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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 11 December 2018

Oryx released into sprawling Abu Dhabi protected reserve

Once hunted to near-extinction, today there more than 5,000 in the emirate alone.

Fourteen Arabian Oryx were released into the 304 square kilometre Qasr Al Sarab Protected Area. Courtesy: Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi.
Fourteen Arabian Oryx were released into the 304 square kilometre Qasr Al Sarab Protected Area. Courtesy: Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi.

With the opening of the gates, 14 Arabian Oryx were released at the 308 square kilometre Qasr Al Sarab Protected Area at the edge of the Empty Quarter. Reintroduced the wild, they will now live at the edge of a 650,000 square kilometre desert that stretches across the Peninsula to Yemen.

Wednesday's release at the desert resort was attended by a handful of delegates. Such is the animal's prominence in Arabic poetry, some jokingly recited verse about the oryx as they waited for the stocky antelope to emerge from the pen before the herd ran off into the dunes.

The release was part of the Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Arabian Oryx Reintroduction Programme led by the Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi (EAD).

Once hunted to near-extinction and absent from the dunes of the Emirates, today there more than 5,000 oryx in the emirate of Abu Dhabi alone.

Critical to its future has been the establishment of 13 protected areas in the emirate, comprising 15.5 per cent of its land. The largest is the Arabian Oryx Protected Area east of Liwa, founded in 2007 with 98 oryx. Covering an area of 6,000 square kilometres, it is now home to a population of 835 oryx.

An Arabian Oryx pictured at the Qasr Al Sarab Protected Area. Couresy: Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi

“To have protected areas is very good on paper but we actually want them to come alive and they only come alive with animals and with plants,” said Razan Khalifa Al Mubarak, the EAD’s secretary general, at the release.

“The Arabian Oryx is an iconic species, it’s one of the largest antelopes we protect here at the environment agency and therefore we are very fortunate that we are able to return this animal from captivity and into the wilderness and into a protected area.”

The Arabian Oryx has a home range of 30km and can recognize rainfall from great distances. It roams thousands of kilometres over its lifetime.

“We consider this while we design our protected areas,” said Khaldoun Al Omari, the section manager of terrestrial protection area management at agency.

“We have managed to established a very big network of protected areas, the largest in the region. We can guarantee no development in those protected areas.”

The Minister of Culture and Knowledge Development, Noura Al Kaabi said it was a fitting tribute to the country’s founding President, Sheikh Zayed, noting its prominence in Arab literature, art and poetry.

“Sheikh Zayed was also a poet and for him as a desert man, he believed that it’s not just about developing progress of buildings but everything around, from people to beautiful animals of the desert,” said the minister at the release.

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Its beauty once attracted the attention of hunters.

The story goes that the last wild Arabian Oryx was believed to have been shot in 1972.

The Oryx had already come into the spotlight in the early 1960s, when the Phoenix Zoo in Arizona established a breeding programme with 11 oryx known. Known as the ‘World Herd’, their descendants were to populate the Shaumari Wildlife Reserve in Jordan, and, eventually, reserves in the Emirates.

In 2011, the Arabian Oryx was upgraded on the International Union for Conservation of Nature list from endangered to Vulnerable.

The 12 females and two females of this Qasr Al Sarab herd, were bred at Delaija, one of the country’s two holding facilities. They breed well in captivity, with a gestation of about nine months.

“They’re very prolific,” says Justin Richard Chuven, the unit head of ex-situ terrestrial conservation programmes at EAD.

To ease their transition to the wild, the herd were kept in pre-release pens at the site and will have food and water available.

The oryx is perfectly adapted to the desert, with a white coat that reflects the sun and a brain that can stay cooler than the rest of its body. These stocky beasts, which weigh up to 120kg, can get most of their water from the plants they eat.

It is hoped their release at Anatara’s Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort will foster an appreciation of nature and instil responsibility in the public.

“We people want to feel the importance of this species by being exposed to it,” said Mr Alomari. “We want them to be partners in the protection efforts of this important species, not to disturb it or encroach on its privacy. It is a wild animal and we are counting on the offspring on being wild.”