Arabian oryx: preventing a second extinction

Posted on April, 16 1999

The Arabian Oryx could become extinct in the wild in Oman for the second time in 30 years, WWF, the conservation organization said today.
Gland, Switzerland: - The Arabian Oryx could become extinct in the wild in Oman for the second time in 30 years, WWF, the conservation organization said here today.

"The great herd of some 400 wild Arabian Oryx in Oman's re-introduction project has been so ravished by poachers since 1996, that it is no longer viable" said Ralph Daly, Adviser for Conservation of the Environment in the Diwan of the Royal Court in Oman. Mr. Daly was speaking at the recent International Arabian Oryx Conference in Abu Dhabi, held under the sponsorship of the Ruler of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan.

Between October 1996 and March 1999, the numbers of Arabian Oryx in the wild in Oman fell from 400 to 100. In 3 years, poachers have removed or killed at least 200 oryx. The situation has become so precarious that 39 wild oryx have been moved to enclosures to protect them from poaching.

Poachers have been capturing the animals for sale to private zoos outside Oman. They mainly target female oryx and their calves, many of which certainly die from stress or exhaustion during their capture. Others die during transportation or shortly afterwards, and their bodies are then abandoned. Of the 100 or so oryx left in the wild, only 11 are female, reducing even further the species' chances of recovery.

Uncontrolled hunting and capture were the major reasons the oryx originally became extinct in the wild in 1972. Luckily, a last ditch rescue operation, mounted in 1961 and named 'Operation Oryx' ensured that a small number of animals were transferred to zoos for captive breeding (1). The descendants of these animals were reintroduced in the deserts of central Oman in 1982 (2). "We were optimistic that the long battle to return the Arabian Oryx to the wild was being won when their numbers reached 400 in 1996," said John Newby, Head of WWF International's Species Conservation Unit. "Unfortunately, the increasing numbers of oryx also attracted the poachers back".

Oman and WWF's efforts to save the remaining Arabian Oryx were the focus of the recent Abu Dhabi conference. The conference recommended the creation of a coordinating body with a permanent secretariat in one of the range states to enhance cooperation and experience exchange across the Arabian Peninsula. The tightening of regulations and better regional cooperation to prevent illegal trans-boundary movement of, and trade in, Arabian Oryx were also called for.

The oryx breeds well in captivity and with careful management there is a healthy source of animals for further reintroduction programmes (3). "All of this is of limited value, however, unless the causes for the extinction of the oryx in the first place are identified and addressed," observed John Newby. "The situation in Oman has been a signal lesson to us all not to mistake short-term success with long-term, sustainable solutions." This analysis is shared by the Sultanate of Oman, which has offered to host the first meeting of the recommended co-ordinating body.

For further information please contact:

John Newby: tel: + 41 22 364 95 43; email:

Kyla Evans: tel: +41 22 364 95 50; email:


1. By the early 1960s, hunting and poaching were taking a significant toll on the numbers of Arabian or White Oryx (Oryx leucoryx) in the wild. In order to ensure the survival of the species, a number of Oryx were taken from the wild and kept in captivity. These animals formed the nucleus of what came to be called the 'World Herd'. Unlike most of the species in captivity at the time, the 'World Herd' was intended as the focus of a captive breeding that had as its objective the reintroduction of the Oryx in the wild. The Arabian Oryx finally became extinct in 1972, when the last wild animal was killed in Oman, probably by poachers.

2. On January 31, 1982, 10 Oryx from the 'World Herd' were released into the Arabian Oryx Sanctuary, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, lying in the central desert of Oman and covering around 25,000 km2. A second release of Oryx followed in 1984.

3. Arabian Oryx have also been reintroduced in the Uruq Bani Ma-Arid protected area in Saudi Arabia, and reintroduction is being considered for Jordan and the western region of Abu Dhabi