View from the Zoo: Conservation effort in zoos help save oryx

Scimitar-horned oryx with their calves at Flamingo Land.
Scimitar-horned oryx with their calves at Flamingo Land.

Recently at Flamingo Land we have had four scimitar-horned oryx calves born which is excellent news for the conservation of this species as they have been declared extinct in the wild since 1999.

The scimitar-horned oryx is named for its magnificent horns which are shaped like a scimitar sword. Both males and females are able to grow horns of up to 1.2 metres. They have white coats with reddish brown necks and marks on their face. In the wild their coat helps reflect the heat from the desert. Calves are born with a light brown coat which helps to camouflage them in the sand. Their coat changes colour between three and 12 months.

They are well adapted to survive in their arid, desert habitat by having hooves that are designed to walk on sand. They can also survive without water for up to 10 months at a time. Their kidneys are specially adapted to produce little urine and they also sweat very little so they hardly lose any of their overall water intake.

Expectant mothers will leave the herd after a gestation period of eight to nine months to give birth, returning to the herd after. Usually a single calf is born and will become fully independent around 14 weeks of age. Their diet consists of grasses, foliage and fruit.

Once inhabiting a wide area in Northern Africa, the scimitar-horned oryx has been classified as extinct in the wild by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Despite the ability to survive in such harsh conditions, the decline of this desert antelope originally began due to climate change that caused the Sahara region to become dry and expand. Humans then expedited the loss of the species further by over-hunting for their meat and hide, along with trophy hunting for their superb horns. Other factors included habitat loss and competition with domestic livestock.

The loss of this incredible species triggered an amazing conservation effort and they have been part of a breeding programme where they are now well represented in zoos and safari parks across the world. Due to the successful captive breeding of these animals, some have already been released into protected areas in Tunisia, Senegal and Morocco.