal with Jordan to release oryx at Wadi Rum. Twenty animals were flown over earlier this year for acclimatization, and the enclosure gates were opened yesterday. Abu Dhabi newspaper The National sent a journalist – her report is here.

All looks great, eh? Nice, feel-good story.

Unfortunately, this is not good journalism. Jordan’s RSCN nature conservancy society has been conducting experiments in oryx release at Wadi Rum for the last 7 years – but Wadi Rum is not an oryx habitat. It’s too sandy and too mountainous: the oryx always roamed south and had to be brought back. Several died from broken legs sustained on the scree slopes. The RSCN eventually called a halt and pulled out. Then the semi-autonomous Aqaba Special Economic Zone Authority (a commercial body, not a conservation organization) stepped in to try and boost local income through increased tourism to the area. It is they, not the Jordanian government in Amman, who have struck the deal with Abu Dhabi: this oryx release is a laudable effort, but it has little or no scientific basis. It is economic. I have talked to several conservationists, including independent scientists with no axe to grind, who are well aware the release will fail.

The article is also littered with factual errors. Sheikh Zayed did make a contribution to saving the species from annihilation, but the real work had been done years before with the establishment of the World Herd. Oryx conservation projects are not ‘planned’ for Saudi Arabia, but have long been under way there.

And why did they send someone with poor Arabic? “Aion elmaha” – or, more properly, “ayoun al-maha” – does not mean ‘beautiful eyes’, but ‘the eyes of the oryx’.

As for a professional journalist recycling the sentimentality of the father standing with his hand on his son’s shoulder – well, there’s no accounting for taste.

A lazily written story, presented as if it’s the conclusion – save oryx, breed oryx, release oryx, job done.

In truth, this is just the start. What is now involved is a pouring of resources into making sure the oryx survive: manpower, cars, data collection, analysis, maintenance of GPS collars and monitoring equipment, perhaps intervention, enforcement of anti-poaching laws, environmental education for local people, development of tourism strategies… the list goes on! This is why poor countries like Jordan can’t afford to do it alone – and why a highly-placed source within the Jordanian conservation community told me that, given a choice, he’d prefer to drop the whole oryx programme and focus attention on something less expensive and more likely to succeed.

But the oryx has become a popular symbol of conservation (see logo), like the panda or the tiger – despite the fact that conservation science has moved on from spotlighting big mammals and is now devoted to broader, but less sexy, preservation of habitats (which ensures survival of hundreds of species together).

Once the oryx was allowed to be eliminated in the wild, reintroducing it means we have now become entangled in a never-ending story of management and control, pretty much in perpetuity – rather like with the bison in North America.

The Wadi Rum release is an interesting experiment, but it is not a “success story”. I’m disappointed in the usually excellent National, leaving its readers so ill-informed.

UPDATE (12 Sept 09): To their credit, The National sent the same reporter back to cover the story again a short time later – her second story, published 6th Sept, covers the issues much more clearly and accurately, I think. Thanks (and kudos) to her and the newspaper.

UPDATE 2 (also 12 Sept 09): My article on the conservation status of the Arabian oryx throughout the Middle East and Arabian Peninsula was published last week in Saudi Aramco World magazine – click here to read it. Let me know what you think by leaving a comment below…

4 Comments

  1. ynotoman

    Well could be to do with the ownership of the NewsPaper which covered the story.
    I visited AlAzraq and Sir Bani Yas about 7 or 8 years ago they, along with Jalooni, used Pens to hold the Oryx – along the lines of Whipsnade Zoo . Not certain Whipsnade would ever get such effusive coverage

  2. Matthew Teller

    Thanks for the comment! You might be right – but my point is not that this a negative story given a positive spin for cynical reasons. Rather, it’s a complicated story given an uncharacteristically shallow treatment. It’s a missed opportunity.

    Sir Bani Yas has probably changed a lot since 7-8 yrs ago – the animals are no longer penned, but it is still far too small to hold its oryx comfortably. I’m interested how you got to SBY back then – wasn’t it off-limits?

    Al-Azraq, though (think you mean Shaumari), is more or less the same – but be sure not to mix up the pens used to hold sick, frail or pregnant oryx with the larger herd that roams out in the reserve. Shaumari is a really tragic story, where, after 15 years of preparation and investment, Jordan was all ready to release oryx in 1990, but the first Gulf War led to a huge influx of Iraqi refugees bringing literally millions of sheep and goats. In a matter of months they ate Eastern Jordan down to the dust, making it impossible to go back to the release programme… so everything has been on hold ever since (and, with the habitat effectively now destroyed, it’s unlikely to change).

    Jaaluni is all pens now… and armed anti-poaching patrols…

  3. slowtraveller

    Excellent analysis Matthew. Every animal is dependent upon, and an integral part of, a wider ecosystem, of which human beings are a part of – not apart from. The oryx will survive where and when the ecosystem and habitat are able support it. And when humans learn to stop behaving like they have a God-given right to create – or destroy -a whole species and their habitat. Since we humns messed up in the first place we now need to manage and protect the habitat, re-introduce the oryx – then leave well alone.

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