How the Arabian oryx was brought back from extinction

There are now an estimated 1,220 wild oryx across the Arabian Peninsula. (Shutterstock)
Updated 11 January 2019
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How the Arabian oryx was brought back from extinction

  • The animal is close to moving from ‘vulnerable’ to ‘near-threatened,’ Arab News has learned, a major feat thanks to the efforts of Saudi Arabia and the UAE
  • In the early 1970s, the antelope was considered all but vanished due to hunting and poaching

DUBAI: More than four decades ago, the Arabian oryx was extinct in the wild. But today, thanks to efforts spearheaded by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, experts are citing the swell in its numbers as one of the world’s biggest conservation success stories.

In the early 1970s, the antelope was considered all but vanished due to hunting and poaching. 

Now it is not only back from the brink, but in 2011 the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) reclassified it to “vulnerable” from “endangered,” the first time a species that was once “extinct in the wild” improved in status by three full categories out of six on its Red List of Threatened Species. 

There are now an estimated 1,220 wild oryx across the Arabian Peninsula, in addition to between 6,000 and 7,000 in semi-captivity.

Experts at the IUCN have revealed to Arab News that the Arabian oryx could be upgraded to another level on its list within years, to “near-threatened,” thanks to regional breeding programs and reintroduction initiatives in the Kingdom, the UAE and the wider Gulf.

“About 40 years or so ago, the Arabian oryx was extinct in the wild formally, which meant there were none of these animals left in the wild, just those in captivity or in private collections,” said David Mallon, co-chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission’s Antelope Specialist Group.

“Unfortunately, we don’t really have very much detailed information on the past. We’ve just got plenty of anecdotal reports of oryx around, and as far as we know the species was very widespread across the whole of the Arabian Peninsula. In the north it went as far as Iraq and Kuwait, Syria in the northwest and then Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE in the south,” he added.

“But as soon as motor vehicles and modern weapons arrived, the destructive potential of hunting rapidly increased. Before, if you were on a camel and you had a single shot, by the time you had another bullet in the gun the oryx would’ve run off. But when motor vehicles and more modern, reloadable rifles were introduced — you can wear oryx out through exhaustion — hunting became a lot easier.”

Their numbers rapidly declined, and by 1950 the northern population had disappeared. 

“This just left the southern population based around the Empty Quarter, southeast Saudi Arabia and the border of the UAE and Oman. Then by the 1960s, it went down and down and down,” Mallon said.

Operation Oryx, which included the World Wildlife Fund and Phoenix Zoo in the US, was set up to establish a herd in captivity to prepare to reintroduce them into the wild. 

“They caught a few of them from the southern population in Yemen on the border with Oman and took them back to London Zoo. Then there were a couple donated from the ruler of Saudi Arabia at the time, and they were taken to Phoenix Zoo in Arizona, which has a similar desert climate, and they built up this world herd,” Mallon said, adding that this provided hope for the desert animal. 

The first reintroduction of 10 animals was in 1982 at the Omani Central Desert and Coastal Hills in the Arabian Oryx Sanctuary. 

It was subsequently extended to Saudi Arabia at the Mahazat Al-Sayd Protected Area. 

Releases in this fenced area began in 1990. 

In 1995, a secondary release site was established in Uruq Bani Ma’arid in the southern part of the Kingdom. 

In 1997, said Mallon, oryx were released in three sites in northern Israel, and were introduced to the UAE a few years later in the oryx reserve in Abu Dhabi. 

Other sites have since been established, and reintroductions in “semi-captive” sites — vast fenced areas to protect them from poachers — have also been made in Jordan and Bahrain, while reintroductions in Kuwait, Iraq and Syria have been proposed, according to the IUCN.

Successful population growth and releases, in addition to the estimated millions of dollars being spent across the Gulf annually on conservation, have driven the population numbers to current levels. 

Mallon said it is a major feat to have brought the Arabian oryx back from the brink of extinction, and one that the IUCN hopes will be repeated for other threatened species.

“The Arabian oryx was ‘extinct’ on the Red List, then they became ‘critically endangered.’ Once the population increased they moved to ‘endangered,’ and then moved to a level where they could be called ‘vulnerable.’ It’s a really good conservation story. The next target they have to get to is ‘near-threatened,’ and that’s not far off,” he added.

The IUCN formally categorizes numbers of a species that are at reproductive age. 

“We only count the mature individuals, so we don’t count the young ones. We have about 1,220 now, including the young ones, and we’d say about 850 are mature,” Mallon said.

“For the oryx to move to the ‘near-threatened’ category, we’d need to get figures to about 1,400 of these animals, so about half as many again. Considering where we were and where we are now, this is an achievable feat.”

The main populations of the species today are in Saudi Arabia, where there are about 600 in the wild, and the UAE, where there are more than 400 by official numbers, although Mallon said there may be significantly more. 

Many more are in semi-captivity.

There are about 110 in the wild in Israel. 

Despite a promising start in Oman, few of the species remain in the country due to poaching. 

The IUCN estimates that there are just 10 left in the wild in Oman, with a couple of hundred more in semi-captivity. 

Mallon said there are few conservation stories as successful as the Arabian oryx, and it was the foresight of Saudi and Emirati rulers, and bodies that established large breeding sites across the Arab world, that have saved the animal from extinction.

Coordination between the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries — such as the General Secretariat for the Conservation of the Arabian Oryx, which was established in 2001 as a landmark regional initiative aimed at coordinating and unifying conservation efforts in the Arabian Peninsula — has also helped.

“This helps to vary the genetics as much as possible, and ensures the longevity of the species,” said Mallon. 

“There has been a huge amount of genetic sampling of all the herds to establish which ones are the most diverse. They’re genetically well-managed, and the animals are very carefully looked after.”

Conservation of endangered animals is a growing trend in the Kingdom. In the study “Conservation in Saudi Arabia: Moving from Strategy to Practice,” published in the Saudi Journal of Biological Sciences in 2018, authors noted that there are “marked conservation successes” in the Kingdom of not only the Arabian oryx, but two other endangered species: The sand gazelle and the Arabian gazelle. 

The report added that the Saudi Wildlife Authority, established in 1986, has introduced several measures, with more on the way, to deter poachers and other factors that negatively affect populations of endangered species.

But Mallon said challenges for the Arabian oryx remain: “What’s needed is to continue with the captive breeding efforts to continue breeding animals, to continue the existing reintroduction sites and maintaining regional efforts and collaboration across the Arabian Peninsula. This is vital to maximize genetic diversity and reduce the risk of inbreeding.”

He added: “A massive Arabia Peninsula-wide education program on not shooting and hunting, and confiscation of weapons and a massive license system, would also help.”

Mallon said: “Without conservation, these species probably wouldn’t survive. Yet the Arabian oryx is an important part of Arabian biodiversity. It’s the one animal that’s adapted to hyper-arid deserts.” 

He added: “It’s an exemplar to a species that has adapted to these conditions, which will be very useful in the future in terms of climate change. It also has its natural role, and serves as a flagship for the desert ecosystem, and also has huge cultural value. So it’s almost the duty of people to preserve it.”

Mallon said efforts thus far deserve worldwide commendation. 

“It has been a huge conservation success story of its time. At the time, it was an absolute flagship project. It was a real exemplar of what can be done,” he added. 

“A crucial part of conservation success stories is to have government support, funding and long-term commitment. That’s what we’ve seen in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and the wider GCC.”


In Iran, parched lands hollowed by water pumping now sinking

Updated 24 January 2019
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In Iran, parched lands hollowed by water pumping now sinking

  • Stressed by a 30-year drought and hollowed by excessive water pumping, the parched landscape around Iran's capital has begun to sink dramatically
  • Tehran has rapidly grown over the last 100 years to a sprawling city of 13 million people in its metropolitan area

TEHRAN: Fissures appear along roads while massive holes open up in the countryside, their gaping maws a visible sign from the air of something Iranian authorities now openly acknowledge: the area around Tehran is literally sinking.
Stressed by a 30-year drought and hollowed by excessive water pumping, the parched landscape around Iran's capital has begun to sink dramatically. Seen by satellite and on foot around the city, officials warn that what they call land subsidence poses a grave danger to a country where protests over water scarcity already have seen violence.
"Land subsidence is a destructive phenomenon," said Siavash Arabi, a measurement expert at Iran's cartography department. "Its impact may not be immediately felt like an earthquake, but as you can see, it can gradually cause destructive changes over time."
He said he can identify "destruction of farmland, the cracks of the earth's surface, damage to civilian areas in cities, wastewater lines, cracks in roads and damages to water and natural gas pipes."
Tehran, which sits 1,200 meters (3,900 feet) above sea level against the Alborz Mountains on a plateau, has rapidly grown over the last 100 years to a sprawling city of 13 million people in its metropolitan area.
All those people have put incredible pressure on water resources on a semi-arid plateau in a country that saw only 171 millimeters (6.7 inches) of rain last year. Over-reliance on ground aquifers has seen increasingly salty water pumped from below ground.
"Surface soil contains water and air. When you pump water from under the ground surface, you cause some empty space to be formed in the soil," Arabi told The Associated Press. "Gradually, the pressure from above causes the soil particles to stick together and this leads to sinking of the ground and formation of cracks."
Rain and snow to recharge the underground aquifers have been in short supply. Over the past decade, Iran has seen the most prolonged and severe drought in more than 30 years, according to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization. An estimated 97 percent of the country has faced some level of drought, Iran's Meteorological Organization says.
That has caused the sinkholes and fissures now seen around Tehran.
Iranian authorities say they have measured up to 22 centimeters (8.6 inches) of annual subsidence near the capital, while the normal range would be only as high as 3 centimeters (1.1 inches) per year.
Even higher numbers have been measured in other parts of the country. Some sinkholes formed in western Iran are as deep as 60 meters (196 feet).
Those figures are close to those found in a study by scientists at the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences in Potsdam previously discussed by the journal Nature and accepted by the journal Remote Sensing of Environment. Using satellite images between 2003 and 2017, the scientists estimate the western Tehran plain is sinking by 25 centimeters (9.8 inches) a year.
Either way, the numbers are alarming to experts.
"In European countries, even 4 millimeters (0.15 inches) of yearly subsidence is considered a crisis," Iranian environmental activist Mohammad Darvish said.
The sinking can be seen in Tehran's southern Yaftabad neighborhood, which sits close to farmland and water wells on the edge of the city. Cracks run down walls and below windows, and waterpipes have ruptured. Residents fear poorly built buildings may collapse.
The sinking also threatens vital infrastructure, like Tehran's Imam Khomeini International Airport. German scientists estimate that land under the airport is sinking by 5 centimeters (1.9 inches) a year.
Tehran's oil refinery, a key highway, automobile manufacturing plants and railroads also all sit on sinking ground, said Ali Beitollahi, a Ministry of Roads and Transportation official. Some 2 million people live in the area, he said.
Masoud Shafiee, head of Iran's cartography department, also acknowledged the danger.
"Rates (for subsidence) are very high and in many instances it's happening in densely populated areas," Shafiee told the AP. "It's happening near sensitive infrastructures like airports, which we consider a top priority."
Geopolitics play a role in Iran's water crisis. Since the country's 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran has sought to become self-sufficient across industries to thwart international sanctions. That has included agriculture and food production.
The problem, however, comes in inefficient water use on farms, which represents over 90 percent of the country's water usage, experts say.
Already, the drought and water crisis has fed into the sporadic unrest Iran has faced over the last year. In July, protests around Khorramshahr, some 650 kilometers (400 miles) southwest of Tehran, saw violence as residents of the predominantly Arab city near the border with Iraq complained of salty, muddy water coming out of their taps amid the yearslong drought.
The unrest there only compounds the wider unease felt across Iran as it faces an economic crisis sparked by President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw America from Tehran's nuclear deal with world powers.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who long has opposed Iran's theocratic government, even released an online video in June offering his country's water technology in a jab at Iran's leaders.
"The Iranian regime shouts: 'Death to Israel,'" Netanyahu said. "In response, Israel shouts: 'Life to the Iranian people.'"
Iranian officials shrugged off the offer. But solutions to the water crisis will be difficult to find.
The crisis "stems from decades of sanctions and compounding political mismanagement that is likely to make it very difficult to alleviate the emerging crisis before it wreaks lasting damage upon the country," wrote Gabriel Collins, a fellow at Rice University's Baker Institute.
Iranian authorities have begun to crack down on illegal water wells. They also are exploring using desalinization plants along the Persian Gulf as well, though they require tremendous energy. Farming practices also need to change as well, experts say.
"We need to shift our development model so that it relies less on water and soil," Darvish, the activist, said. "If we don't act quickly to stop the subsidence, it can spread to other areas."