AL QOA, United Arab Emirates — Growing up in the Middle East, Myyas Ahmed al-Quarqaz only knew the Arabian oryx from postage stamps.
The antelope made famous in Arabian poetry and by its associations with the unicorn legend had been hunted to near-extinction. But over the past three decades, it has staged a remarkable comeback through a program that got its start in the Arizona desert and has flourished under the united efforts of several Arabian Gulf countries.
Today the Arabian oryx can once again be seen in settings reminiscent of the Bible, grazing and cavorting in the deserts of the Middle East, showing off the thin, graceful horns that underlie the unicorn legend because from a certain angle they look like a single horn, or because they are fragile and sometimes one of them can break off.
Al-Quarqaz, a Jordanian, is a conservationist who has worked with the Abu Dhabi Environment Agency to reintroduce oryx into a remote region of sand dunes, gravel flats and dry lake beds along the border with Saudi Arabia and Oman. The first 100 came in 2007 and the numbers have risen to 155 with the goal of reaching 500. A much smaller reserve exists outside neighboring Dubai.
"The Arabian oryx is one of the most iconic species in this region. Wherever you go, people know the species and they love it," said al-Quarqaz, as he approached a feeding station in the Arabian Oryx Protected Area of Abu Dhabi.
The oryx program has already inspired efforts to revive populations of black-footed ferret and California condor in the U.S., golden lion tamerins in Brazil, scimitar-horned oryx in North Africa and Pere David deer in China.
"This was the first operation to restore a large mammal back to the wild and it has become a classic conservation success story," said David Mallon of the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
His environmental umbrella group says about 1,000 Arabian oryx now live in the wild and up to 7,000 in captivity – enough for the organization to change the animal's status from critically endangered to vulnerable.
Over the centuries the oryx was integral to Middle East life. It could lead Bedouin nomads to watering holes, its facial skin upholstered rifle butts, its blood was used to treat snake bites and it yielded a soup that eased joint pains.
But hunting intensified, and by 1962 their number was down to 200, prompting the establishment of a "world herd" that included three caught in Yemen, four from private Saudi collections, one from the Kuwaiti ruling family and one from the London Zoo.
The following year they were flown to the Phoenix Zoo, chosen because Arizona's terrain resembled the oryx's natural habitat, according to Frank Turkowski, an American zoologist on the program. Over time, the population in Phoenix grew and 10 oryx were the first to be reintroduced into the wild at a sanctuary in Oman 1980. Saudi Arabia followed with its own reintroduction program in 1990. Today they are found, wild or semi-wild, in Bahrain, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria and the United Arab Emirates.
"It is rewarding to see many citizens of the world unite in such a manner to save and protect wildlife and nature for our and future generations," Turkowski, who teaches at Central Texas College, said by email.
But the Arabian Oryx Sanctuary in Oman and the Mahazat as-Sayd reserve in Saudi Arabia became notorious in conservation circles for what can go wrong in a reintroduction program.
The numbers in Oman reached 400 by 1996 but have fallen to a current level of 60 after poachers moved in. Saudi Arabia tried to combat poaching and the invasion of livestock by fencing one of its populations. But it failed to provide food and water and scores of animals died when droughts took hold in 1999. Food and water have since been introduced and the numbers have doubled from a low of around 400.
The UAE's reserve of towering sand dunes in Umm al Zumoul, which opened in 2007, learned from these experiences. Two dozen rangers patrol the reserve and the animals are equipped with GPS collars for satellite tracking. Authorities will provide an intricate system of 31 feeding stations and manmade watering holes until the oryx have adapted to the native vegetation. There also are projects to develop drought- and salinity-resistant plants for the oryx and a massive tree planting program.
Critics contend such heavy human involvement, and the absence of natural predators like wolves and jackals, raise doubts about whether these animals are truly wild.
"The laws of natural selection are being disturbed," said Paul Vercammen of the Breeding Center For Endangered Arabian Wildlife in the emirate of Sharjah which has bred more than 100 species including the Arabian leopard, oryx and wolf.
"In the wild, they die if it's too dry and the stupid ones get taken by wolves," he said. "Only the very strong survive. You do not allow for that selection in managed oryx reserves."
Al-Quarqaz said a stud book for the whole of the Arabian Peninsula is being developed and will ensure mixing of the region's multiple oryx blood lines. Currently, the UAE has the largest Arabian oryx population in the world, with several hundred in a Dubai reserve and some 3,000 held in private collections and zoos across the country.
In the Abu Dhabi reserve, across a landscape of dunes, flats and clumps of green shrubbery, many of the inhabitants – Arabian horned viper, desert monitor lizard, Arabian red fox – are sheltering from the 120 degree (50 Celsius) heat. Then a lone oryx emerges in the distance.
It is resting beneath one of the man-made shelters, curved horns and chocolate-colored legs standing out against the dunes. Startled by human intrusion, it starts running, stopping briefly to glance back before climbing up a dune. Several more oryxes appear at the next feeding station.
"It's too early to call this a complete success," al-Quarqaz says of the oryx program. "But from all indications, it is going in the right direction."
Follow Michael Casey on Twitter at http://twitter.com/mcasey1