Arabian Oryx thriving at Abu Dhabi sanctuary

Conservationists highlight the Sir Bani Yas Island Arabian oryx breeding programme in saving endangered species in the world.

ABU DHABI // Work to protect the once-threatened Arabian oryx from extinction has been praised by conservationists.

The oryx is among the animals thriving at Sir Bani Yas Island nature reserve. It is home to one of the largest populations of the animal in the world, with a herd of about 500 free to roam the sanctuary.

The oryx is just one of several species that have been brought back from the brink of extinction at the reserve, which is off the Abu Dhabi coast.

There are 25 species of mammal and 170 different types of birds, making a total population of 13,000 animals at the 1,400 hectare reserve.

The sanctuary was an initiative of the UAE’s founder, the late Sheikh Zayed, who started bringing animals to Sir Bani Yas in 1971.

“He started developing the island into a nature reserve, and the idea back then was to create an Arabian Ark for his people,” said Marius Prinsloo, general manager of operations at the reserve.

“We have been successful.”

The animals included striped hyenas, sand and mountain gazelles, caracals and the Arabian tahr, a small goat-like mammal indigenous to the Hajar Mountains between the UAE and Oman.

Some of the species were endangered in the region or had become extinct in the wild.

Sameer Ghani, an independent conservation specialist, praised the reserve’s Arabian oryx breeding programme, saying it was showing great results – especially after the antelope became extinct in the wild in the 1970s.

The animals once roamed most of the Arabian Peninsula but rampant hunting meant for many years they survived only in captivity.

The last wild Arabian oryx is believed to have been shot and killed in the Omani desert in 1972.

They were taken off the global list of endangered species in 2011 following international breeding programmes, and are now classified as vulnerable.

To maintain balance in the Arabian oryx population, four cheetahs – which were also once indigenous to the region – were introduced to the island in 2008, and the first cheetah cubs were born in 2010.

The wildlife park is also home to non-indigenous animals, such as the scimitar-horned oryx, the reticulated giraffe and blackbuck antelope.

“Sir Bani Yas offers an amazing natural landscape of wadis, salt stones and beaches,” said Mark Eletr, the director of four resorts on the island run by Thai group Anantara.

“People are experiencing this now and enjoying a very raw natural environment.”

Last year Al Ain Zoo was praised for the part it has played in the Arabian oryx breeding programme.

The zoo has been part of the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi’s reintroduction programme for the animal since 2007.

“Al Ain Zoo is home to a significant number of healthy Arabian oryx and was also successful in achieving a gender balance among the animals, which is usually difficult to accomplish when breeding animals in captivity,” said Muna Al Dhaheri, the zoo’s head of conservation and education.

The zoo has run conservation and breeding programmes for gazelle, the Arabian leopard and the houbara bustard.