Last Monday morning, a team at the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo dropped in on a compound housing Arabian oryx (Oryx leucoryx - known in Hebrew as Reem halavan, the white oryx). They quickly chose two 2-year-old female oryx, and tranquilized them with a dart gun. The staff tagged them with transmitters and fitted plastic pipes over the animals' long horns to protect the workers. After receiving inoculations, the oryx were put into special crates, and started heading toward freedom.
They were brought to a special adjustment compound near Nahal Katzav in the Arava, where they are supposed to join seven other oryx. The animals will hopefully learn to live in the wild, and to find food on their own. If all goes well, the group will be released into nature two months from now.
Before the Arabian oryx became extinct in the Middle East a century ago, hundred-animal strong herds would roam what is now Israel, Jordan and the Arabian Peninsula. The Arabian oryx were once called "unicorns" because their long, sharp horns merge together in profile. The last wild herd was sighted at the beginning of the 20th century in Oman. The oryx live in extreme desert conditions, and can handle long droughts.
Since 1997, the Israel Nature and National Parks Protection Authority and the Yotvata wildlife preserve have been working to reintroduce white oryx into the wild. However, even though more than 100 oryx have been released so far, they are not managing to reproduce at a sufficient rate.
Yotvata ecologist Liat Hanson said earlier this week that researchers are investigating whether the oryx have enough food in the wild.
Last week, it was decided to strengthen the wild herd with Jerusalemite oryx from the core group being raised at the Biblical Zoo.
"For eight or nine years, we have been raising a group of Arabian oryx, which became extinct in the wild in the 1960s a nd in the land of Israel at the beginning of the last century," said Shmulik Yadov, director of the zoological collection. "In the early years, we had three females and a male. But once we exchanged that male for one from the nature reserve, the group expanded. Six oryx have been born in recent years," said Yadov.
Not all the released oryx have survived. "One of the main problems facing the oryx is military activity in the area. Some of the oryx were killed by illumination flares fired in training areas. The males fought the parachutes attached to the flares, which got tangled in their horns and eyes, essentially blinding them. In other cases they died after choking on plastic bags or after being shot accidentally."
Other countries in the region are also trying to reintroduce the Arabian oryx. One of the main reasons for their extinction was uncontrolled hunting. Oman, Jordan and Tunisia have announced that they have set laws limiting hunting and started breeding oryx to reintroduce them to the wild.