There is a theory that it was the horns of the oryx that gave rise to the legends of the unicorn. When you see one side-on, you can see why.. even though I am not sure that it is true. They are almost mythical creatures, though, with their ability to survive in heat that would kill most mammals and the unique answers they have evolved to combat both desert temperatures and lack of water.
I remember my mother telling me about the oryx a very long time ago in pre-internet days. I recall her tale of an Arabian prince who was trying to save them… there must have been a news article about their plight. I didn’t really understand at the time what was so important about an antelope, but the romance of the prince’s story left an impression in memory. Even so, we lost them. The scimitar oryx has been extinct in the wild since 2000. If you look them up on Wikipedia, you’ll find that the article about them is written in the past tense, which in some way brought home to me starkly the loss of this and other species.
You might be lucky to get a glimpse of them in a wildlife park or managed reserve… there are several small herds of them now worldwide, bred and protected in captivity in a way that ensures their genetic diversity. There were around six thousand in preserves a couple of years ago… which sounds a lot until you realise that in the wild, they moved in herds up to ten thousand strong. This year saw the start of a rewilding project in Chad, where a tiny population of oryx are being reintroduced into an area the size of Indiana.
My son and I recently took a trip to Whipsnade, a ground-breaking zoo from the start, with the ideal of animal and habitat conservation worldwide since it opened in 1931. In spite of the obvious concern that keeping wild creatures in captivity is wrong, they, in partnership with London Zoo and modern wildlife parks worldwide, do much to help threatened species. The enclosures are large, interesting for the animals and as open as possible. Maras, birds and wallabies roam the park at will and many of the animals are endangered species, kept with the hope of preservation and the intent of reintroduction. We were lucky enough to see oryx there… and a small bundle of hope staying close to his mother.
There is a cycle of evolution and extinction; some species will naturally disappear in a changing world, with or without our presence. The story of the oryx’s extinction may have begun with the climate change that caused the last drying of the Sahara around 5000 years ago, but huge herds were still roaming the desert just eighty years ago. They have been over-hunted for their leather and their horns, as well as for food. Firearms have made their decimation easier and more deadly. WWII had a major impact on them, through the direct effects of war and their presence as a ready supply of meat…and many fell victim to the motor car. Whether one accepts climate change as part of the planet’s natural cycle or it is seen as accelerated or caused by Man, the other factors are undeniably our responsibility. In a world where the balance is so fragile, and the web of existence so intricately woven, there is a need to remember that we are no more than a single thread in the tapestry… as dependent upon the rest of Nature as it is upon us.
When I was growing up, conservation was a concept that was, to most of us, little known and less understood. Now we are all aware of the need to protect some of our most iconic species as the big cats, elephants and many others struggle for survival in an increasingly synthetic world. While we were at Whipsnade, we listened in to one of the many guides showing groups of schoolchildren around the park. He was talking about the EDGE project, which aims to identify and protect some of the lesser known and more unique species in evolutionary terms. The children were spellbound, as they stood watching the lions as the guide explained.
It would be a terrible and tragic thing to lose our lions… but there are other cats. We would not wholly lose what a cat can bring to the evolutionary tapestry. But there are other species, lesser know in many cases, already on the verge of extinction, of which we know little except that they possess unusual qualities that make them unique in the natural world. The Edge of Existence website says, “EDGE species have few close relatives on the tree of life and are often extremely unusual in the way they look, live and behave, as well as in their genetic make-up. They represent a unique and irreplaceable part of the world’s natural heritage, yet an alarming proportion are currently sliding silently towards extinction unnoticed.” Not entirely unnoticed. The children listened with rapt attention, as they watched the big cats, asking pertinent questions and with obvious concern. Perhaps it is not only the oryx that sees hope in its young.