With a distribution that once extended unbroken across the sub-desert belt of Africa, from Mauritania and Morocco in the west to Egypt and Sudan in the east, the Scimitar-horned Oryx (Oryx dammah), a large and truly magnificent herding antelope, is now extinct in the wild due to a lethal combination of overhunting, drought and habitat loss.
Up until the late 1970s, the oryx and other desert animals, such as the dama gazelle, ostrich and addax antelope, prospered in Chad’s Ouadi Rimé-Ouadi Achim Game Reserve, one of the world’s largest protected areas. Regrettably, Chad’s oryx were exterminated during the early 1980s largely as a result of civil war in that country. The species became extinct in the wild sometime during the 1990s, when the last remaining individuals in Chad and neighbouring Niger died out.
In the mid-1960s, a wildlife trader by the name of Van den Brink captured some fifty oryx during two expeditions to central Chad. These were sent to zoos mainly in the United States and Europe to found today’s captive populations of this superbly adapted desert antelope. Today, the very survival of the species depends to a large extent on the offspring of the oryx captured in the 1960s, together with animals from different bloodlines that are to be found in countries such as the United Arab Emirates, where they have been bred successfully in captivity for a number of years.
Since the mid-1980s, efforts to restore the oryx to the wild have been carried out in a few countries, including Senegal, Morocco and Tunisia. Confined as they all have been to relatively small fenced areas, often situated in atypical or heavily impacted habitat, the oryx have yet to be released back into the wild. In many places this is unlikely ever to happen because of the lack of suitable or unoccupied habitat. The big challenge is to find suitable habitat within in the oryx’s recent historical grassland range large enough to allow them to breed and disperse with a minimum of external support, while ensuring they can live in security alongside other forms of land-use, such as pastoralism.
The Chad Oryx Reintroduction Project
With this in mind, the Sahara Conservation Fund is leading a major initiative to reintroduce and restore the oryx to its historical range in the 78,000 km² Ouadi Rimé-Ouadi Achim Game Reserve in central Chad. Recent surveys carried out by SCF and Chad’s National Parks and Wildlife Service have underlined the reserve’s enormous potential to host a successful oryx reintroduction project. There is abundant, suitable habitat and space enough to cater for the oryx’s seasonal and annual requirements to feed, shelter, migrate and disperse. Initial contacts with local authorities and the reserve’s pastoralists have been very encouraging. The oryx is an iconic species and its disappearance is genuinely felt to be a huge loss. This same sentiment was voiced by Chad’s President, H. E. Idriss Deby Itno, when he met with SCF to encourage and support their efforts.
Working with the Chadian government, the international zoo community and private wildlife owners in the United States and the United Arab Emirates, momentum is being built for a successful and ground-breaking conservation initiative. Technical support and endorsement for the project currently comes from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI), the Environment Agency of Abu Dhabi (EAD), the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS), both the European and US zoo associations (EAZA, AZA), and a number of technical agencies under the umbrella of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Oryx conservation strategy
Over the past 3 years, SCF has spearheaded international efforts to develop a global strategy for the restoration of the oryx and together with a large number of stakeholders has developed a suite of tools for the selection of suitable conservation sites and the establishment of criteria critical for successful outcomes. As part of the project development process and critical stakeholder development work, a workshop was held in Chad in May 2012 to build a solid foundation and process amongst the various parties (government and civil society). In addition, a high-level technical gathering is to be held in Abu Dhabi to bring together specialists from the relevant domains (husbandry, genetics, transport, veterinary, etc.) to agree on and plan specific actions.
To avoid some of the known bottlenecks from other reintroduction projects, a number of truly innovative steps will be taken. These include selection of highly suitable habitat from the outset, introduction of large numbers of animals at a time (100 per release instead of the usual 5-10), and the use of mobile fencing and infrastructure for the pre-release acclimatization process (4-6 months). Starting with a core protection zone of several thousand square kilometres, oryx will be brought to Chad, acclimatized, released and monitored. Depending on results, further animals will be released and secondary sites developed to create a network of recovery points within the reserve. Under good conditions, the oryx breeds very well and so viable numbers could be built up in the wild in a relatively short time. The first critical target is to have around 500 animals living unaided in the wild.
Strong local support
As a prerequisite and on-going theme of the operation, local, regional and national support will be sought, as well as cooperation from the reserve’s traditional land-users and their leaders. This last aspect is critically important and initial contacts with nomad leaders have been very positive indeed. Partnerships will also be developed with other projects and technical agencies active in the area’s development, especially those relating to wells, pastoralism and infrastructure, to ensure that win-win solutions can be found in developing the reserve’s space and resources for the mutual benefit of both people and wildlife. With government commitment to the conservation of desert wildlife high, and the restoration of the oryx and its habitat in the Ouadi Rimé reserve a formally stated priority, success could be just around the corner.