‘The return of this species [Scimitar-horned Oryx] is very important to Senegal. We see this as a major success in helping to preserve the country’s fragile biodiversity’ – Demba Mamadou Ba, the head of Senegal’s National Parks Department.The scimitar-horned oryx walks upon the African Sahel once again. After having been ruthlessly exterminated in even its most remote refuges in northern Africa, this gravely endangered species has been returned to a protected part of its ancient habitat in Senegal – thanks to a cooperative international effort with major Israeli participation.
Earlier this year, a team of four Israelis, assisted by wildlife specialists from the United States and Taiwan, delivered a herd of eight scimitar-horned oryx from the Hai Bar Animal and Nature Reserve in the Arava in southern Israel to the Guembeul Fauna Reserve in northwestern Senegal. The animals – four adolescent females, three adolescent males, and one adult female – form the nucleus for what is intended to be a breeding and rehabilitation program.
Reintroducing wildlife back to Africa is no easy task, nor does it happen all too often. But, Bill Clark of Israel’s Nature and National Parks Protection Authority (INNPPA), together with a team of experienced Israeli and Senegalese wildlife experts, bucked the trend as they reintroduced the Oryx to its native Sahelian habitat.
With 30 years of conservation and wildlife enforcement experience, much of it gained in Africa, Clark returned to the semi-arid West African nation of Senegal earlier this year to transfer the small herd of these magnificent desert antelopes to one of Africa’s newest national parks in the Ferlo region in the northeastern part of the country.
Clark, a licensed pilot and conservationist extraordinaire, represents Israel at UN wildlife meetings and works on numerous international conservation projects for INNPPA. He immigrated to Israel 30 years ago from New York.
The long journey to the Ferlo started four years ago with a shipment of eight Scimitar-horned Oryxes donated by the Hai Bar nature reserve in Israel’s southern Aravah region to the Guembeul fauna reserve in northwestern Senegal. It was quite a challenge to relocate these massive animals the 9,000 km. it took from the Israeli desert, across the Mediterranean to Europe, and then south to West Africa. But, it seems that the long trip was well worth the effort as the herd has “gone forth and multiplied” and now numbers 26 (24 are of Israeli origin or their descendants, with an additional two donated by the Paris Zoo to improve genetic diversity).
Standing about four feet at shoulder height and weighing up to 200kg (440 lbs), the Scimitar is an impressive species of oryx, particularly its distinctive arced-shaped horns. It is believed that the species’ name derived from the curved “scimitar” swords used for centuries by the Arabian people. Although mainly used in ritualized sparring competitions between rival males, the horns can be a dangerous weapon as oryxes are known to give a swift ‘upper cut’ if attacked by predators, humans included. They are also used during courtship, which apparently has worked its magic in Senegal.
Enduring hot summer temperatures of 50°C in the shade and strong harmattan winds that blow sand south from the Sahara, the oryxes readily adapted to their new environment at Guembeul. Except for the death of a young female in May 2000 from an alleged poisonous snakebite, the oryxes have been healthy and parasite-free. “Thanks to good animal care and husbandry, they’ve been reproducing well,” said Clark, who helped train several Senegalese park officials in Israeli animal nutrition and veterinary techniques. “After several years of acclimating to their surroundings, we decided it was now time to take them back to their ancestral homeland.”
On January 9th, under the cloak of darkness, eight carefully chosen oryxes – two male and six female – were captured, tranquillized and gently loaded on to specially-made cargo boxes to endure the arduous and often bumpy 350 km., 13-hour overnight journey inland. Seven rare Dama Mhorr gazelles that have been bred side-by side with the oryxes at Guembeul were also transported to the Ferlo for re-introduction.
“A project of this magnitude is not without its risks, especially during transportation,” said Dan Perry, a former Director of Israel’s Nature Reserves Authority who has been part of the Israel-Senegal conservation project from the beginning. “But, we took all the necessary precautions to ensure that the animals arrived safely to their new home.”
Other than a few flat tires along the way and some final last minute preparations at the Ferlo, the oryxes and gazelles were released to small 30m x 30m holding pens. Senegalese park officials will closely monitor them before they are released into larger areas. By the end of this year they will enjoy 500 hectares of grazing land and eventually, an even greater area.
“Once they are free to roam the larger protected area, we hope the population will be sustainable and be able to reproduce itself like in Guembeul,” Perry added. “It will take time and much will depend on how well the park is managed.”
In 1997, the Senegalese government set aside 4,000 sq. km. of degraded Sahel rangeland in the Ferlo region in order to rehabilitate areas that have been severely affected by years of overgrazing, drought, erosion and desertification. “One of the biggest challenges in restoring the Ferlo has been dealing with overgrazing of local livestock, which has suppressed the vegetation,” Clark emphasized. “But, this is a good Savanna habitat, with traditionally good ground coverage. We are doing all that we can to restore the landscape to its natural integrity.”
Despite the adverse conditions, one can still find small populations of existing wildlife in the parched northern areas of the country, including Red-fronted gazelles (Gazella rufifrons), jackals (Canis aureus), warthogs (Phacocherus aethiopicus), African Spurred-Tortoises (Geochelone sulcata), wild ostriches (Struthio camelus), red monkeys (Erythrocebus patas), and now, of course, the Scimitar-horned Oryx (Oryx dammah) and the Mhorr Gazelle (Gazella dama mhorr).
“The return of this species [Scimitar-horned Oryx] is very important to Senegal,” said Demba Mamadou Ba, the head of Senegal’s National Parks Department. “We see this as a major success in helping to preserve the country’s fragile biodiversity.”
“And if the project goes well,” he added, “the [Senegalese] government has agreed to transfer another 4,000 sq. km. tract of land so that we can double the size of the park.”
“The last Scimitar-horned Oryx reliably seen in nature was in Chad in 1986,” Clark confirmed. “Even after a major habitat survey last year covering thousands of square kilometers in Chad and Niger, not one oryx, or even evidence of the oryx, was found,” he added. As a result, the Antelope Specialist Group of the World Conservation Union-IUCN now considers the species to be “presumed extinct in the wild.”
But, thanks to Israel’s Hai Bar nature reserve, which has bred the species in captivity since the 1970s, there is genuine hope for its future. The Hai Bar (The Hebrew word for ‘wildlife’) was set up in 1968 as an experimental project to reintroduce animal species that once roamed the hills and deserts of Biblical Israel. This included such species as the Persian fallow Deer (Dama dama mesopotamica, the Asian Wild Ass (Equus hemionus) and the Arabian or White Oryx (Oryx leucoryx).
However, it was the idea of the late General Avraham Yoffe (1913-1983), the first Director of Israel?s Nature Reserves Authority (the forerunner of the INNPPA), who decided to include several non-native Israeli desert species, including the Scimitar-horned Oryx, in the newly created reserve.
“Yoffe believed that including these animals would be a hedge against extinction of the wild populations,” said Clark, who had the opportunity to work with the general-turned-conservationist in the early 1970s while volunteering at the Hai Bar. “He saw the writing on the wall for the oryxes, addaxes and other desert ungulates – that’s why he made space available at the Hai Bar.”
And, indeed, his foresight paid off. Starting with a group of 10 animals that were obtained from American and British zoos in the 1970s, there are today some 60 Scimitar Oryxes in Israel; 20 at the Hai-Bar and another 40 scattered in various zoological collections throughout the country. And then, of course, there is the growing population in Senegal.
There are several other captive populations of the Scimitar in zoos and wildlife parks around the world, but the Hai Bar population is truly unique in that the oryxes live in an open habitat very similar to their native range and, therefore, has been able to retain most of their natural behavioral patterns and physiological capabilities. In Israel, the oryxes are routinely exposed to 45°C summer temperatures and graze on desert grasses similar to those found in Africa. These advantages have made the transition from Israel to Senegal; two countries which share similar climatic and botanical conditions, much easier on the animals. Clark also expects that this advantage will make the transition from Israel to other Sahelian countries just as easy.
“The project in Senegal has been so successful that we hope to repeat the efforts in other Sahelian countries.” Clark said optimistically. Mali and Chad have been discussed as other possible locations to reintroduce the oryxes. And Mauritania, Senegal’s northern neighbor has recently requested a half a dozen for the Diawling National Park in the southwestern part of this desert country.
“In the near future we hope to see Guembeul become a regional breeding center for the oryx and other Sahelian antelope species,” Clark added. “This way it will be much easier to transport, and ultimately reintroduce, animals to other parts of West Africa.”
After so many years of being absent from its native homeland in the Sahel, the Scimitar-horned Oryx, indeed, is starting to make its triumphant return to Africa.