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Published on 3rd February, 2003

The Arabian Oryx

Courtesy of Dr Shuja, Islamic Arts

Arabian Desert. By S.Abidin

The Arabian oryx is a medium-sized, white antelope, with black patches on its face and dark legs. It stands about one metre high and has two gently curving horns, which are about 50cm in length. Its grace and beauty are legendary.

Before the beginning of the nineteenth century, oryx were abundant in all parts of the Arabian Peninsula. Since the advent of twentieth-century weapons and modes of transport, however, this beautiful animal has been extensively hunted until near-extinction. The few remaining animals retreated into the Rub al-Khali desert (the Empty Quarter) to escape from the hunter's gun.

The Arabian oryx In centuries past, images of the oryx probably gave rise to its more famous mythical counterpart - the unicorn. This beast of legend had a horse's body and a single, long, spiral horn projecting from the middle of its forehead. A side view of the oryx, when seen from a distance, would seem to strengthen this image of legend as the two finely-carved horns may then seem to merge into one.

To many western writers, Arabia was seen as a land of charm and mystery. Because so little was known about it, travellers and poets often used it as the site of strange, mythological happenings. In the thirteenth century, Garillaume of Normandy wrote in his book, Le Besteare Divin, of the now famous legend of the unicorn and the virgin, how the beast could not be captured unless it laid its head in a damsel's lap. Only then would it lose its great ferocity and allow itself to be captured by the hunter.

Arab poets, too, extolled the beauty and grace of the oryx, often using these qualities metaphorically to compare the animal with a beautiful woman. The Bedouin believed that if a man captured an oryx, he could in some way capture for himself its virtues of strength, courage and endurance. There can be little doubt that there is something compelling about this beast, which makes it the source of such a wealth of poetry and legend.

But what of the real oryx? Thriving for many centuries in the Arabian desert, it is perfectly adapted to withstand an inhospitable climate and barren landscape. It has evolved the ability to go without water entirely and if necessary, can survive for years without drinking. The animal satisfies its thirst by licking early morning dew which gathers on the leaves of desert plants and by obtaining moisture from the plants themselves. Desert grasses, tamarisk, broomrape and desert gourd are all sources of food and liquid for the oryx. On the rare occasions of desert rainfall, an oryx herd can detect the rains from a far distance and can easily find the rainy area. Some zoologists believe that the body of the oryx contains a kind of built-in 'radar system', which enables it to do this.

The oryx has never been an easy animal to capture and has always presented a great challenge to the hunter. It proved difficult to track in the vast, empty desert landscape and without the benefit of modern transport, capture and conveyance of the carcass were almost impossible. There was virtually no wastage on the rare occasions when an oryx was successfully hunted. Every part of the animal, including horns, fat, skin and blood, served a useful purpose. Oryx meat was particularly prized, as it was believed to possess medicinal properties.

By 1972 the oryx in its wild state had been completely wiped out. Extinction would have been inevitable were it not for the efforts of a far-sighted team of conservationists and an enlightened King. A few animals had been rescued and bred in captivity in American and European zoos. Here the oryx thrived and numbers increased. Under the auspices of the late King Khaled Ibn Abd al-Aziz, the oryx was reintroduced into its homeland a few years later. In Jaddat al-Harasis, the oryx's last known habitat, a small herd were set free and are now protected. Allowed to roam free and unharmed, the herd continues to thrive and increase in number.

Zoos in Arab countries and in the West are also ensuring the continued existence of the oryx. On the late King Khaled's farm in Riyadh, on various farms in Qatar and the Al-'Ain Zoo in the Emirates, these beautiful animals are doing well. As it continues to flourish under protection, the future of the Arabian oryx looks brighter today than at any other time this century.

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