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How the Arabian Oryx became a symbol of environmental renewal in Saudi Arabia

JEDDAH: The Arabian oryx, a desert antelope native to the peninsula, has enormous cultural significance, as evidenced by the many ancient rock paintings found throughout the region. Yet this particular species was driven to the brink of extinction.

Thanks to the proactive reintroduction efforts of Saudi Arabian conservationists, the Arabian Oryx has been saved from extinction, reversing the devastating toll that years of overhunting and habitat loss had taken on the fragile population.

While they were once critically endangered, they can now be found in the wild throughout Arabia, including the historic Al-Ula region in northwestern Saudi Arabia and the northeastern part of the kingdom.

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

Their numbers have declined dramatically in recent decades due to overhunting, drought, poisoning and habitat degradation as a result of the expansion of agriculture and human settlement, which has deprived them of grazing land.

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

To save the Arabian Oryx from extinction, international organizations launched a program to capture wild specimens and set up breeding centers. Now that their numbers have recovered, the groups have been reintroduced into their original habitat.

Saudi Arabia has played a crucial role by establishing dedicated breeding centers and veterinary facilities for the Arabian Oryx, and many have been relocated to protected areas that best reflect their natural habitat to help them thrive in the wild.

The creation of the Imam Turki bin Abdullah Royal Nature Reserve in 2018 provided an ideal setting for the species to reproduce. A breeding program launched by the reserve in 2021 resulted in a 60-fold increase in the Arabian Oryx population by early 2024.

Hunters have targeted the Arabian oryx for its horns and meat, which has led to a significant decline in its population. (Supplied)

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

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

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

“Awareness campaigns raise awareness of nature conservation, with schools and local institutions actively involved in educating younger generations.

“Scientific research and monitoring will be supported to better understand the needs of the Arabian Oryx and develop effective conservation strategies. In addition, sustainable development and ecotourism will be promoted to encourage wildlife growth and generate income for local communities, thereby encouraging responsible resource management.

“Partnerships with international organizations also contribute to improving conservation projects, with local communities actively participating in their implementation and training programs.”

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

“We are working with experts in the field to ensure science-based conservation measures form the backbone of the RCU’s multi-faceted approach to protecting the Arabian oryx and other native species, including various gazelle and ibex species,” Stephen Browne, RCU’s executive director of wildlife and natural heritage, told Arab News.

Last year, the RCU conducted its largest animal release since launching its reintroduction program in 2019. In five phases, 1,580 animals, including Arabian gazelles, sand gazelles, Arabian oryxes and Nubian ibexes, were released into AlUla’s conservation areas.

“Since then, we have seen successful births of Arabian oryx in the AlUla conservation areas. The populations are growing and thriving in their new habitat, proving that our reintroduction efforts are slowly bearing fruit,” said Browne.

“As more Arabian oryx are released into the wild and more births are recorded, there is hope that AlUla’s conservation areas can support growing numbers of this important native species.”

These graceful creatures were once threatened with extinction, but today they symbolize environmental renewal and the cultural heritage of Saudi Arabia and the Middle East. (Supplied)

The revival of the Arabian Oryx is part of a concerted, long-term effort by conservation groups, national restoration programs and zoos to establish and slowly expand breeding populations before eventually releasing them back into the wild.

“The RCU is releasing Arabian oryx into AlUla’s network of protected areas as part of its comprehensive restoration strategy to help restore the balance of nature and revitalize once-devastated ecosystems,” said Browne.

“Teams from RCU’s Wildlife and Natural Heritage Department work to strict guidelines set by our international partner, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, to ensure that all our wilderness efforts are both scientifically sound and follow clear conservation practices.”

Arabian oryx are being reintroduced into the AlUla nature reserves to restore ecological balance. “So far, a total of 250 animals have been released,” said Browne. “We hope that number will increase as populations become established and more wild births are recorded.”

“We are identifying key areas with the right type and amount of vegetation to support the newly released animals and ensure we do not release too many new populations in one location.

“Arabian oryxes have very specific habitat requirements. They do not like the steep gorges 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 a recovery of native plants and vegetation as well as soil restoration.”

He added: “Our conservation work in AlUla focuses on inclusive initiatives that involve local people. Community members are offered the opportunity to train as rangers to ensure the security and surveillance of our vast reserves.”

Through its sustainable land management programs, the RCU rehabilitates degraded sites, manages pastures and combats desertification, supporting the return of native species such as the Arabian Oryx.

The Arabian Oryx’s heat-reflecting white fur and low water requirements make it ideal for the harsh desert environment. (Included)

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

Restoring natural habitats also involves large-scale planting of native plant species. Seeds from the RCU seed bank and nursery support the long-term recovery of vegetation across the landscape.

The RCU has therefore played a key role in regreening the valleys, wadis and mountains of AlUla, rejuvenating the soil and making the environment more welcoming 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 rangers, all local residents, conduct regular patrols to ensure the safety of the animal populations.

The people of AlUla have always had a deep connection with their natural environment, Browne said. “Our ongoing work to regenerate AlUla and restore much-needed balance to the natural areas aims to rekindle this long-standing and important connection with nature.”

The RCU places emphasis on ecological awareness and engagement, from the work of conservation officers and efforts to replant AlUla’s nature reserves with native plant species, to educating farmers and locals about the benefits that wild animal populations can have on the ecosystem.

Ultimately, Browne said, the goal of the RCU is to restore and preserve the natural environment for future generations.

“We share a deep respect for the traditional practices and ideas that have shaped our community’s environmental views and principles.”

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