status: Extinct in the wild, IUCN Proposed endangered, ESA
Description and biology
The scimitar-horned oryx is a small, horselike antelope. It is so-named because its two horns, which extend back from its head in a long sweeping arc, are similar in shape to scimitars, which are curved, single-edged Asian swords. Most of its body is nearly white in color. Its neck and small portions of its face are dark brown. This oryx has short, rounded ears, large hooves, and a tuft of hair below its chin and at the end of its tail. It also has a short mane extending from its head over its shoulders.
An average scimitar-horned oryx has a head and body length of 60 to 90 inches (152 to 229 centimeters) and weighs 250 to 460 pounds (114 to 209 kilograms). Its tail measures 18 to 35 inches (46 to 89 centimeters) long, while its horns extend 30 to 55 inches (76 to 140 centimeters).
Scimitar-horned oryx often gather in herds of 20 to 40 members. During the day, the herds travel over great distances to feed on grass and other desert vegetation. The animals are often preyed upon by hyenas and large cats.
Mating may take place between males and females at any time, but births seem to peak during early spring and early fall. Female scimitar-horned oryx give birth to a single infant after a gestation (pregnancy) period of 220 to 253 days.
Habitat and current distribution
Scimitar-horned oryx inhabit the rolling dunes and grassy plains of the desert regions in northern Africa. In 1996, it was reported that a few oryx remained in the wild in Chad. After that there were no more sightings, and in 1999 the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) listed the scimitar-horned oryx as extinct in the wild. There has been an unconfirmed sighting of the species in Chad since then. In 1996, there were an estimated 1,250 scimitar-horned oryx in captivity in zoos and parks worldwide and about 2,145 more animals on ranches in Texas.
History and conservation measures
This species was once quite common in the areas surrounding the Sahara Desert. Herds sometimes joined together to form groups that numbered in the thousands. In the past few decades, however, desertification, drought, competition from domestic livestock, and uncontrolled hunting by humans have all combined to eliminate this oryx from much of its original habitat.
Desertification is the gradual transformation of productive land into that with desertlike conditions. Even a desert can become desertified, losing its sparse collection of plants and animals and becoming a barren wasteland. Much of the scimitar-horned oryx's habitat has been desertified by natural and man-made actions. Droughts have plagued the region, and overgrazing by farm animals has depleted what little vegetation has been able to grow.
The greatest threat to the scimitar-horned oryx, however, has been hunting. Wanton (merciless) killing by humans has brought the animal to near extinction in several parts of its range during various times of the twentieth century. By the mid-1970s, almost all of the region's scimitar-horned oryx were confined to a single place: the Ouadi Rime-Ouadi Achim Faunal Reserve in Chad. Established in 1969, the reserve was a suitable, well-protected habitat area. By 1978, the oryx population in the reserve numbered about 5,000. That same year, civil war broke out in the country and protection for the reserve ceased.
A breeding-in-captivity program was initiated in the 1960s for the scimitar-horned oryx. In the early 2000s, reintroduction of the species to the wild is taking place, with the first releases occurring in Tunisia. If these new populations in Tunisia begin to reproduce and sustain themselves, the species will once again exist in the wild.