The Arabian oryx is amongst the largest desert mammals of the Arab region and throughout history has been an important aspect of its heritage. Once extinct in the wild, it once again inhabits the dry Arabian Peninsula. This species is a desert antelope that is highly adapted to its harsh desert environment. Its bright white coat serves to reflect the sun’s rays and its hooves are shovel-like and splayed, giving the animal a large surface area when it walks on the sandy ground. Both males and females have splendid straight, ringed horns as long as 68 centimeters (27 in) long; the female’s being thinner and longer than those of a male. These animals are famous for their stamina and beauty and have inspired many Arabian poets.
This animal is endemic to the Arabian Peninsula. In 1972 it became extinct in the wild, but was saved by zoos and private reserves, and reintroduced into the wild from 1980, and, as a result, wild populations now live in Israel, Saudi Arabia and Oman, and with current additional reintroduction programs taking place, it is likely that this range will expand into other countries of the Arabian Peninsula. Arabian oryx inhabit the deserts and arid plains of Arabia, where temperatures can reach 50ºC even in the shade during summer.
Habits and lifestyle
Arabian oryx are a gregarious species and form herds of 5 to 30, with more if conditions are good. If conditions are poor, groups tend to consist of just a male with a couple of females, together with their young. Some males live a more solitary life and hold large territories. Within the herd, a dominance hierarchy is created by displays of posturing, which avoid serious injury from their long, sharp horns. These animals seem able to detect rainfall a great distance away and live an almost nomadic life, travelling vast areas searching for precious new growth after the intermittent rains. They are active mostly during early morning and in the late evening, resting in groups in the shade when the searing midday heat is present. Oryx dig depressions in the ground with their front hooves, so they can lie in cooler sand, which provides some protection against fierce desert winds.
herd, cluster, tribe
Diet and nutrition
Arabian oryx are herbovires, they eat grasses and herbs, as well as roots and tubers. They can last without drinking water for a long time.
Arabian oryx are polygynous breeders. This means that one male mates with many females in one mating season. The timing of births varies. However, if conditions are favorable, a female is able to produce one calf a year in any month. Most births occurring in introduced herds in Jordan and Oman occur from October through May. Gestation for this species lasts about 240 days. The young are weaned by the age of 3.5-4.5 months, and females in captivity first give birth when they are 2.5-3.5 years old.
any time of the year, in Oman and Jordan births occur in October-May
The Bedouin people who live on the Arabian Peninsula are traditional hunters of Arabian oryx for their hides and meat. However, the total decimation of these animals occurred after World War 2, when firearms and motorized transport became available, and there was a demand for sport hunting. In 1972 the last known animal was shot and the species was made extinct in the wild. In the 1990s the reintroduction of herds was a success and now poaching has again become a serious threat that has devastated the population in Oman.
According to the IUCN Red List, the total Arabian oryx population size is around 1,000 individuals. This includes: approximately 50 oryx in Oman; approximately 600 oryx in Saudi Arabia; approximately 200 oryx in the United Arab Emirates; over 100 oryx in Israel and around 50 oryx in Jordan. An estimated 6,000-7,000 individuals are in captivity worldwide, most of them within the region. Some are kept within large fenced enclosures, including the ones in Qatar, Syria (Al Talila Reserve), Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. Overall, currently Arabian oryx are classified as Vulnerable (VU) but their numbers today remain stable.
Fun facts for kids
- Oryx are alert, wary, and have keen sight. Their defense is to lower their head to point their sharp horns forward.
- These animals have in their heads an unusual circulation system to cool their blood, very helpful for desert dwellers.
- The Arabian oryx is able to smell rain in the distance. When the scent of rain is carried on the wind, the head female oryx will lead her herd to seek the fresh grasses that the rainfall will have caused to sprout.
- This species is the most well adapted of the oryx for life in desert extremes. Their white color reflects the desert heat and sunlight. On cold winter mornings, body heat is trapped in their thick undercoats in order to keep warm. In the winter their legs darken so they can absorb more heat from the sun.
- The Arabian oryx may be responsible for the legend of the unicorn. Looking at them side-on, their two horns appear to be one.
- Arabian oryx, though not fast runners, can walk long distances and have been known to travel about 70 km in a night.
- Since the Arabian oryx’s skin has no glare or reflection, it is very hard to see them even from 100 meters away. They almost seem invisible.