x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Antelope saved from extinction

Breeding programme reduces threat level for Arabian oryx, which was nearly hunted to extinction four decades ago.

A thousand Arabian oryx are living in the wild. Less than 40 years ago, the species was hunted to the edge of extinction.
A thousand Arabian oryx are living in the wild. Less than 40 years ago, the species was hunted to the edge of extinction.

An endangered species of antelope native to the UAE has been pulled back from the brink of extinction thanks to a dedicated breeding and reintroduction programme.

The threat level to the Arabian oryx has been downgraded to "vulnerable" in the latest red list data published by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

The species was previously listed as endangered.

The lifting of the threat status is partly due to a widespread captive breeding programme adopted by the Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi (EAD).

"To have brought the Arabian oryx back from the brink of extinction is a major feat and a true conservation success story, one which we hope will be repeated many times over for other threatened species," said Razan Khalifa al Mubarak, the director general of EAD.

"It is a classic example of how data from the IUCN red list can feed into on-the-ground conservation action to deliver tangible and successful results."

There are now 1,000 Arabian oryx in the wild. Less than 40 years ago, the species was hunted to the point of extinction in the wild.

EAD said last year that it was planning to reintroduce about 40 animals in protected areas in the Emirates as well as in parts of Jordan and Iraq. A spokesman was not immediately available to confirm whether those plans had gone ahead.

There are about 3,000 Arabian oryx in captivity in the UAE, about half the total world population. Simon Stuart, the chair of IUCN's species survival commission, said the breeding programme had prevented them becoming extinct.

"The captive breeding programme was absolutely 100 per cent responsible for the species' survival," he said.

"It was one of the first species for which that is true. At the moment, there are not many species for which every single surviving wild animal has been reintroduced population. But we expect that to increase."

One of the key breeding sites for the species is the Al Ain Wildlife Park and Resort, where last year 27 Arabian oryx were born, adding to a herd that now stands at 150.

"The success of the conservation of the Arabian oryx in Arabia provides a model for other conservation initiatives," said Michael Maunder, the chief collection, conservation and education officer at the park.

The park also hopes to participate in the reintroduction of the Scimitar-horned oryx, native to the Sahara area, which is extinct in the wild. There were 16 new additions to the park's herd of 202 animals last year.

"[The park] is working with the Sahara Conservation Fund and other international agencies to reintroduce this species to the wild," said Mr Maunder.

UAE conservation officials have a close working relationship with the IUCN. Mr Maunder even helped the union to draw up the red list system for categorising endangered species.

Several EAD officials are members of the IUCN's antelope specialist group, which collects data on species from various conservation authorities around the world.

The category of threat on the IUCN red list is based on the number of animals in captivity and the wild, and the rate of reproduction.

The reintroduction of an endangered species has not always been successful. About 450 Arabian oryx introduced to a sanctuary in Oman in 1996 were targeted by poachers, and in 2007 only 65 of the species remained.

"The fact that they are in the wild is a very good thing," said Declan O'Donovan, the director of wildlife services at Wadi Al Safa Wildlife Centre, a private breeding establishment in Dubai. "But it does open them up to all sorts of pressures. However, the areas they have been released in the UAE are protected. That makes it easier to manage the population."

EAD has released animals back into the wild at Umm al Zamool, a protected area in the south of Abu Dhabi. However, officials keep a close eye on the species, said Thabit Zahran al Abdessalaam, the director of the biodiversity management sector at EAD.

"The harsh natural conditions and loss of the vegetation cover, which is essential to these animals for food and shelter, are key challenges and require long-term rehabilitation plans," he said.

"It is also very important to control grazing activities within the protected area to eliminate the competition on food and shelter from livestock."

mcroucher@thenational.ae