As part of the Scimitar-horned Oryx Reintroduction Programme, which is being led by the Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi (EAD), in collaboration with the government of Chad and the Sahara Conservation Fund (SCF), the Sahelian plains of Chad have welcomed 40 Scimitar-horned oryx new calves in 2018. The birth of the new babies brings the total herd to 180 animals.
The Programme not only succeeded in returning this once extinct-in-the-wild species to the Ouadi Rime-Ouadi Achim Game Reserve in Chad, but also aims to ensure that the oryx thrive in their new surroundings. It is the first time the species has been repatriated to an unfenced area and its goal is to establish and maintain a healthy, self-sustaining herd of over 500 animals over a five-year period, which will continue to grow and adapt in the wild as the years go by.
It is believed that the last Scimitar-horned Oryx disappeared from Chad in the late 1980s and the species was officially declared globally "Extinct in the Wild" by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 2000, with the only surviving animals persisting in ex-situ, or captivity in breeding programmes in zoos and private collections across the world.
Razan Khalifa Al Mubarak, EAD’s Secretary-General, said, "The reintroduction of the Scimitar-horned Oryx into Chad has been described by many as the world’s most ambitious large mammal reintroduction programme. To see this initiative taking shape from a dream to a vision, a strategy and then a reality has to be one of the most gratifying experiences that anyone who is passionate about wildlife conservation could wish for."
"A project of such scale would not have been feasible without the collaboration between EAD, the Government of Chad and the Sahara Conservation Fund, not to mention the expertise and resources shared by the project’s other international partners, and many years of hard work and dedication of all those involved," Al Mubarak added.
Another significant milestone in the programme was the recent release of a further 83 Scimitar-horned Oryx into the wild in Chad at the end of July. The animals selected for the reintroduction came from the ‘world herd’ that EAD has been curating at its breeding facility in Delaija, Abu Dhabi. Many of the animals that make up the ‘world herd’ were donated to EAD from the collection of the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. The genetic diversity of the blood-stock was increased with the addition of animals that were donated from a number of zoos and private collectors across the globe.
A very careful selection process took place at the Delaija facility whereby animals were carefully tested, and prepared for shipment to the pre-release facility within the protected area in Chad. After release, the wild herds continue to be protected by wildlife rangers of the Government of Chad’s Ministry of Environment and Fisheries. In addition, EAD continues to work closely with the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) and Zoological Society of London to carefully monitor the daily movements of the animals in the wild with the aid of satellite collars.
Commenting on this recent release, Dr. Shaikha Salem Al Dhaheri, Executive Director, Terrestrial and Marine Biodiversity Sector, at EAD said; "In preparation for the Oryx release, 73 animals were transported from the UAE in February to our pre-release facility in the Ouadi Rime-Ouadi Achim Game Reserve in Chad. The team collared 70 individuals of this group allowing us to remotely learn more about their movement, behaviour and mortality and know more about the ecology of the species in the wild. Overall, the data will tell us where they move to seasonally, how far they travel, whether they stay together or disperse into different social groups, and even if a poacher has taken an animal".
Dr. Shaikha said, "So far, our initial reports show the released animals appear to have gained good awareness of the area as they have been observed making efficient movements to and from the pre-release pens. Natural calving behavior is also being observed in the wild where the females separate from the group to give birth and then male/female pairs are temporarily formed. Reports also show that the longest distance travelled by one oryx is 139 km in one night, where the total area used by the oryx is approximately 12,000 km2."
She also noted; "There has been about 40 mm of rain in the reserve so far this year which is hopefully the beginning of a good rainy season, where there will be plenty of grass growth to sustain the oryx through the year".
Once widely distributed across the Sahel, from Senegal to Sudan, the oryx were hunted to extinction and killed during times of civil unrest in Chad and neighbouring regions. Climate change and habitat encroachment are key threats to the antelope. By releasing the oryx into their native habitat during the rainy season when better resources are available, giving them time to acclimatise in a large fenced area and hiring rangers to patrol the reserve, EAD and its partners are hopeful that the animals will now have a better chance of survival.