It took scimitar-horned oryxes hundreds of years to evolve to the point of being fine-tuned to their African savannah habitat, an environment most creatures would find unbearable.
They developed a metabolism that functions at high temperatures so they need less water for evaporation to help conduct heat away from the bodies, enabling them to go for long periods without water.
They can allow their body temperatures to rise to almost 115.7 degrees Fahrenheit before beginning to perspire. And the inside of their nose is like a car radiator—when they breathe they remove heat from their blood before it reaches the brain. This feature, called carotid rete, protects them from heat that would be lethal to most mammals.
But just like that, oryxes and their fascinating biological traits were wiped out by hunters—it was reported the last survivors were killed off in 1987 in Chad’s Wadi Achim Faunal Reserve. Since there had been no confirmed evidence of the survival of the species since the early 1990s, they were declared extinct in the wild by 2000.
“That humans could come along and kill them all is a crime; not just against the individual animals, but against nature itself,” said conservationist Bill Clark. People in Africa were left to read about oryxes in the journals of 19th century explorers, who wrote about seeing herds stretching to the distant horizon and beyond.
That was before Friends of Animals became a beacon of hope for the oryx back in 1999, when the organization helped facilitate the return of the scimitar horned oryxes to their Sahelian habitat in Senegal, marking a historical project of faith, compassion and planning. It is with great pride the organization can say that today 350 oryxes thrive within two expansive, fenced, fully-protected reserves (4,693 acres) —Guembeul Faunal Reserve and Ferlo Reserve—re-establishing a presence in their African homeland.
The ultimate goal is for them to live in protected freedom one day; certainly they are reproducing enough for that to happen. However, it is several years off due to lack of viable habitat outside of the reserves. An unrestricted meat economy, where the size of cattle herds is counted as the most important measure of a family’s wealth, has resulted in overgrazing and ecological ruin in the Sahel, much like America’s public lands out west.
Seeing hundreds of oryxes in their ancient habitat during a recent visit to Senegal was beyond gratifying for Priscilla Feral, president of Friends of Animals, who recalled that the project started with just eight adolescent oryxes delivered from a captive population living at the Hai Bar Animal and Nature Reserve in Israel.
“We visited Guembeul, one of the lovely reserves in November 2016, and after seeing so much land in northern Senegal saturated with goat and cow grazing, it’s rewarding to see antelopes and patas monkeys protected in the reserve where they don’t have to compete with animal farming for grasses and water, and are never subject to hunters,” Feral said.
“In January 2012, when I was interviewed for ‘60 Minutes,’ and Lara Logan asked if it were better to have scimitar-horned oryxes exist in Texas on hunting ranches if they can’t live free in Africa, I explained that they belong in Africa; that Friends of Animals initiated and supports a steadily increasing oryx population in Senegal and that these antelopes thrive on thousands of acres within protected reserves. I also said that being bred in Texas for the degrading and violent purpose of being killed to be turned into a wall ornament is no bargain.”
Another person delighted by the success of the return of oryxes to Senegal is Clark, who was working with Israel’s Nature and National Parks Protection Authority at the time of the transfer and who helped train several Senegalese park officials in animal nutrition and veterinary techniques before the animals arrived in Africa.
Clark represents Israel at UN wildlife meetings and works on numerous international conservation projects. He knows better than anyone the challenges the oryxes faced when they were first re-introduced: adjusting to drinking local, untreated unfiltered water; adjusting to feeding on local vegetation; and adjusting to the numerous nuisances and illnesses that naturally exist in Africa, such as flies, mosquitos, beetles and other insects that sting and bite and sometimes transmit pathogens.
“The project in Senegal has been so successful. We have the numbers—the proof of the pudding is in the tasting as they say,” Clark said. “We have 350 oryxes in Senegal and the project is less than 20 years old. We taught the Senegalese how to take care of these animals, and the lesson was properly learned.” Clark explained that the most important lesson he taught the Senegalese was to take a hands-off approach with the oryxes and “just leave them alone.”
“A lot of reintroduction projects involve frequently handling the animals. People put radio collars on them, and take blood from them every three weeks, they do this and that, all kinds of manipulations. And then they wonder why the animals aren’t reproducing so very well,” Clark explained.
“Well they are stressed out half of the time because they’ve got humans following them around. They’re looking over their shoulder because there’s a guy with a radio receiver in his hand following him all over the place.
“The best thing to do is leave them at peace, monitor them from a distance and only make interventions when it’s really necessary. The Senegalese have a very enviable accomplishment. Their record stands very well when compared to other endangered species recovery projects.
For example, the California condor project started in 1982 with 23 birds, and now there are 410. And the black-footed ferret project started in 1986 with 13 and now there are about 300 in the wild. The big difference being the condor and ferret projects benefited from millions of dollars in funding and enormous technical expertise.”
But relatively speaking, Clark says, the oryx project in Senegal has operated on a shoestring budget. “People shy away from reintroduction because of the expense. But the success of this project proves these projects can be done. Here the biggest expense is wire fencing—two dollars a foot. You can have as much land as you can fence.”
While it is typical to think of fencing as an enclosure, in terms of the oryx project the fencing serves as an enclosure keep the cattle and other livestock out. “We have our habitat and we want to exclude them from that to preserve it,” Clark said.
More fencing to enlarge the reserves to approximately 50 square miles is what Clark envisions for the oryx project to have continued success. He would like to see buffer areas around the edge of the reserves negotiated as well. Buffer areas would be restricted to very limited numbers of livestock, so more habitat could recover.
“Seeds from the prairie grass will spread beyond the wire fence, and if it doesn’t get gobbled up by cattle and goats right away, it will sprout and regenerate and in about three years it could be restored to a large part,” Clark said. “Of course it would be nice to see oryxes with no fencing someday, however there just isn’t enough habitat for them. So then why release them out into the Sahel.” Clark also sees incorporating local people into the future plans of the oryx project by teaching them to grow productive vegetable gardens and discouraging their reliance on cattle-based economies.
“The local community has to understand the benefits of improving their own landscapes, which will inevitably improve their quality of life,” he said. Lastly Clark said he hopes some new young males from a captive population can be introduced into the project to ensure there is no risk of a genetic bottleneck down the road. None of these efforts will happen overnight or be simple.
However, FoA and Clark know they are worth the time and investment to rescue oryxes from extinction. “Simply put, oryxes deserve it,” he says. “They were hunted to extinction, mostly for trophies. Hunters just killed them off. Every last one of them.” Standing at about four feet at shoulder height and weighing up to 440 pounds, the Scimitar is an impressive species of oryx. Its distinctive arc-shaped horns are used to give a swift upper cut when predators attack, but they are also used during courtship.
Interestingly, it is believed that the unicorn myth may have originated from sightings of a scimitar oryx with a broken horn. “They may look alike but each one is truly and individual. They are thinking all the time. They are wonderful,” Clark said.