An African antelope extinct in the wild since 2000 is the first animal to be downgraded to endangered since its re-introduction. SWNS
An African antelope extinct in the wild since 2000 is the first animal to be downgraded to endangered since its re-introduction. SWNS

An African antelope extinct in the wild since 2000 is the first animal to be downgraded to endangered since its re-introduction. SWNS



By James Gamble

An African antelope extinct in the wild since 2000 is the first animal to be downgraded to endangered since its re-introduction.

The scimitar-horned oryx, also known as the Sahara oryx, was once widespread across its native North Africa but its populations dropped sharply in the 1980s after being hunted for its horns and meat.

An African antelope extinct in the wild since 2000 is the first animal to be downgraded to endangered since its re-introduction. SWNS

But now, thanks to a collaborative breeding program, its fate has been reversed to become the first species from the Zoological Society of London’s (ZSL) Extinct in the Wild global initiative to be downlisted from Extinct in the Wild to Endangered.

The antelopes also combat climate change in North Africa by helping to prevent desertification in the region.

The scimitar-horned oryx, famed for its long horns that curve backward like a scimitar sword, is native to the North African nation of Chad.

Its populations began to plummet in the 1980s due to widespread hunting in their home country, and they were sadly declared Extinct in the Wild by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in the year 2000, and placed on the organization’s Red List of Threatened Species.

However, a collaborative breeding program coordinated by the Environment Agency of Abu Dhabi (EAD) and the ZSL has now seen 510 scimitar-horned oryx calves born in the wild in Chad.

In February this year, ZSL scientists published a study in the journal Science which argued that conservation zoos had the potential power to reverse the extinction of some animals.

The research was the first to comprehensively evaluate the 95 Extinct in the Wild animals and plants that since 1950 have only survived due to constant human care.

The scimitar-horned oryx is the first species in the study to have been subsequently downlisted from Extinct in the Wild to Endangered, following the success of breeding programmes in zoos.

The EAD coordinated global conservation organizations to breed and reintroduce the scimitar-horned oryx into the wild.

The IUCN Red List downgrading is a testament to the success of the establishment of the self-sustaining population of scimitar-horned oryxes which now thrives within Chad’s Ouadi Achim Faunal Reserve.

Animals from leading conservation zoos, including the ZSL’s Whipsnade Zoo in Bedfordshire, have contributed to the founding herd which now freely roams the plains.

An African antelope extinct in the wild since 2000 is the first animal to be downgraded to endangered since its re-introduction. SWNS

An ambitious recovery project for the threatened antelope species was launched in 1985, in which the ZSL worked alongside organizations including the Sahara Conservation Fund to carry out feasibility studies to ensure that any reintroduction stood the best chances of success.

The remarkable comeback of the scimitar-horned oryx demonstrates the restoration not only of a species but also of a whole ecosystem due to the essential role they play in it.

The antelope are crucial in maintaining grasslands in their native Chad through grazing and preventing the spread of desertification, and their reintroduction is a nature-based solution helping to tackle the local impacts of climate change.

Dr. Andrew Terry, Director of Conservation and Policy at ZSL and co-author of the study said the success of the oryx gives hope to similarly endangered animals.

“At a time when biodiversity is being lost at unprecedented rates, the return of the scimitar-horned oryx can give us hope for other species whose fate is – quite literally – in our hands,” he said.

“The Extinct in the Wild global initiative recognizes the vast collaborative efforts of zoos, aquariums and botanic gardens – working alongside governments and partners responsible for wild habitats – to prevent the extinction of species such as these.

“To have the fate of the flagship species for the initiative dramatically reversed proves the potential for the other species surviving only in zoos and reinforces the need for urgent support from funders and policymakers.”

Acknowledging the environmental impacts of reintroducing animals like the scimitar-horned oryx, he added: “We know that if we are to truly tackle the issues facing our planet then we must stop treating biodiversity loss and climate change as two separate threats – you cannot solve one without the other.

“As globally important discussions conclude at COP28 this week, we must take a moment to celebrate this huge conservation success and use it to galvanize world leaders to drive future change and success.”

ZSL’s senior conservation biologist, Tim Wacher, who has supported the post-release monitoring of the oryx population, added: “The return of the scimitar-horned oryx is the result of a long-term conservation effort for the species – following in-depth, careful preparation, and championed and supported by the EAD.

“All Saharan antelope species are severely threatened, but this project is proof that with the right will and resources, we can secure a future for them all.”

 

Produced in association with SWNS Talker