GENEVA – The Arabian Oryx, whose distinctive horns are widely believed to have given rise to the unicorn legend, is back from the brink of extinction in the deserts of the Arabian peninsula.
About 1,000 of the wild Arabian or White Oryx now exist owing to nearly three decades of successful breeding, the International Union for Conservation of Nature said Thursday.
The global environmental network said efforts to breed captive oryx and release them back into the Arabian Peninsula, the only place this species is found, began in Oman in 1982, a decade after the last one was apparently shot in the wild.
It said the breeding program demonstrated that captive oryx could adapt to harsh wild conditions, first in Oman and later in the deserts of Saudia Arabia, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and, most recently, in Jordan.
"To have brought the Arabian Oryx back from the brink of extinction is a major feat and a true conservation success story, one which we hope will be repeated many times over for other threatened species," said Razan Khalifa Al Mubarak, director general of the UAE government's Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi.
The Arabian Oryx — a large species of antelope with two long horns — is known locally as Al Maha, and figures heavily in Arabic poetry and paintings.
The creature can smell water from miles away, has wide hooves that let it easily navigate shifting sand and lives in small herds of eight to 10 animals.
When its long, narrow horns that curve slightly at the tip are viewed in profile, they can appear as one, like the fabled unicorn. But another antelope species, the Saola of Southeast Asia, is also seen as a possible source of the unicorn legend.
The improvement by the Arabian Oryx is reflected on the Gland-based conservation union's "Red List" of thousands of endangered plants and animals. The group operates in more than 160 countries, and has assessed the condition of 59,508 species.
This year it was reclassified as "vulnerable," the best improvement to date for a species once thought to be extinct in the wild.