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Second Group of the Once-Extinct African Oryx to Be Released Into the Wild

Hunting wiped out wild populations of the scimitar-horned creatures, but breeding programs are helping them make a comeback

Scimitar-horned oryx being released into their holding pen in Chad last March (Environment Agency --Abu Dhabi (EAD))
smithsonian.com

This week, conservationists will release 23 scimitar-horned Oryx dammah into the Ouadi-Rimé Ouadi-Achim Faunal Reserve in the African nation of Chad, reports New Scientist. They will join the 25 oryx released into the grasslands in August, boosting the population of an animal that went extinct in the wild in the 1980s.

The once abundant creatures were hunted to extinction for their hides, Jackson Landers reported for Smithsonian.com in 2016. Regional nomads prized this super-tough leather, which was eventually replaced with cheaper modern products that paved the way for the oryx's safe return to the wild.

Since their extinction in the wild, zoos around the world have bred the animals and Abu Dhabi has a herd of 3,000 of the animals in captivity, most from a group of 50 to 60 animals collected from the wild in the 1960s. The first group of 25 oryx, reintroduced last August, were airlifted from Abu Dhabi to Chad in March, according to a press release from the National Zoo. This was the first time the species was in its home country for 30 years.

The animals were initially placed in a fenced area in the reserve where handlers from Abu Dhabi’s environment agency, Chad’s Scimitar-horned Oryx Reintroduction Program, the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the Sahara Conservation Fund tested radio collars and monitored the oryx as they adjusted to their new home. But eventually, they were released into the open reserve.

Since that time, New Scientist reports that the growing herd did well enough that researchers decided to release a second group of animals. “So far, the animals look exceptionally healthy,” Jared Stabach from the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute tells New Scientist. “They seem to be adapting to the environment really well.” Some of the females have even given birth.

Landers reports that the conservation agencies hope to eventually establish a population of 500 oryx in a region about the size of Indiana. While reintroducing any animal back into the wild is tough, the scimitar-horned oryx faces fewer challenges than many other species. For one, the local population supports its return and the release teams are committed to communicating with the locals and getting them onboard with the project.

“The nomadic population that we’re talking to on a constant basis, they’re really excited about this,” Steve Monfort, director and chief scientist of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, told Landers. “Because this animal was so present in their lives. It’s a really iconic species to them. It’s part of their ecology and their habitat. When we started talking about bringing the oryx back, you could see the look of excitement on their faces.”

Zoologist Carolyn Hogg at the University of Sydney tells New Scientist the oryx has other advantages. Since it eats grass and is not a hunter, it does not have to be taught how to catch its food. And since its major predators, the cheetah and lion, are extinct in its game reserve it doesn’t face pressure from predators.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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