The release of 54 Scimitar-horned Oryx in North Africa by the Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi and its partners is the latest step in the goal of having 500 of the beautiful beasts once again roaming wild and free.
Extinct in the wild since 2000, the agency has spearheaded a campaign to reintroduce the animals in their native habitat in Africa, and the initiative is, in part, down to the UAE’s Founding Father, Sheikh Zayed.
Many of the animals in the Abu Dhabi-based herd that are being released in Chad are from his private collection.
“A number of animals of this species were given to the care of the agency from the collection of the late Sheikh Zayed, and that was the main inspiration for this reintroduction effort,” said Razan Khalifa Al Mubarak, EAD's secretary-general.
It is believed that the last Scimitar disappeared from Chad in the late 1980s before the species was officially declared "extinct in the wild" globally by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature in 2000.
This latest release in the Ouadi Rime Ouadi Achim game reserve is the largest reintroduction since the launch of the initiative in 2014 and brings the number of animals in the wild up to 89.
The population has grown from just 16 calves last year and the EAD, along with partners the Chadian Ministry of Wildlife and Fisheries and the Sahara Conservation Fund, has the goal of achieving a wild, self-sustaining population of 500 animals in the game reserve, which was chosen as the location to provide the antelope species with an optimal habitat.
“We have a long way to go before achieving our target of 500 animals in the wild but our progress thus far is already exceeding expectations,” said Ms Al Mubarak.
“We have now had animals in the wild for over a year and they are showing every sign of not only adapting to but thriving in their new environment.
"The project's success is the result of the wonderful partnership and commitment from the Abu Dhabi Government and the Government of Chad. We also have numerous members of the world's conservation community to thank for their continued support.”
The animals selected for the reintroduction come from the 3,800-strong “world herd” that EAD has at its breeding facility in Delaija, Abu Dhabi, and the genetic diversity of the blood-stock has been increased with the addition of animals donated from a number of zoos and private collectors across the globe.
The UAE herd is the largest single population of the animals in the world.
They are carefully tested and prepared in Abu Dhabi for shipment to the pre-release facility, within the 78,000 square-kilometre protected area where they are released in Chad.
After the release, the wild herd’s daily movements are monitored with the aid of satellite collars by EAD and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and Zoological Society of London, and they are protected by wildlife rangers supplied by the Chad government.
“Relocating logistics can be challenging as we are dealing with huge animals and the process is not easy, as they need to be moved to Al Ain Airport to be loaded onto a charter plane and off to Chad and unloaded again, but we are glad that they travel very well and many of them seem to enjoy it,” said Ms Al Mubarak.
This latest release into the wild is the third time animals have been flown over since last year and the plan is to relocate 100 more in winter 2017-2018.
“It has to be in the natural inhabitant of the animal to give them the best chance of survival, so we had to take them back home,” added Ms Al Mubarak.
“They breed very well and live to the age of 20. They are grazers, which means they don’t need to learn how to hunt.
“This is the largest mammal reintroduction project ever invented and we make sure that the animals are fully grown, perfectly ready, health and pose no threat to any animals in the wild.”
Ms Al Mubarak said that it was humans who made these fine animals extinct in the wild so it’s only right that we do what we can to get them back to where they belong.
“It’s a very big and beautiful animal that has wonderful switched back horns, which attracts trophy hunters and that was one of the reasons why they were extinct, along with hunting them for meat during civil wars, loss of habitat and lack of resources,” she said.
“These animals used to stretch from west Africa to Egypt and Sudan and we found that Chad has a big enough habitat that is being protected, while the Chad government is very committed and willing to keep the animals protected.”
The Scimitar-horned Oryx
Native to Central and Northern Africa, the historic range of the animal was right across the Sahel region of Africa, and they were known to migrate north into the Sahara during the wet season, when grass would grow in the desert.
It is a sociable animal that travels in herds of between two and 40 individuals, led by a dominant bull.
In 1936, a single herd of 10,000 Scimitar-horned oryx was seen in Chad, where by the 1970s was home to more than 95 per cent of its world population.
Females give birth after 8 to 9 months to a single calf weighing about 10kg. The calf has a yellow coat, so predators cannot spot them.
The coats change to the adult colour at between three to 12 months old, and this white coat helps to reflect the heat of the sun.
Adult males weigh 140 to 210kg and females 91 to 140kg.
The name Scimitar refers to its sword-shaped horns.