Saving the rare Arab oryx

A delicate matchmaking project is about to get under way in a wildlife oasis in the Omani desert. It will bring together a nomadic tribe and one of the world's rarest animals -- the Arabian oryx.

The Arabian oryx is greatly in need of human protection, the last wild one having been hunted down in 1972.

Behind the project are the scientific and organizational expertise of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), as well as the good will and financial support of the Oman government.

The little known Harasis tribespeople have been chosen as special protectors of the oryx herd. This is "because of their great knowledge of that unique desert area of Oman where wildlife flourishes, and because of their interest in conservation," a WWF spokesman here explains.

"When a small herd of white oryx, bred in captivity in North America, is brought home to Oman in December, it is the Harasis people who will tend the animals, guard them, and live with them.

"To them, the return of the graceful oryx to its home country has a deep significance; and they are prepared to wait out the lengthy getting-to-know-you period of introduction to the animals before they can look on them as their own and bring them gradually back into the wild."

Since the slaying seven years ago of the last oryx seen in the wild, the species' only hope of survival has been the success of the so-called "world herd ," comprised of groups of individual animals bred and cared for in special centers in North America and Europe.

The 12 oryx soon to be shipped to Oman with help from the WWF have been grouped into a herd in the San Diego Wild Animal Park in California to get acquainted with each other before the journey.

The creamy white antelope with long, straight horns once roamed the Arabian and Syrian deserts. Today, the success story of the captive-breeding program is a conservation classic.

Dr. Hartmut Jungius, a scientist with IUCN who has taken an important part in the reintroduction program, believes that the Harasis tribe may well ensure the animals' future.

As he put it, "The tribe's territory stretches over 30,000 square kilometers; and it is the only desert area in the Oman where wildlife, such as rabbits, lizards, and gazelles, live in abundance.

"The oryx will be put into enclosures on their arrival, gradually introduced to the desert and the tribespeople, and finally put into their care in the wild.

"The Harasis will protect them and keep them away from poachers -- and, if necessary, help them to re-adapt to desert life, for example by leading them to good pastures."

The Harasis are a small tribe of about 500 persons. They lead a nomad existence with their goats and camels. They have a deep interest in conservation and consider it an honor to be chosen as the special guardians of the oryx.

Ralph Daly, conservation adviser to the Oman government, says that the spirit of cooperation between his administration and the Harasis, as well as the international wildlife conservation organizations, "could not be better."

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