History & distribution

The Arabian oryx Oryx leucoryx is believed to have once occupied most of the desert regions of the Arabian Peninsula, including some of the most arid areas in the heart of Arabia, lands which were unexplored for centuries, except by the local inhabitants who left no accounts of their travels. Our knowledge of this elusive species before it became extinct in the wild in the 1970s is therefore scanty and incomplete. Clues as to its original distribution stem from two main sources: Arab and western literature, mostly the accounts of 19th and 20th century travellers, and, more anecdotally, archaeological findings such as animal remains and rock art.

Historical distribution of Arabian oryx

Map showing the historical distribution of Arabian oryx (Carruthers 1935; Stewart 1963; Stanley Price 1989)

The legend of the unicorn

Arabian oryx

One of the legendary questions: Did the oryx (African, Arabian?) inspire the unicorn of the legend that fabulous beast with a single horn set on its forehead? Well, it is certainly true that the oryx played at least some role in the birth of that enduring legend, second only to the obvious rhinoceros.

The earliest description of a unicorn is that of the Greek Ctesias of Cnidus, who stated in his Indica (~398 BC) that there were in India white wild asses with a horn on their forehead. Later the Greek Aristotle (384-322 BC) added to the Indian wild ass the oryx in the list of one-horned animals. He was followed in that by the Roman Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD) who added a few more species to the growing list, including the rhinoceros, which was to become a major inspiration for authors.

The firm belief - based on the authority of Aristotle and Pliny - that all oryxes are one-horned, led some authors to think that the oryx was the famous Re'em of the Old Testament. That mysterious Re'em was depicted as a beast remarkable for strength, ferocity, wildness and unconquerable spirit. The Hebrew word Re'em was translated in the Septuagint into the Greek monokeros, 'single-horned' or unicorn and this translation had enduring results. The unicorn became part of the Bible and to doubt its existence was to question the word of God. And certainly the medieval conception of the unicorn as possessing great strength and fierceness may have been partly due to that translation.

Actually the battle over the true identity of the Re'em was long and complex but it was eventually identified as a species of wild buffalo, the giant auroch that was extinct in Mesopotamia by about 500 BC.

The most important consideration is, however, that when seen in profile, the oryxes really seem to have only one horn, not to mention the ones that lost a horn during a fight. As Douglas Carruthers summarised in 1935, "whether the Oryx antelope of the Arabian Peninsula was the prototype of the legendary Unicorn or not, he certainly had proved himself to be as secretive as his symbolic brother..."