The World Herd

The World Herd

Of the many species of antelope, probably none is as hardy, efficient, and indestructible as the Arabian oryx. It is one of the more beautiful hoofed mammals, white or fawn in color with two long, scimitar—like horns so straight that in profile there appears to be but a single horn.

The Arabian oryx is a beast of formidable endurance. It withstands extremes in desert temperatures that may range from freezing to 140 sun—drenched degrees. It grazes on sparse tufts of grass and stunted shrubs, with occasional succulent bulbs and tubers to provide moisture. Because it feeds at night, when the plants have absorbed moisture, it can go many days without water. Its horns and hoofs are functional both in digging for food and in fending off attacking lions, trucks, or tribesmen.

For centuries desert dwellers of the Near East have admired the oryx for its strength and toughness. Unfortunately, being admired is frequently an animal's undoing. The belief that the man who kills an oryx will inherit its courage and vigor was enough to fuel centuries of their slaughter as a certificate of manhood.

By the early 18th century the Arabian oryx was already regarded as a rarity. The shah of Persia preserved a small herd in his private park as curiosities to amaze and amuse his guests. At the beginning of the 20th century, the oryx was virtually wiped out everywhere except in the southern desert of Saudi Arabia known as Ar Rub' al—Khali, meaning "the empty quarter." One of the world's most inhospitable deserts, it lies scorched under the relentless glare of the sun, and the temperature rarely drops below 120 degrees at midday.

About 100 oryxes inhabited this desert at the turn of the century. A real test of manhood was to go hunting in Ar Rub' al—Khali, and Arab sheiks mounted on camels would go forth to demonstrate their virility by tracking the surviving herd. The contest was almost equally matched, because the chase was grueling and the oryxes were hard to find and quick to flee. Few kills were actually made, and the herd thrived. After World War II the discomfort and hardship factors were remedied as Arabian potentates found easier ways to attain the oryx's legendary strength and endurance. Armed with machine guns, these men in search of bravery set out in caravans of jeeps. As many as 300 men at a time would roar over the dunes, spraying a deadly hail of bullets at the panicking oryx herd.

So efficient were these massacres that by 1960 the last of the world's remaining oryxes seemed to have disappeared. Wildlife conservationists exploring Ar Rub' al—Khali could locate only two survivors, and one of those soon died of a bullet wound. The other, a female, was taken to the London Zoo. Later a herd of about two dozen was discovered in a remote desert area. In addition, the king of Saudi Arabia owned a small herd that was being bred to supply royal hunts. A British conservation group, the Fauna Preservation Society, realized that a few more machine—gun safaris would mean the end of the species, so they raised funds to collect a herd of Arabian oryxes that could be reared in captivity.

In 1962 a seven—man expedition went into the Arabian desert. Using spotter planes, they covered 6,000 miles of emptiness and located and caught only four oryxes. One of the four died after its capture. A high—caliber bullet was discovered in its leg; it too was a delayed victim of a hunting party.

The three healthy oryxes were shipped to the Phoenix Zoo in Arizona, where as expected they adapted easily in a climate similar to that of Arabia. They were joined shortly by the female from the London Zoo, and a fifth oryx was presented by the sultan of Kuwait. This became the nucleus of the "world herd" of Arabian oryxes. In October 1963 an oryx calf was born, and King Saud of Arabia was persuaded to part with four oryxes from his private game farm. By the end of that year the herd numbered 12.

Although a single herd is a fragile bulwark against total extinction, the oryxes at the Phoenix Zoo continued to thrive and multiply. To provide diversity in the genetic pool, several of the breeding stock were sent to zoos in Texas and California. In 1988 100 Arabian oryxes were reintroduced into a wild habitat in Oman, southeast of Saudi Arabia. An inventory taken in 1990 listed 494 registered individuals in Oman and 722 in zoo breeding programs.

The wild herd has been uncommonly successful, probably because it is protected by desert rangers. These rangers, 30 years before, may have been among those searching for the Arabian oryx to provide them with courage, strength, and endurance. Happily the oryx has helped them to discover the real qualities of manhood.

From the book: 
Petrified Lightning