The Arabian oryx conservation programme in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

Arabian oryx

Many species of wild animals have distinct physiological and ecological advantages over traditional domesticated livestock species in arid and semi-arid areas. Amongst the most significant are an ability to thrive in the absence of surface water (by movement in time and space), to make optimal use of vegetative resources and their minimal impact on the environment. They also have disease-tolerant, heat-tolerant and drought-tolerant attributes and their reproductive characteristics are more efficient.

The Arabian Oryx, a charismatic white antelope, once roamed throughout most of the desert plains of the Arabian Peninsula. Unfortunately oryx was hunted to extinction in the 1970s. Humans had exterminated from the wild a beautiful and distinctive antelope, which had evolved to exploit one of the worlds' harshest environments. Hunter-gatherers have existed in arid zones from pre-historic times. Harvesting, processing and utilization of wildlife products that include oryx, gazelle, houbara and other formed the basis of their livelihoods. Since the advent of four wheel drive vehicles, it became easier for people to chase and poach oryx and other animals even on sand dunes. These days oryx are not hunted for food but for sport as the animal provide challenge for hunters and that lead to extinction of many species in the wild.

In Saudi Arabia Oryx conservation and restoration programme was started in 1986 by the National Wildlife Research Center (NWRC) under the Saudi Wildlife Commission (SWC), formerly National Commission for Wildlife Conservation and Development (NCWCD). Concurrent conservation programmes for the protection of large areas within the former range of the Arabian Oryx, and the captive breeding of Oryx at the NWRC in Taif have together enabled the restoration of the species in the Kingdom: a first reintroduction took place in the fenced Mahazat as-Sayd Protected Area in 1990 and in 1995 the second free-ranging population of Oryx in the world was established in the unfenced 'Uruq Bani Ma'arid in the "Empty Quarter".

Till 2006, Uruq Bani Ma’arid protected area was the only place where free-ranging oryx population existed and Mahazat as-Sayd protected area has more than 500 oryx.  Species management plan has been drafted to manage the population of Arabian oryx and other ungulates as per the carrying capacity of the protected area.

Re-introduction programmes of Arabian Oryx were selected from the populations which were identical to the same species which had been exterminated.  Founders were obtained from areas where the environment is as harsh as the introduction sites.

Released animals were marked with suitable tags for identification and fitted with radio collars to enable them to be relocated after release. The post-release progress of oryx has been carefully monitored and the information gained from early releases utilized in planning subsequent attempts where appropriate.

'Uruq Bani Ma'arid

NWRC carried out research on various aspects of the Arabian Oryx in Saudi Arabia those include:

  • Biology and ecology
    • Reproductive biology
    • Thermoregulatory mechanisms employed by the Arabian oryx (Physiology)
    • Space used and movements in different seasons
    • Behavior & others
  • Habitat  utilization
  • Population dynamics
    • Regular monitoring methods developed to check the population trend & density
    • Monitoring system developed to know the impact of drought on ungulate population
  • Genetics
  • Reintroductions methods

NWRC has been working on an extension/information programme to inform both local people in the vicinity of the species release area (Mahazat as-Sayd and ‘Uruq Bani Ma’arid protected areas), and the public at large about the re-introduction, in order to gain their support.  The local support has been vital to the long-term success of re-introduction of the Arabian Oryx.