When conjuring images of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), one would expect expansive views of arid deserts, skyscraping hotels and the over-the-top opulence of some of the world’s most decadent restaurants, arenas and venues. You might not, however, consider the national symbol of the region – the humble Oryx. Yet the vast plains and deserts of the UAE are home to the biggest wild population of one of the four subspecies of the genus, the Arabian Oryx.
The Oryx (from Ὂρυξ,óryx the Ancient Greek term for a type of Antelope) is perfectly adapted to surviving in the sometimes unforgiving conditions of the near desert. Oryx can subsist for weeks without water as they chase the meager rains of the Middle East, grazing on the eclectic mix of grass, herbs, fruit, roots, buds and tubers that grow following precipitation.
So well suited are they to their environment, and with no natural predators other than the Arabian wolf and mankind, the Arabian Oryx used to range freely throughout the area, forming herds that could number over 100 strong. But following a slow pushback of their stamping grounds, due to disease, flooding and periods of drought during the 18th and 19th centuries, these impressive herds were reduced to the point where only a very few existed outside of Saudi Arabia.
This fall in numbers was only compounded when, in the 1930’s, Arabian royalty and oil company executives, flush with newfound wealth and drawn by the striking hue of the Oryx’s pristine white pelts, began hunting them. At their peak, some of these hunting parties were known to be made of up to 300 vehicles and countless rifles. In 1972 the last Arabian Oryx was killed and the once abundant creature became extinct in the wild.
Hope, however, remained. In the early 1960’s the Phoenix Zoo in Arizona, USA, had acquired a handful of specimens, and in partnership with the World Wildlife Fund and The Fauna and Flora Preservation Society of London (since renamed Fauna and Flora International) they started the world’s first in captive breeding program – also known as Operation Oryx. From those original nine animals, the program produced 240 births. These Oryx were then sent to zoos and reserves across the world, in particular the Al Maha Resort and Sir Bani Yas Island in the UAE.
So successful was Operation Oryx’s “world herd” initiative within these two reserves, that in 1980 the numbers had increased significantly enough that the Arabian Oryx started to be introduced back into the wild. By 2011, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) relisted the Arabian Oryx from a status of extinct to one of vulnerable – the very first time this had happened.
Let’s learn more about these pioneering reserves – a one-of-a-kind island and resort – both of which were vital to reintroducing this once endangered breed back to its native territory.
The Al Maha Sanctuary was set up by Sheikh Qassim bin Hamad in the 1960’s. The story goes that one day, when the Sheikh was hunting, an Oryx charged his vehicle and pierced one of the tires. From that day on, the Sheikh was fascinated with the animal and decided to abandon hunting – choosing instead to establish a sanctuary for the endangered Oryx.
Using the knowledge of the Harassi tribesmen, who had previously tracked and hunted the Oryx and employing them as game wardens, the sanctuary – aided by some high-tech tracking devices – was able to accurately monitor the movements and habits of the animal. This shrewd move helped increase the efficiency of the breeding program, and when poaching increased during the mid-1990’s and the numbers of free roaming females were severely reduced, the sanctuary was able to act. By bringing the surviving 28 females inside the fenced areas of The Al Maha Sanctuary to recuperate, the herds began to thrive once again.
It is possible to visit and even stay on site at the Al Maha Sanctuary and view the 10 square miles of living desert and rolling sand dunes from the comfort of traditional Bedouin suites.
When Sheikh Zayed became the first president of the United Arab Emirates in 1971, he chose Sir Bani Yas Island as his own personal retreat. Determined to develop the area, not just for human settlement, but also to create a safe haven for the indigenous wildlife, the Sheikh clamped down on hunting and founded the “Greening of the Desert” project.
By planting several million trees and bringing in animals such as ostriches, dolphins, deer, sea turtles and gazelles, the reserve became an ideal environment for the Arabian Oryx to prosper. Very soon afterwards, the Island became home to the largest wild herd of Oryx in the world, continuing the success story of the beleaguered animal’s conservation. Today this natural Island, a little over 100 miles southwest of Abu Dhabi, is home to over 30 different types of mammals, birds and amphibians
Sheikh Zayed wanted to share these spectacular results with the world and the reserve soon opened to the public for weekend breaks. Guided expeditions on the island became so popular that guests would have to make their reservations up to a year in advance.
Those staying on the island will experience one of the most picturesque locations in the Middle East. Cozying up to a lush mangrove lagoon and next to the beaches of Sir Bani Yas’s North Shore, you can take part in the supervised animal spotting trips, where guides help residents come face-to-face with the Oryx and other exotic fauna; it is even possible to sign up for falconry, horse riding or snorkeling – just a smattering of the activities available. Or, of course, you can just relax by the pool, knowing you are helping contribute to a worthy cause just by staying there.
Both of these destinations offer an exclusive and privileged adventure where you can have a real once-in-a-lifetime opportunity as you share the world with the Arabian Oryx, a creature brought back from the brink of extinction.