Rare antelopes return to Africa

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A type of antelope whose horns were marketed as unicorn horns in medieval times and that later became extinct in the wild is returning to Africa.

Called the scimitar-horned oryx, it is the largest mammal to have gone extinct in the wild in the last 20 years. But last year, 25 were reintroduced to the wild in Chad. And in March of this year, three oryx calves were born to the herd.

Scimitar-horned oryx standing in enclosed field in Chad (© Environment Agency–Abu Dhabi)
Scimitar-horned oryx at the game reserve in Chad (© EAD)

The scimitar-horned oryx — a desert animal with distinctive long, straight horns — once roamed from Mauritania and Morocco in the West to Egypt and Sudan in the East. This herding antelope went extinct in the wild in the 1980s due to unregulated hunting, drought and habitat loss. An estimated 6,000 live in captivity.

The reintroduction is a result of efforts by the Environment Agency–Abu Dhabi (EAD) and the government of Chad’s Scimitar-horned Oryx Reintroduction Program.

“Restoring oryx to the wild will have a huge and positive impact on the conservation and management of the entire Sahelian grasslands ecosystem,” said Steve Monfort, director of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. He was in Chad when the oryx arrived in March 2016 by plane and were taken to the Ouadi Rimé–Ouadi Achim Game Reserve.

Man standing on cage, lifting door to release oryx (© Environment Agency–Abu Dhabi)
The herd stayed at the Chad reserve before being released into the wild in 2016. (© EAD)

Before the herd was released into the wild, each oryx was fitted with a GPS-satellite collar so that scientists at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in the United States and the Zoological Society of London could monitor it. Rangers trained by EAD and the Sahara Conservation Fund monitor the herd in Chad.

The plan is to bring in new shipments of oryx at regular intervals, thus “seeding over the next three or four years a viable wild population,” said John Newby, chief executive of the Sahara Conservation Fund.

“It is probably safe to say there is no other conservation project like it.”

The Smithsonian Institution is showcasing the return of the oryx to the wild during its “Earth Optimism” celebration, which coincides with Earth Day, April 22. A version of this story was published on May 16, 2016.