With elegant half-metre long horns, distinctive dark face markings, and a sleek sandy coat, the Arabian Oryx is the embodiment of the Arabian desert. Silent and graceful, they float like pastoral ghosts over the Gulf’s sun-stained sands. Seeing one is a near indescribable privilege: with nothing between you but the soft whisper of shifting sand-grains, an encounter is perhaps even more poignant than any you might experience on safari in the parks of Kenya or South Africa. From its place on the logos of many UAE companies to its portrait on the UAE Dirham, the Arabian Oryx is a symbol of Emirate heritage.
The late Sheik Zayed, one of the UAE’s founding fathers, took a protagonist role in Arabian Oryx conservation. He recognised the extraordinary animals’ importance to both the biodiversity and heritage of the region, and oversaw their conservation as part of his “Greening of the Desert” program. Now, in many ways due to his personal efforts, the UAE is home to over 5,000 Arabian Oryx.
Depicted on Abu Dhabi’s oldest Bronze Age buildings, the Arabian Oryx has been an integral feature of the region from the dawn of history. Its journey however, has not been easy. From the 1800s on, the species began to decline rapidly, often the target of trophy hunting and the victim of human expansion. In the early ‘70s, the Arabian Oryx was declared extinct in the wild. Their eventual extinction had been foreseen earlier, luckily, and a few individuals had been captured as part of experimental captive breeding and reintroduction programs, the largest of which was implemented by Phoenix Zoo.
Sheik Zayed implemented his own captive breeding program in Al Ain for Arabian Oryx in 1968, eventually transferring a small number to Sir Bani Yas Island in 1978. The island was the foundation of the Abu Dhabi captive breeding program. In 1977, Sheik Zayed declared hunting illegal on the island, while, at the same time making the island a wildlife reserve. Today, the island is home to over 450 Arabian Oryx as well as over 13,000 animals, including cheetah, hyena, and ostrich. The island has released over 10,000 animals to the wild.
To Sheik Zayed, nature was a huge part of life in the Arabian Gulf. In his youth, he lived among Bedouin tribes in the desert, where he developed a deep passion for Abu Dhabi’s wildlife. His love for nature was a huge part of his governance, and it continues to be a large part of Abu Dhabi’s national commitment. His rule saw the modernisation of traditional falaj irrigation systems, the planting of hundreds of thousands of date palms, and the outfitting of properly managed protected zones for wildlife.
Sheik Zayed’s policies have dramatically improved the fate of the Arabian Oryx. In 2007, 94 individuals were released into Abu Dhabi’s “Arabian Oryx Protected Area.” Since then, the population has exploded to over 800 individuals. The success of Abu Dhabi’s captive breeding programs paid off in 2011, when the species was re-listed from endangered to vulnerable on the IUCN red-scale, the first time a species once listed as extinct has been re-classified as vulnerable.
There has never been a better time to visit Abu Dhabi to see these majestic creatures and Jumeirah Al Wathba Desert Resort and Spa places you right in the peaceful heart of the Abu Dhabi desert. See first-hand the beauty of the landscape Sheik Zayed committed his life to preserving and help Abu Dhabi’s ecotourism industry thrive. To see the elegant Oryx in Abu Dhabi, ask your private butler about arranging a trip to Sir Bani Yas island where the antelopes roam freely, or drop in to Al Ain Zoo where you can learn more about the extraordinary conservation methods used in the Arabian Oryx renaissance.