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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 June 2018

Oman opens sprawling oryx reserve to tourists

Story of the Arabian oryx — sometimes referred to as the Arabian "unicorn" due to its distinctive profile — is one of miraculous survival

An Arabian Oryx south of Abu Dhabi. Karim Sahib / AFP
An Arabian Oryx south of Abu Dhabi. Karim Sahib / AFP

Oman is seeking to carve itself a new niche in ecotourism by opening a sanctuary for one of the desert's most fabled creatures — the Arabian oryx.

Once extinct in the wild, the rare member of the antelope family known for its elegant horns has been dragged back from the precipice in a reserve for decades fenced off from the public.

That changed last month when authorities for the first time opened the sanctuary to visitors — part of a broader bid by Oman to boost tourism as oil revenues decline.

On a recent outing, wildlife rangers in SUVs patrolled the sandy plains of the reserve in central Oman's Haima province, spotting groups of grazing oryx and other indigenous species.

For years, the main goal has been a basic one — ensuring the oryx can survive by focusing on "helping the animals here reproduce and multiply", said sanctuary spokesman Hamed bin Mahmoud Al Harsousi.

But now, as numbers have picked up from just 100 about two decades ago to almost 750 today, the authorities began eyeing another role for the reserve.

"There has been more interest in its tourism potential — to take advantage of its uniqueness and rare animals," Mr Harsousi told AFP.

Read more: Oryx released into sprawling Abu Dhabi protected reserve

The story of the Arabian oryx — sometimes referred to as the Arabian "unicorn" due to its distinctive profile — is one of miraculous survival.

Hunted prolifically, the last wild member of the species was killed in Oman by suspected poachers in 1972.

The species only clung to existence thanks to a breeding in captivity programme, and in the early 1980s a batch of 10 was released into Oman's Arabian Oryx Sanctuary.

Since then, regenerating the oryx has been an often precarious process.

The sanctuary sprawls over 2,824 square kilometres of diverse terrain — from flat plains to rocky slopes and sandy dunes.

Its own fate has been nearly as tortured as that of the oryx it is home to.

In 2007, the sanctuary became the first site to be removed from UNESCO's World Heritage list as the government of Oman turned most of it over to oil drilling.

Read more: Oman wildlife rangers losing battle to poaching and housing estates

Now, as oil prices have plunged over the past few years, it is the wildlife once again that have become an increasing priority for the authorities.

Mr Harsousi puts the current number of Arabian oryx in the sanctuary at 742, and says that other species are flourishing there too.

"In the past three years, we have been able to increase the number of the Arabian gazelle, known as sand gazelles, from 300 to about 850," he said.

In addition to the animals, there are 12 species of trees that provide a habitat for many species of birds.

Oman has been on a push to transform itself into a tourist attraction — pitching its beach resorts to luxury travellers and desert wilderness to the more adventurous.

Officials in the sultanate said that a major tourism plan would be announced within a matter of weeks.

Those working at the oryx sanctuary hope that it can help play a lead role in attracting visitors to the country.

But there are also fears that greater openness could see the return of an old foe — hunters.

With that in mind security is being kept tight, said Abdullah Ghassab Obaid, a wildlife guard at the reserve.

"Thirty guards and a police patrol are working to provide security in the reserve to prevent any infiltration."