Jordan's Arabian oryx get numbers boost but still face challenges on World Wildlife Day

UAE transfers 20 animals to Shaumari Wildlife Reserve near Azraq to improve local gene pool

When Lawrence of Arabia made Azraq Castle in Jordan’s eastern desert his headquarters during the Arabian Revolt, it was next to an oasis where fish swam and wild ducks paddled.

Arabian oryx roamed the area, feeding in its wadis and drinking from its ravines.

In the past four decades hunters killed all the ducks. The oasis disappeared as the aquifer underneath Azraq was siphoned off for agriculture in the desert.

The oryx were gone long before, the last of them in 1965.

Poachers and animal traffickers finished them off as the green cover decreased and their habitat became littered with farms fed by groundwater, factories, stone quarries and roads.

Plastic bags litter the sides of motorways. They also become stuck en masse in barbed wire, the favoured material for building farm perimeters.

An Arabian oryx imported from Abu Dhabi at Shaumari Wildlife Reserve after being released in Azraq, Jordan. Reuters

A 100-square-kilometre nature reserve was set up in 1975 to save some of the wild cover of Azraq and 60 oryx were imported by the end of the decade to live in the reserve.

Development of the herd since then has been slow, showing the difficulty of returning a wild animal to a habitat destroyed by human beings, despite international efforts to repopulate Jordan with oryx.

Continued degradation of the environment in the kingdom means it is necessary to produce an oryx with the genes to withstand conditions becoming harsher with time.

Officials had predicted that the herd at the Shaumari Wildlife Reserve would grow to 200 by 1992.

But today there are only 90 or so oryx at the reserve.

The challenge lies in quality, not quantity, said Shaumari Wildlife Reserve head Ashraf Halah.

“There is no point growing a herd that cannot withstand the environment,” Mr Halah said on his 100-kilometre drive to work from Amman. “The herd has to be able to sustain itself.”

Its gene pool needs improving, he said. For this purpose, he said, 20 oryx were brought in last month from the United Arab Emirates.

They belong to the highly regarded Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Arabian Oryx Reintroduction Programme.

The Emirati oryx have been placed in quarantine and will be released into the reserve after two weeks.

Only those oryx with certain genes will be allowed to mate with the rest of the herd and, hopefully, strengthen it.

A decade ago, some of the 15 oryx brought from the King Khaled Wildlife Research Centre in Saudi Arabia mated with the indigenous population at Shaumari.

Mr Halah said that experiment was a success but that Jordan is a long way off being able to return the Arabian oryx to the wild.

Encroachment on its desert environment will need to be reversed first, he said.

“It would take a concerted national effort,” Mr Halah said.

Updated: March 03, 2022, 7:43 AM