Only 10 years ago the Arabian oryx was erroneously reported extinct in the wild and was indeed so scarce that few authorities refuted the report. Today it has not only been rescued from what seemed inevitable extinction but it has been reestablished on a course toward survival.
The Arabian oryx is the smallest and most graceful of the four species of oryx in the world and the only one found outside Africa. A medium-sized antelope, it stands about 40 inches at the shoulder and has horns that grow up to 29 inches in length. When seen from the side, these horns often appear as one. So the unicorn may actually have been an oryx.
Until the last century the animal roamed in large numbers throughout the Middle East, insulated from man by the inaccessibility of its domain. Only the best hunters of a Bedouin tribe—those able and willing to endure long periods living on dried meat and camel's milk—attempted to overtake the oryx. This often entailed trailing the animal for days under the scorching desert sun. For many, the quest ended in death for the hunter rather than the hunted. The few who succeeded were lionized for their bravery, and the Arabs believed strength, endurance and virility were derived from eating the flesh of the oryx.
Unfortunately for the oryx, such beliefs persisted long after motor cars and machine guns replaced the camels and primitive weapons of the tribesmen. What had once been a test of hunting skill and stamina degenerated into mechanized massacre. In a few decades the oryx was systematically eliminated from Jordan, Syria, Iraq and the Sinai Peninsula, leaving only two wild populations in the world: one in the Nafud area of Saudi Arabia, the other farther south, in the Rub' al Khali (Empty Quarter).
By the '50s the northern population, too, was extinct, annihilated by oil-rich sheikhs and their guests who further streamlined the slaughter by adding airplanes and helicopters to their automobile armadas. In one 14-month period three separate raids, with hunters employing tommy guns fired from columns of several hundred Land Rovers, wiped out half of what was then believed to be the animal's total world population. In 1962 it was estimated that fewer than 35 wild oryx remained.
But it was these final decimations that helped save the Arabian oryx. When reports of the massacres reached Sanau Garrison, a fort about 250 miles northeast of Mukalla in Southern Yemen, the officials stationed there were so incensed that protests were immediately sent to London, where newspapers soon headlined the outrage.
"Desert Massacre to Please Harem," said The Daily Express in a colorful but unfactual account in which the paper attributed the slaughter to a raunchy desert chief out to boost his image and virility with the ladies of his harem. The Times and Daily Telegraph expressed more sedate concern and the Daily Mirror raised some $84,000 from its readers after a plea made in its pages by Naturalist Peter Scott.
"The Arabian oryx is probably the world's rarest animal," wrote Scott. "Anything that can be done to save it should be done at once. Probably the only answer is a Noah's Ark operation...capturing some and taking them to another part of the world where they can live in safety."
The indignation expressed in London spread to the Continent and then across the Atlantic. People on both sides of the ocean, including many who doubtless had never before heard of an Arabian oryx, rallied to the animal's rescue. The Fauna Preservation Society in London, for which Queen Elizabeth is patroness, proposed an expedition into the Empty Quarter to capture the remaining oryx for transplantation to a safer habitat. The Survival Service Commission of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) and the newly formed World Wildlife Fund backed the proposal.
In the U.S., Shikar-Safari Club International, probably the most distinguished and respected society of hunter-conservationists in the world, agreed to finance and sponsor the transfer and reestablishment of a breeding herd outside Arabia. Maury Machris, a Los Angeles oilman, was president of Shikar-Safari at the time Operation Oryx began.