Tim Wacher, Senior Conservation Biologist at ZSL, on reintroducing the scimitar-horned oryx back into the wild.
Scimitar-horned oryx were once widespread across the southern Sahara. They were almost exterminated in the 1970s by civil war, and continued hunting pressure and drought led to them finally being declared Extinct in the Wild in the 1990s.
Having studied wild oryx in Kenya for three years, I first became involved with scimitar-horned oryx and ZSL as a conservation biologist in 1985. We went on to support Arabian oryx reintroduction and to collaborate with the Sahara Conservation Fund (SCF) to find out if reintroduction of the scimitar-horned oryx to the grasslands of sub-Saharan Africa might be feasible.
Years of survey and preparation followed, leading to selection of the vast Ouadi Rimé-Ouadi Achim Game Reserve in Chad as the best site for reintroduction. The evidence convinced the Government of Chad and the Environment Agency of Abu Dhabi (EAD) to take up this unique opportunity to restore this magnificent antelope to its original heartlands, and the first captive-bred scimitar-horned oryx stepped back into the desert it calls home in 2016.
The oryx have shown that they can still flourish in their native habitat, despite the changes in land use over the intervening 35 years. They search out and select food plants that meet their food and water needs, travelling long distances if necessary, and have survived the waterless 8-month dry seasons in excellent condition. And many of the females are getting pregnant again almost as soon as they’ve given birth, which only happens when they’re in good condition.
ZSL’s role in this reintroduction project, which is managed by the SCF in partnership with EAD and the Chadian government, is to ensure we have good information on the released oryx. What are their movements? How well are they surviving? How many calves are born, and how many survive to adulthood?
This information is vital if we are to keep the project on course. To get it, we’ve been training a great Chadian wildlife monitoring team, who use data from radio-collars and on-the-ground sightings to track the oryx. We’ve seen more than 100 calves born to the wild herd, which now numbers close to 250; and the adult female shown above was born in Chad herself in 2017, making her youngster a second-generation calf.
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