Queen of Sheba’s Gazelle

This is the second animal beginning with “Q” we’ve unknowingly annihilated. But if we couldn’t tell brown and white zebras from black and white, what hope did we have of telling one gazelle from another?

Five specimens of the Yemen, or Queen of Sheba’s gazelle were “obtained” in 1951, but it wasn’t recognised as such until 1985, when Groves and Lay pored over the small collection of skulls and skins. That’s right, we don’t even have complete remains for any of them, and photographic evidence is scant to the point of non-existent, despite what Google image search might tell you.

Updated 10th December 2018: I managed to track down a legitimate photo of this species, taken by Chris Furley and included with his kind permission.

This is a shame for all sorts of reasons, not least because it sounds like a beautiful amalgamation of the other species tottering about at the time, like the mountain gazelle. Appropriate, since “Bilqis”, or the Queen of Sheba, was famed for her beauty, as well as having hairy or goat-like legs in both Islamic and Ethiopian tradition.

Gazella bilkis’ legs, on the other hand, were shorter than the mountain gazelle’s, and both males and females had pronounced horns that pointed straight. It was the darkest species of gazelle, with a straighter and more prominent black stripe across its flank, and like the red-fronted gazelle, the black softened into a reddish understripe above white, a bit like the contrast between Saturn and its rings. I realise I’m building up the disappointment for my drawing here.

Well, I did warn you.

When Sanborn and Hoogstraal first took specimens, then labelled Gazella gazella arabica – a subspecies of the Arabian gazelle – it was quite common in the Ta’izz area, as a loner or in small groups of 2-3, but they noticed it avoided roads and cultivated areas, maybe due to being vigorously hunted for food by soldiers or the Royal Guards. Since Yemen was to see civil war more than once after this point, its future wasn’t quite as bright as its snow-white underbelly. (In fact there is a civil war raging in Yemen right now, described by the UN as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. The New York Times published an article listing helpful and reputable aid agencies here if you want to help.)

We’re not entirely sure when the Queen of Sheba’s gazelle died out, but it had already vanished by the end of the 70s and early 80s, with no sightings reported by 6 different ornithology expeditions in Yemen. And no, it wasn’t because they were only looking at the birds.

The Ornithological Society of the Middle East even put out a call for details in the 1990s, since there’d been no update on the species for 40-odd years. In 1992, a small survey of 100 locals in the area between Ta’izz and Al Thurbah, 50 km (30 miles) south, found it had been decades since the Queen of Sheba’s gazelle had last been seen.

What’s more, the few thought to exist in Qatar Sheik Al-Thani’s collection died without any offspring. The only other possibility was that some gazelles in Chester and Marwell Zoo in the UK were hybrids, but again, no further leads have emerged, so it’s pretty definite that the Queen of Sheba’s gazelle has gone to the deer palace in the sky. But it’s at least proved you can be beautiful, even with goat legs.

TLDR

Latin: Gazella bilkis (formerly Gazella gazella arabica)

What? Medium-sized, dark-coloured gazelle

Where? Yemen, especially surrounding Ta’izz

How big? Unknown, because it was only studied from skins and skulls. Probably the same size, if not slightly larger, than the mountain gazelle (Gazella gazella), which is 1-1.2 m / 3.2-3.9 ft long (male) /  0.98-1 m / 3.2-3.6 ft long (female).

Probable motto: I apparently tasted as good as I looked.

Just to prove I’m not fibbing

Gazella bilkis“. No date. IUCN Red List of Endangered Species.

Gazelles in Yemen and southern Saudia Arabia“. 1991. Ornithological Society of the Middle East. Bulletin 27, Autumn 1991.

Greth, Arnaud et al. 1993. “Bilkis gazelle in Yemen – status and taxonomic relationships“. Oryx 27(4):239-244.

Groves, Colin P., and Lay, Douglas M. 1985. “A new species of the genus Gazella (Mammalia: Ariodactyla: Bovidae) from the Arabian Peninsula“. Mammalia 49(1):27-36.

Mallon, D.P. and Kingswood, S.C. 2001. “Antelopes. Part 4: Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Global Survey and Regional Action Plans“. SSC Antelope Specialist Group. IUCN.

Mountain gazelle (Gazella gazella)“. No date. Arkive.org.

Sanborn, Colin Campbell, and Hoogstraal, Harry. 1953. “Some mammals of Yemen and their ectoparasites“. Fieldiana: Zoology 34(23):229-252.

Wood, Michael. 2011. “The Queen of Sheba“. BBC History.

Yemen Profile – Timeline“. 2018. BBC News.

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