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How the Arabian oryx became a symbol of environmental restoration in Saudi Arabia

JDDA: The Arabian oryx, a desert antelope native to the peninsula, has tremendous cultural significance, as evidenced by the many ancient rock carvings found throughout the region. And yet this particular species was driven to the brink of extinction.

The Arabian oryx has been rescued from oblivion thanks to proactive efforts by conservationists in Saudi Arabia to revive it – reversing the devastating toll years of overhunting and habitat loss have taken on its fragile population.

While once in critical decline, they can now be found in the wild throughout Arabia, including the historic northwestern region of AlUla in Saudi Arabia and the northeastern parts of the kingdom.

Today, this species is not only a symbol of the heritage of Saudi Arabia and the Middle East, but also a symbol of environmental renewal.

Their numbers have declined dramatically in recent decades due to overhunting, drought, poisoning and habitat encroachment as agriculture and human settlement expanded, depriving them of grazing.

In 1972, hunters killed the last wild Arabian oryx in Oman. Hunters have long prized the animals for their horns and meat.

In order to save the Arabian oryx from extinction, international organizations have launched a scheme to catch wild specimens and establish breeding centers. As their numbers have since recovered, the groups have been reintroduced into their original habitats.

Saudi Arabia has played a key role by establishing specialized breeding centers and veterinary facilities for the Arabian oryx. Many have been relocated to protected areas that best reflect their natural habitats to help them thrive in the wild.

The establishment of the Imam Turki bin Abdullah Royal Nature Reserve in 2018 provided an ideal environment in which the species could multiply. A breeding program established by the reserve in 2021 resulted in a 60-fold increase in the Arabian oryx population by early 2024.

Hunters hunted the Arabian oryx for its horns and meat, leading to a significant decline in its numbers. (Attached)

Abdulmajeed Al-Dhaban, the reserve’s deputy executive vice president for operations, said the Arabian oryx’s resilience in its harsh desert habitat is due to its white heat-reflecting fur and ability to go without water for long periods of time.

In fact, the species can survive up to 11 months without drinking water by obtaining liquid from dew and desert plants.

“The reserve’s conservation efforts span multiple fronts, including working with government authorities and local communities to develop regulations to protect the Arabian oryx from poaching and illegal trade,” Al-Dhaban told Arab News.

“Educational campaigns raise awareness of nature conservation, with schools and local institutions actively participating in the education of younger generations.

“We support scientific research and monitoring to better understand the needs of the Arabian oryx and develop effective conservation strategies. In addition, sustainable development and ecotourism are emphasized, which encourage the growth of wildlife and provide income for local communities and promote responsible resource management.

“Partnerships with international organizations further strengthen conservation projects, with local communities actively participating in their implementation and training programs.”

Meanwhile, in the north-west of the Kingdom, the AlUla Royal Commission is working closely with its global network of partners, including the International Union for Conservation of Nature, to secure a future for the Arabian oryx.

“We are working with experts in the field to ensure scientifically sound conservation practices form the backbone of the RCU’s multi-pronged approach to protecting the Arabian oryx alongside other native animal species, including various species of gazelle and ibex,” Stephen Browne, Executive Director of Wildlife and Natural Heritage at RCU, he told Arab News.

Last year, the RCU carried out its largest animal release since the reintroduction program was launched in 2019. In five phases, 1,580 animals, including Arabian gazelle, sand gazelle, Arabian oryx and Nubian ibex, were released into the AlUla nature reserves.

“Since then, we have witnessed successful births of Arabian oryx at AlUla Nature Reserves as populations grow and establish in their new environment, demonstrating that our recovery efforts are slowly coming to fruition,” Browne said.

“As more Arabian oryx are released into the wild and more births are recorded, we hope that AlUla Nature Reserves can support growing numbers of this important native species.”

These graceful creatures, once close to extinction, today symbolize the environmental restoration and cultural heritage of Saudi Arabia and the Middle East. (Attached)

The recovery of the Arabian oryx is part of a concerted, long-term effort by conservation groups, national rewilding programs and zoos to establish and slowly increase breeding populations before their eventual reintroduction into the wild.

“The RCU is releasing the Arabian oryx into the AlUla network of nature reserves as part of its comprehensive revitalization strategy to help restore balance to the natural world and revive once degraded ecosystems,” Browne said.

“The RCU Wildlife and Natural Heritage Department teams work under strict guidelines set by our international partners, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, to ensure that all our efforts in nature are science-based and follow clear conservation practices.”

Arabian oryx are reintroduced to AlUla Nature Reserves to help restore ecological balance. “A total of 250 animals have been released so far,” Browne said. “We hope the numbers will increase as the population stabilizes and more wild births are recorded.

“We identify key areas with the right type and amount of vegetation to support newly released animals and ensure that we are not releasing too many new populations into one location.

“The Arabian oryx has quite specific habitat requirements. They dislike the steep canyons and mountains in some of AlUla’s nature reserves and prefer more open, sandy areas.

As a result of the release of the Arabian oryx, we have seen native plants and vegetation regenerate and the land regenerate.”

He added: “Our conservation work at AlUla focuses on inclusive initiatives that work with local people, offering community members training opportunities to become rangers to keep our vast reserves safe, secure and monitored.”

Through its sustainable land management programs, RCU restores brownfields, manages rangeland and combats desertification, supporting the return of native species such as the Arabian oryx.

The Arabian oryx’s heat-reflective white coat and the fact that it needs minimal water make it ideal for the harsh desert environment. (Attached)

Its partnership with the Prince Mohammed bin Salman Royal Reserve Development Authority has strengthened cooperation in wildlife protection and sustainable regeneration.

Natural habitat restoration involves extensive planting of native plant species – with seeds from the RCU seed bank and plant nurseries helping to restore vegetation in the long term across the landscape.

The RCU therefore played a key role in re-greening the valleys, wadis and mountains of AlUla, restoring the soil and creating an environment more hospitable and fertile for animals.

In the AlUla nature reserves, populations of Arabian oryx and other animals are monitored using satellite collars and tracking technology. More than 150 wardens drawn from the local community carry out regular patrols to ensure the safety of the animal populations.

AlUla residents have always enjoyed a deep connection with their natural environment, Browne said. “Our ongoing work to regenerate AlUla and restore much-needed balance to natural areas is aimed at reviving this long-standing and important bond with nature.”

RCU prioritizes ecological awareness and cooperation, from the work of rangers and efforts to re-vegetate AlUla Nature Reserves with native plant species to educating farmers and locals about the benefits wildlife populations can bring to the ecosystem.

Ultimately, Browne said, RCU’s goal is to revive and preserve the natural environment for future generations.

“We deeply respect the traditional practices and ideas that have shaped the environmental views and principles of our community.”

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