Richard Hoath Richard Hoath

Nature Notes: Unicorn Dreams

Fri, May. 5, 2017
CAIRO - 5 May 2017: April found me in Qatar. It was an odd choice of country for a naturalist but with a relatively small land area−about 11,500 square kilometers–I felt I could get at least a feel for the country in the few days I had available. My hopes were not high. I hit the books. My Important Bird Areas of the Middle East published by BirdLife International did not make cheerful reading. “Almost all the land is more or less modified or degraded by human activity,” “terrestrial wildlife species diversity is low and there are few, if any endemics” and “most of Qatar, with its flat desert and scant vegetation, supports only a sparse and restricted avifauna.”

At least having been I could boast that I had visited every country in the world that begins with Q but it was not going to be a wildlife extravaganza.

I went with low expectations. I came back having seen unicorns!

The unicorn is a mythical beast whose origins go back thousands of years to the Indus Valley through the writers of Ancient Greece to Medieval European folklore and through to the modern day, not least in heraldry. Popularly depicted as a white horse with a single straight horn emerging from the forehead, the real origin of the legend is unclear.

Some authors refer to the rhino and two of the three modern Asiatic species; the Javan and the Great Indian Rhinoceros do indeed have just the one horn. Others point to an extinct wild ox from Eurasia, the Aurochs, or of a wild goat.

Then there is the Narwhal, still sometimes referred to as “The Unicorn of the Sea.” The male of this small arctic whale species does indeed have a single straight tusk, up to 2.7 meters long that emerges from the snout. Another possible source is the Eland, a spectacularly large antelope from sub-Saharan Africa with straight horns that are twisted just as popularly depicted in the unicorn. And then there is the Arabian Oryx, a small desert antelope once found throughout the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula and historically extending into Sinai, possibly until as late as 1800.

The Arabian Oryx is a member of a small group of dry country antelopes known as the Horse-like Antelopes of the Tribe Hippotragini. They include some of the largest and most spectacular of the antelopes like the Roan and the Sable, the male of the latter being glossy black with immense backswept curved horns. They have not fared well at the hands of humans. Of the seven modern species, the Bluebuck was hunted to extinction in southern Africa by 1800. The Scimitar-horned Oryx of North Africa is now officially Extinct in the Wild though efforts are being made to re-introduce it in a number of states from captive-bred individuals. The Addax, a unique desert antelope also from the Sahara, is down to perhaps 500 animals left in the wild.

The Roan, Sable and Gemsbok are doing better but their existence outside reserves and protected areas is hardly assured and the Giant Sable subspecies from Angola is on the verge of extinction. And then there is the Arabian Oryx. The Arabian Oryx stands only a meter or less at the shoulder and weighs in at 65-75 kilograms.

It is almost entirely white with brown legs and a brown blaze on the snout and in the male a brown patch from the throat up the cheeks to the eye. In the female these markings are less clear. Both sexes carry horns, those of the female being longer but thinner than those of the male and it is the horns and the gleaming white coloration that explains the unicorn connection. Sadly they very nearly became just as mythical as the unicorn itself. While it had probably always been hunted by desert tribesmen, the advent of modern weaponry and four-wheel drives meant that the vast desert tracts that were their home no longer provided protection. It is likely that the last truly wild Arabian Oryx were killed by hunters in 1972.

Fortunately by then a number of captive herds had been established in Arabia and also at Phoenix Zoo, Arizona in the United States. Phoenix−what a wonderfully apt name for an institution that has overseen the rebirth of an entire species. By 1982 a herd was re-introduced into a reserve on the Jiddat al-Harasis Plain in central Oman under very careful management. Since then there have been other releases in Jordan, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. I visited Oman in 2015 but with limited time could not get the required permissions to visit the reserve.

Fast forward to Qatar and to last month and my Lonely Planet guide. Page 290 “ . . . a protected herd of Arabian Oryx can be seen with prior permission from the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Agriculture though it is usually easier to go with a tour guide who will arrange the formalities for you.” Bingo!

To cut a long story short April 12 found me bouncing around the Qatari desert in a Toyota Landcruiser and in the very capable hands of my guide, a Sri Lankan called Ajith Wijenayaka. We were in the El Reem Reserve, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and site of an introduced herd of Arabian Oryx. Wijenayaka had been very careful not to get my hopes up too high. Like many desert species the Arabian Oryx ranges widely depending on pasture availability and are found in very low densities.

They could be virtually anywhere in the park. However, as part of the introduction project and in order to facilitate the care and health of the animals, they did sometimes return to an area of shade built for them at the center of the reserve where water is also available.
The Arabian Oryx can get by without drinking for long periods, getting sufficient moisture from their diet but will drink if water is available. This would be my best chance of finding them.

We passed through areas of suitable habitat and surprisingly rich pasture with healthy stands of acacia. But no oryx–and no gazelles, the Slenderhorned Gazelle had also been introduced into the park. I knew what to look for as I was familiar with the Arabian Oryx from Whipsnade Zoo near London. My eyes strained for a glimmer of bright, white coat in the heat haze but to no avail. Perfect habitat, but no antelopes. It would seem that the shaded area might be my only realistic chance of catching up with them. We changed tracks, rounded a bluff and there was the shaded area, a simple covered framework and beneath the shade, gathered like a welcoming committee, was my herd of Arabian Oryx. I had found my unicorn!

There was a tinge of disappointment at finding them beneath their man-made shade but it was just a tinge and momentary. Any hope of me ever seeing truly wild Arabian Oryx in the vastness of the Arabian Desert disappeared in 1972 when those last wild animals were finished off by the hunters. This is as wild as Arabian Oryx get now and I was not going to let the niceties of scientific minutiae spoil the moment. I grabbed my binoculars, camera and journal and watched and photographed, sketched and noted. I recorded the tracks and the poo, taking reference photos and measurements.

So I apologize to Qatar for thinking so disparagingly of it in terms of natural history. And I did catch up with other creatures, not least some great birds at Semeisma and Al Thakira mangroves north of Doha. But to catch up with the Arabian Oryx in its natural habitat was special. My unicorn–I would not have mythed it for the world.

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