Abu Dhabi, August 30, 2016: Twenty-five years after the Scimitar-horned Oryx was driven to extinction, the desert antelope returns to the last-known place it existed: Chad's Sahelian grasslands. This accomplishment is part of the Scimitar-horned Oryx Reintroduction Programme, which is being led by the Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi (EAD), the government of Chad and their implementing partner, the Sahara Conservation Fund (SCF). The project is possibly the world's most ambitious large mammal reintroduction programme and a huge step in the field of conservation.
H.E. Razan Khalifa Al Mubarak, EAD's Secretary General said: "Since 2000 the Scimitar-horned Oryx has been classified as "Extinct in the Wild" by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. There have been no sightings for more than 25 years due to un-regulated hunting, loss of habitat and lack of resources for conservation. Leading the programme which endeavours to reinstate a viable population of this once extinct-in-the-wild majestic creature in its home range of Chad is dreams come true. This initial release will provide us with invaluable data to develop a self-sustaining wild population".
"The project, which is part of EAD's long-term commitment to conserve biodiversity for future generations, is inspired by the late Sheikh Zayed's legacy and efforts to protect endangered species and rehabilitate them in their natural habitat. It will be considered a success when a self-sustaining population of the Scimitar–horned Oryx roams freely in its natural habitat, and is protected and celebrated by the Chadian community and no longer considered Extinct in the wild," she said.
Dr Shaikha Salem Al Dhaheri, Executive Director, Terrestrial and Marine Biodiversity Sector at EAD said: "In preparation for the Oryx release, the first 25 animals were transported in March from Abu Dhabi to our pre-release facility in the Ouadi Rimé-Ouadi Achim Game Reserve in Chad via cargo plane. This was the first time in over 25 years that there was a single Oryx in the country. Once released, all the Oryx trotted out unscathed by their journey and very quickly settled into their expansive pre-release pen, where they started grazing almost immediately".
She added that "The animals settled into the pre-release pens for an acclimatisation period of five months prior to their release into the wild".
"In July, EAD, SCF, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) and Biology Institute (SCBI) and Zoological Society of London teams fitted the Scimitar-horned Oryx with GPS collars. Twice a day the team receives the position of every animal collared. Based on these coordinates, field staff can monitor the population." Dr Shaikha noted.
She added that "The 3-4 years, life span of the collars, with an ability to remotely release and program them, will help rangers to learn more about movement, behaviour and mortality and know more about the ecology of the species in the wild. Overall, the data will tell scientists where they go seasonally, how far they travel, whether they stay together or disperse into different social groups, and even if a poacher has taken an animal".
So far our initial reports shows that a group of 19 animals, who had have ranged over 30 km from the released site, are together and with green vegetation and water. They seem alert, healthy, calm and well adjusted, acclimatised to their new surroundings.
SCBI and Zoological Society of London support post-release satellite tracking efforts that will result in the collection of one of the most comprehensive datasets for any wildlife species returned to its native habitat.
"This is an epic homecoming for this majestic species and a significant step forward for wildlife conservation," said Steve Monfort, the John and Adrienne Mars director of SCBI. "Every conservationist aspires to ensure that wildlife thrive in their natural environment. This project was designed to ultimately give Scimitar-horned oryx that chance, while also helping restore this grasslands ecosystem and to inspire and inform similar reintroduction efforts for other species."
"This dataset is gold to any conservation researcher," Stabach said. "We know so little about this species in the wild and the data we're collecting will tell us where these animals are—and what's going on with them—in near real-time over a number of years. We're essentially opening up a window that will help us understand how and why individuals move across the landscape, and allow us to monitor each individual in a way that was never before possible."
"If a few calves are born soon after the release, they may imprint on the release site and return periodically," Stabach said, adding that the team on the ground will provide water at the site during especially dry periods, which may also help to imprint the herd to the location. "It would be a momentous occasion—the first oryx born on native soil in decades."
The GPS collars are programmed to turn on and off at specific times, enabling scientists to monitor animal movements and compare them with landmarks in the environment—from shade trees to water sources to specific kinds of vegetation they like to eat. The collars also report the temperature and the animal's activity. An accelerometer in the collar can pinpoint an animal's movement in three directions; as an animal moves its head left to right or up and down, the accelerometer captures this information. SCBI scientists will use this data to assess behaviours, including the amount of time an animal spends eating or avoiding predators. The collars are equipped with a drop-off mechanism that allows scientists to remove the collars without recapturing the animal. This also ensures the animal will not wear the collar for its entire life span.
The project aims to build a self-sustaining population by releasing 300 to 500 wild oryx over the next five years. The released animals come from EAD's "world herd" of oryx, including animals from the United States, Europe and United Arab Emirates.
Climate change and human encroachment are among the primary threats to the antelope, which were also hunted to extinction and killed during times of civil unrest in Chad and neighbouring regions. They were once widely distributed across the Sahel, from Senegal to Sudan. By releasing the oryx into their native habitat during the rainy season when better resources are available, giving them time to acclimatise in a large fenced area and hiring rangers to patrol the reserve, project partners are hopeful that the animals will now have a better chance at survival.