Addax and Oryx reintroduction
© Olivier Bron
To breed and reintroduce addaxes and scimitar-horned oryxes into their former range in Tunisia
Like the sadly regretted passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius), the scimitar-horned oryx , Oryx dammah, went from abundance to extinction in the wild within the space of a few short decades. Once a common antelope of the Sahelian grasslands of North and sub-Saharan Africa, the last few remaining specimens probably disappeared from Chad and Niger during 1990s.
Hunted relentlessly from vehicles with modern weapons, the oryx has been squeezed out of existence by poaching and a lethal combination of drought, desertification and encroachment of its sub-desert habitat by rain-fed agriculture and the expansion of pastoralism thanks to a multitude of new wells. It is incredible that an animal of this size can disappear under the noses of the conservation movement. Even more alarming is that a whole suite of animals sharing the same Sahelo-Saharan ecosystem - the addax, dama and slender-horned gazelles, the Saharan ostrich and cheetah - are also poised on the brink of extinction.
Although the oryx was hunted out in North Africa many years ago, they could still be found in good numbers in the sub-Saharan nations of Chad and Niger as late as the 1970s. Herds of 50 were not unusual and when concentrated on areas of good grazing, assemblies of several hundred could be seen. Like most of the other inhabitants of the desert, the oryx is able to satisfy its water requirements through the food it eats. When rain does fall, however, the oryx will drink and often migrates many kilometers in search of new rainfall. Young are born every 8-9 months and in good years a female may give birth twice. During periods of severe drought, however, adults succumb and young calves are abandoned. It's very much a ‘boom or bust' ecosystem!
Luckily, and unlike the passenger pigeon, there are a number of well managed herds of scimitar-horned oryx kept in zoos and private collections. These form the basis of a number of reintroduction projects that hope to see this magnificent creature back in its rightful place.
In 1980, the Zoological Society of London, the Direction Générale des
Forêts in Tunisia and La Fondation Internationale pour la Sauvengarde
du Gibier in Paris began discussions on the possibility of
reintroducing a group of scimitar-horned oryx from the UK to Bou-Hedma
National Park (NP) in Tunisia. Bou-Hedma was designated as a National
Park in the 1920s, and covers an area of 120km² at the northern edge of
the scimitar-horned oryx’s natural range (Gordon, 1991).
In 1977, 2400 ha of the NP were designated a Total Protection Zone (TPZ I), and agreements were made between the Direction Général des Forêts and the local people that they and their livestock would not enter the TPZ in return for 20 year leases to the rest of the Park. Subsequently a habitat rehabilitation programme was initiated, and the vegetation in the TPZ regenerated remarkably well (Smith et al., 1997).
Given the notable improvement in the Park’s vegetation, plans were implemented to reintroduce the large indigenous animals, including the scimitar-horned oryx, which originally inhabited the area (Gordon, 1991).
In December 1985, five male and five female scimitar-horned oryx, all between five and seven months old, were sent from Marwell and Edinburgh Zoos in the UK to Bou-Hedma (Wacher, 1986b). A ‘soft-release' approach was adopted, and the ten animals were initially held in small reception paddocks in the middle of the NP. Four and a half months after arriving at Bou-Hedma NP, the oryx were released into a ten hectare enclosure. Supplementary hay continued to be fed, but the oryx also had access to the plants which were common in the TPZ. The oryx spent the next 16 months in this ten hectare enclosure, until the perimeter fence on the 2400ha TPZ was erected.
In July 1987 the oryx were released from the ten hectare enclosure into the TPZ. By this time they had established a stable social structure with a clear dominant male. In the days following the release, the oryx returned to the feeding pens for their usual supplementary concentrates.
The work at Bou-Hedma NP has progressed since the first release in 1985. Two more Total Protection Zones have been designated (TPZ II & III) (Smith et al., 1997), and in 1999, one male adult oryx was added to the population at Bou-Hedma NP. This animal was shipped out to Tunisia from Europe with oryx for the Sidi Toui reintroduction project. This was the first non-birth addition since the original release in 1985, and had the aim of increasing genetic diversity of the population at Bou-Hedma NP (S. Wakefield, per comm.). By 2005 the population in the National Park had increased to approximately 130 individuals (Lazah, 2005, pers .comm.).
In February 2007 eight oryx were transported from Bou-Hedma NP to Dghoumes NP close to Tozeur. This translocation was designed to establish a new herd of oryx in Dghoumes NP where they will be joined in late 2007 by additional oryx from the European and North American captive breeding programmes.
WAZA Conservation Project 05039 is implemented by the Saharan Conservation Fund and supported by the Marwell Preservation Trust, Hannover Zoo, Saint Louis Zoo, The Living Desert, Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, Zoological Society of London, Zoological Society of San Diego and Dvur Kralove Zoo (Czech Republic), and in cooperation with the Direction Générale des Forêts, Ministère de l'Agriculture et des Ressources Hydrauliques, Convention on Migratory Species-CMS , Fond Français Environmental Mondial-FFEM, and WAZA.
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© Olivier Bron