Loads of people celebrated the turn of the millennium. The scimitar-horned oryx probably didn’t.
That’s because after years of habitat loss, extensive hunting and human conflict, it was officially declared Extinct in the Wild that year. It used to roam arid areas in north Africa and as far south as Nigeria, and is incredibly distinctive, not only due to its rusty neck, but because unlike any other oryx’s, its extremely long horns curve backwards.
Good thing too, because it was one of the only ways we could identify it in ancient rock art!
The Fezzan area of the Libyan Sahara is a harsh and unforgiving mistress, and in Wadi al-Ajal between 2004 and 2009, some brave researchers scoured a good 150km-(93-mile) stretch of rock for evidence of ancient societies.
It was time well spent though, because there are literally thousands of etchings of humans and animals from between 6,300 and 1,000 BC during Africa’s Pastoral and Humid Periods, including the scimitar-horned oryx. But it wasn’t only featured in 6,000 year-old Libyan artwork.
Probably the only way you can spot it in this etching from Wadi el-Obeiyd in Egypt is the faint outline of its horns arching backwards from the right-hand side. What’s more, the ancient Egyptian pastime of the “desert chase” sometimes ended in captures rather than kills, and according to Patrick F. Houlihan:
These became the semi-domesticated beasts we view in tomb chapel scenes housed in paddocks in the vast estates of the aristocracy: striped hyena, Nubian ibex, scimitar-horned oryx, […] They are often collared and tethered to the ground, and sometimes are being force-fed or allowed to eat from well-stocked mangers.
Elsewhere, the sight of an oryx with only one horn – as unlike antlers they don’t grow back – may have given rise to the legend of the unicorn, although it would probably have to fight the okapi and narwhal for that title. But despite the long, sharp and ridged horns, the scimitar-horned oryx isn’t too much of an upstart.
All for show…?
Unless food, water and lady friends are at a premium, fights between males usually appear, for lack of a better word, choreographed, with care taken not to gore one another. The herd is usually led by an alpha male, and if “Napoleon”’s story rings true, it’s more about the dominance than the fighting.
An elderly bull in an Israeli wildlife preserve, Napoleon had lost his herd and his clout, and spent his days picking fights with other alpha bulls or chasing females. Both resulted in injury from the other males, to the point that the preserve staff captured him and placed him in a separate paddock with other grazers. Despite various security measures, Napoleon escaped no fewer than 8 times, on each occasion resuming the tussles with his rivals and injuring himself.
Eventually, the staff established that he wasn’t actually out to fight, or to grab as many girlfriends as possible: he just wanted to feel dominant again. Their response? Not something the preserve director expected to see in his job description.
Every morning, he would enter Napoleon’s paddock “armed” with a stick, and, careful to avoid injury to himself and the oryx, make Napoleon believe he had “won” the fight and had successfully driven him out. From that point on, since he was the “dominant bull” in the paddock, Napoleon no longer tried to escape, and stayed there peacefully until he died from old age the year after. That’s not the only “ritual” in the life of a scimitar-horned oryx.
Circle of consent
During breeding season, courtship can seem as choreographed as some of the males’ fights. An interested male and female will stand parallel to one another but facing opposite directions, and begin to circle around each other. If the female’s game, she’ll let the male mount her from behind, but if not, she has the option of running away or in a circle in the opposite direction. If all goes well, she’ll pop out a single calf in private about 8 months later before rejoining the herd.
Said herd can be from 2-40 oryx, and unlike other species, it’s odd to see single males tottering about unless they’re in Napoleon’s age range. They tend to move in a strict formation, and the dominant male will hassle any stragglers too. It seems pretty tough regardless, though.
It can take the heat. Well, the desert kind anyway
While it spurns pure desert, the scimitar-horned oryx has a blazing white coat that is thought to reflect sunlight and heat, and its tongue tip is also black to avoid sunburn. It can survive on less water by raising its body temperature – so it doesn’t need to lose heat by evaporation – and having extremely concentrated er, leavings. It also has specialised blood vessels that run via its snout, giving its blood a 5°C (41°F) cooldown before reaching its brain. Essentially, it can tolerate temperatures and dryness that could easily kill other species.
If you think that’s pretty nifty for an animal, you’d be right, and at its peak, the worldwide scimitar-horned oryx population was about 1 million. But, due to the issues I mentioned earlier, by 1986 it was declared Endangered. Ten years after that, it was Critical, and you know what happened less than ten years after that.
The scimitar-horned oryx’s long, backward curved horns are great for scratching an itch, but you’ll be glad to know we didn’t just stand around scratching ourselves while this was happening.
In 2016, the first wild-born scimitar-horned oryx in twenty years took its first shaky steps in Chad. As of 2017, there are two re-introduced wild herds there, and there are plans afoot to repeat this in parts of Tunisia as well. Multiple zoos have captive breeding programmes for the scimitar-horned oryx, and the ones released so far seemed to be thriving.
The first group released in Chad during the wet season, for example, turned their noses up at the human-provided food and tottered off to source their own grasses, herbs and roots!
Maybe one day soon they’ll return to the huge numbers once seen roaming the semi-desert, and remind us again why their image was worthy of ancient rock carvings. Well, even more so, anyway.
Latin: Oryx dammah
What? White and rusty oryx antelope with long, backward curving horns.
Where? Formerly north Africa as far south as Nigeria, but there are only re-introduced wild herds in areas of Chad.
How big? About 1.7 metres / 5.5 feet long, and 1.2 metres / 3.8 feet at the shoulder. Its horns can reach as far back as 1 metre / 40 inches.
Endangered? Due to hunting pressures and human conflict it was declared Extinct in the Wild in 2000, and technically still is, despite the two herds re-introduced into Chad. The first wildborn oryx for 20 years was born in 2016.
Probable motto: Can I have my home back? If it’s not too much trouble?
They look beautiful. Do they need my help at all?
Although its outlook seems bleak at first, the scimitar-horned oryx has a bit of luck and human attention on its side. There are multiple captive herds around the world – both in zoos and game preserves – and the hope is it will thrive when re-released. However, potential poaching, loss of habitat and climate change are also looming on the horizon. The following organisations are actively involved in its breeding, monitoring, and habitat research:
Just to prove I’m not fibbing:
Beyouli, Houssem chedli Traouit, and Neffati, Mohamed. 2016. “Vegetative habitat selection of Scimitar horned oryx (Oryx dammah) in Bouhedma National Park, Southern Tunisia“, Journal of King Saud University – Science 28(3):261-267.
Collins, Billie Jean. 2002. “A history of the animal world in the ancient Near East“. Brill.
Gaworecki, Mike. 2017. “Scimitar-horned oryx return to the Sahara nearly two decades after going extinct in the wild“. Mongabay.com.
Ghai, Rajat. 2018. “Wild bet“. Down To Earth.
Guagnin, Maria. 2014. “Animal engravings in the central Sahara: A proxy of a proxy“, Environmental Archaeology 20(1):52-65.
Hetem, Robyn S. et al. 2014. “Responses of large mammals to climate change“, Temperature 1(2):115-127.
IUCN SSC Antelope Specialist Group. 2016. “Oryx dammah. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species” 2016: e.T15568A50191470.
Johnson, Hugh. No date. “Oryx dammah“. Animal Diversity Web.
Masson, Jeffrey, and McCarthy, Susan. 1996. “When elephants weep: the emotional lives of animals“. Vintage.
1999. “Differences in the thermal conductance of tropical and temperate bovid horns“, Écoscience 6(2):148-158
“Scimitar-horned oryx“. No date. Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute.
“Scimitar-horned oryx (Oryx dammah)“. No date. Marwell Zoo.
Featured image credit: Photo by hharryus.