Life remains a struggle for the Arabian oryx

Providing the Arabian oryx with a safe haven in the UAE isn't enough to ensure that the vulnerable species will thrive according to a research project.

Reseachers have found that reintroducing the oryx into the safe haven of the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve has not been enough to ensure their revitalisation. Sarah Dea / The National
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Providing the Arabian oryx with a safe haven in the UAE isn't enough to ensure that the vulnerable species will thrive, according to a research project that assessed herds of the reintroduced species in the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve.

After being declared extinct in the wild, an Arabian oryx wandering free in the deserts of the UAE is a remarkable enough sight.

But a team of researchers who tracked down a quarter of the 400 oryx estimated to be in the Emirates were looking beyond the mere presence of the vulnerable species.

They found that reintroducing the oryx into the safe haven of the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve has not been enough to ensure their revitalisation and most of the 98 animals they saw were suffering from malnutrition.

The females were in worse condition than the males, which augured poorly for the species' prospects and prompted the management at the reserve to increase its supplemental feeding programme.

The observations were made by a team of international volunteers enlisted by Biosphere Expeditions, a non-profit organisation that arranges for amateur naturalists to conduct scientific surveys around the world.

Biosphere Expeditions' executive director, Matthias Hammer, said the volunteers bridged gaps in the resources of the reserve management, the Dubai Conservation Board, which has responsibility for the 225 square kilometre reserve.

"The Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve has monitored, managed and increased the oryx population since the creation of the reserve," he said.

"However, they lack the time and resources to do detailed body scoring over extended periods of time, which is where our volunteers come in and add real help and value.

"There has been a long drought, so poor body condition was known and not a surprise. The depth and breadth, however, was, and called for management action."

Besides assessing the condition of the oryx in the reserve, the aims of the expedition in late January included taking a sample of all the main species found there and to continue the work done by the first Biosphere Expedition there a year earlier.

The organisation has had a particular focus on the Arabian Peninsula. Other projects in the region include longitudinal studies of how the coral reefs of the Musandam Peninsula are coping with warmer and more saline conditions, and finding out how many of the critically endangered Arabian leopard live in south Oman.

For the expedition in the reserve, the other principal species they were investigating were the Gordon's wildcat and MacQueen's bustard.

Together with the oryx, the three are on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's red list of threatened species.

From the reserve's 225 sq km - nearly 5 per cent of Dubai's land area - the group focused on 42 grids of 4 sq km, using a combination of active observation by walking through the grids and passive methods such as motion-triggered remote cameras and live trapping.

There were only two definitive sightings of the reclusive Gordon's wildcat - captured on remote cameras - and none were captured in traps baited with sardines.

There was a provisional identification of other Gordon's wildcats from pawprints found near the baited traps, but there was no suggestion of feral domestic cats being present.

Dr Hammer said that finding had prompted the reserve's decision to enhance the population by introducing genetically pure, captive-bred Gordon's wildcats.

"This species is rare even in the reserve, and threatened, mainly by hybridisation with domestic cats," he said.

Bustard populations in the UAE have been declining through a combination of predation by traditional falconry and through loss of habitat.

An extensive live-breeding programme by the National Avian Research Centre is trying to reverse that trend and researchers at the reserve have found that many of the bustards released elsewhere in the UAE have migrated to the reserve.

Other species that were identified by the Biosphere Expedition team and deemed not to be at risk included mountain gazelles, sand gazelles and the Arabian red fox.

The goal of the reserve's managers is for the Arabian oryx to reach a similarly robust population. If it does, the species will have achieved a remarkable return from the brink of extinction.

The species once spanned the Arabian Peninsula and reached as far as Sinai and southern Iraq, but was declared extinct in the wild shortly before the UAE became a federation, the victim of a ready access to four-wheel-drive vehicles and rifles.

For a time it existed only in captive-breeding programmes spearheaded by Phoenix Zoo in Arizona.

But after successfully breeding in captivity, it was reintroduced into the Saudi Arabian desert in 1982. Now there are 1,000 oryx living in the wild in the UAE, Oman and Saudi Arabia, and up to 7,000 in captivity around the world.

Oryx were reintroduced to what was to become the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, the 27 sq km Al Maha Reserve, in 1999. Now the herds roaming free in the Emirates are split between the reserve and Sir Bani Yas, the late Sheikh Zayed's private island, a haven for at-risk species that has been dubbed an "Arabian Ark".

The oryx's recovery made it the only species that was extinct in the wild to have regained the status of being merely vulnerable.

But vulnerable does not mean safe, especially in the harsh environment of the UAE. The herds had shifted towards the north of the reserve, prompted by sustained drought, but a largely independent herd had established itself in the south.

The next phase of ensuring the oryx cope in the reserve is to fill in the gaps in knowledge of the species' behaviour, such as which habitats and plants they prefer, how the social structure of the herd operates and how the environment affects it.

Alongside that was the visual assessment of individual animals' condition, based on the presence or absence of musculature, fat deposition, spinal vertebrae and caudal vertebrae.

Body condition was scored on a numerical scale, with a score of three to four consistent with a healthy animal for the time of year, when many of the females would be pregnant.

But conditions ranged from one to three, with an average of 2.3, which was described as "represents general malnutrition". Adult females scored lower than adult males, with an average of 2.2.

The lowest score was recorded twice, in the case of single oryx. The biggest herd was 25 but only a handful of juveniles and no calves were recorded, probably reflecting the poor condition of the herds. Next year's expedition is already aiming to see how the intervention of the reserve managers will affect the oryx's condition year on year.

This year's volunteers came from Britain, Russia, Austria and Germany and paid Dh5,640, excluding flights to the UAE, to take part in the eight-day expedition.

Dr Hammer said they were a mix of "seasoned expeditioners and greenhorns".

"The feedback is overwhelmingly positive and some of the greenhorns have now caught the bug and have already signed up for other expeditions with us in other parts of the world," he said.