The Arabian oryx is one of the best desert-adapted large mammals, capable of living in a waterless, hot, high-wind habitat where few other species can survive. They are native to desert, wadis and Steppe areas of the Arabian Peninsula where they are known as maha, wudhaihi, baqar al-wahsh, and boosolah in Arabic. Their name has quite the history of its origination with changes multiple times between them and another similar species until it was finally settled on in the 1900’s.
Prussian zoologist Peter Simon Pallas introduced “oryx” into scientific literature in 1767, applying the name to the common eland as Antilope oryx. In 1777, he transferred the name to the Cape gemsbok another large antelope species. At the same time, he also described what is now called the Arabian oryx as Oryx leucoryx, giving its range as “Arabia, and perhaps Libya”.
In 1826, Martin Lichtenstein confused matters by transferring the name Oryx leucoryx to the scimitar oryx (now Oryx dammah) which was found in the Sudan by the German naturalists Wilhelm Friedrich Hemprich and Christian Gottfried Ehrenberg. The Arabian oryx was then nameless until the first living specimens in Europe were donated to the Zoological Society of London in 1857. Not realizing this might be the Oryx leucoryx of previous authors, Dr. John Edward Gray proposed calling it Oryx beatrix after HRH the Princess Beatrice of the United Kingdom. Though this name was to persist for many years, Oldfield Thomas renamed the scimitar oryx as Oryx algazal in 1903 (it has since been renamed Oryx dammah), and gave the Arabian oryx back its original name. The confusion between the two species has been exacerbated because both have been called the white oryx in English.
The Arabian Oryx or White Oryx “Oryx Leucoryx” which means white oryx are characterized by having 2-3-foot-long straight horns with rings (females’ horns are usually thinner and longer than the males), a distinct shoulder bump and a tufted tail. They are a member of the Bovidae family. They are also the smallest species of Oryx in the world. They are predominantly white with brown to black legs and a black face. Males weigh on average 250lbs (113kg) and females reach 200lbs (90kg), on average they stand 1 meter (39 inches) high at the shoulder. They have broad hooves for walking on soft sand and gravel like substrates found throughout their habitat.
The herds that form are usually a dominant male with his harem of females but some large herds have been seen of 1000+ and coexisting peacefully with multiple males but more standard is the single male led herds. Single males tend to be complete solitary until they can lead their own herd. Gestation is around 8 months with a single calf being born at any time during the year. Calves lie hidden for about a month, with just short periods of activity. They are weaned by 4.5 months of age. The main non-human predators of Arabian oryx are thought to be Arabian Wolves and jackals, which prey on calves.
They will drink water when they find it, but can exist for weeks without it. Water is obtained by eating plants. Arabian oryx mainly eat grasses and herbs, but they will also eat roots, tubers, bulbs, and melons. Succulent bulbs and melons are the primary items for moisture. Arabian oryx eat mainly at night when the plants are most succulent after absorbing nighttime humidity. They also obtain moisture from the condensation left on rocks and vegetation after heavy fog. Arabian oryx have a number of strategies to help them cope with desert conditions, including being able to let their body temperature drastically increase and have a specialized circulatory system in their heads that cool their blood, as well as concentrating their urine and removing moisture from their feces. When the weather is hottest, oryx will spend most of the day sheltering in shade where they will dig shallow ditches with their front hooves to lay in cooler dirt and shelter them from strong desert winds and then forage for food at night. In cooler weather, they bask in the sun and feed during the day to keep warm. Its predominantly white coat reflects the sun’s heat in summer, and in winter the hairs on its back rise to attract and catch the sun’s warmth and trap it in their undercoat. During winter months their legs will also darken to help absorb the suns warmth. Their white coat also doesn’t reflect or produce a glare at all so this helps them blend in and be hard to see from far away therefore confusing predators in the desert heat.
Arabian Oryx are able to smell rain in the distance and will direct the herd that direction to find new greenery that would sprout from the rains. This means they can roam for 1000’s of miles and have huge ranges. Once rain is sensed, usually they are led by a dominant female in a single file line heading towards the greener pastures (Which could be as far as 50+ miles away) with the dominant male leading up the back which is assumed to be for protection. These Oryx are known for their stamina and being able to walk/run long distances if needed to escape predators or reach new areas.
The Arabian Oryx is a huge success story in the zoological world and shows exactly why zoos are so important in saving species. The Phoenix Zoo and the Fauna and Flora Preservation Society of London (now Fauna and Flora International), with financial help from the World Wildlife Fund, are credited with saving the Arabian oryx from extinction. In 1962, these groups started the first captive-breeding herd in any zoo, at the Phoenix Zoo, sometimes referred to as “Operation Oryx“. Starting with nine animals, the Phoenix Zoo has had over 240 successful births. From Phoenix, Arabian oryxes were sent to other zoos and parks to start new herds. In 1968, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan of the UAE, out of concern for the land’s wildlife, particularly ungulates such as the Arabian oryx, founded the Al Ain Zoo to conserve them.
They were first reintroduced in Oman with 10 animals in 1982, followed by reintroductions in Saudi Arabia, Israel, United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Jordan. In 1986, they were upgraded to “Endangered.” In 2011, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) reclassified the Arabian oryx to “Vulnerable” from Endangered, marking the first time an animal species that was once Extinct in The Wild improved in status by three-full categories out of six on its Red List of Threatened Species. However, this species remains under threat from illegal hunting, overgrazing, and droughts. While there are approximately 1,220 wild oryx across the Arabian Peninsula, the population is considered stable, with their IUCN status designated as “Vulnerable” as of 2020. In fact, it is close to being upgraded to “Near Threatened.” There are around 6,000 or so of these oryx in semi-captivity. Arabian oryx in protected areas are generally safe, but those that wander out of the protected areas are in danger of being poached. Most wild Arabian oryx are located in Saudi Arabia and the UAE.