Support Provided ByLearn More

Still Wild, but Without a Wilderness

What we do with the extinct-in-the-wild scimitar-horned oryx could define conservation in the 21st century.

ByJori LewisNOVA NextNOVA Next

Near the village of Katané, Senegal, at least an hour’s drive from the nearest thing that might be called a road, is a gate which interrupts a long fence that surrounds almost 3,000 acres of parched, dusty land. I’ve traveled more than 10 hours from the capital city Dakar to get here. Along the way, the road transformed from a highway to a pothole-strewn two-lane road to a dusty lane to, eventually, a track in the sand. They call this region the Ferlo, which is a benign sounding name for such a harsh landscape. Swathes of the Ferlo are swept with sand dunes. Where I am, the situation is marginally better. Scrubby brush and dry grasses poke through the hard earth, providing just enough forage for a scattering of livestock. It’s an unlikely place for a comeback story.

Receive emails about upcoming NOVA programs and related content, as well as featured reporting about current events through a science lens.

The scimitar-horned oryx once roamed all over the Sahara Desert and the semi-arid Sahel just to the south. It is a beautiful animal with bright white fur and, despite the fact that it is built more like a cow than a deer and can weigh up to about 450 pounds, it’s surprisingly fleet of foot and graceful. The centerpieces of the scimitar-horned oryx’s beauty are, of course, the horns for which the animal is named. Its long, ridged horns rise up from the top of the oryx’s head and curve backwards like a blade.

Support Provided ByLearn More
A scimitar-horned oryx

Researchers suggest that there were once more than a million oryx spread across the grasslands of this part of Africa, from the Atlantic to the Nile. Ecologist Abdelkader Jebali, who has studied the oryx, said that the books and diaries written by European explorers in the 19 th century often spoke about the grand, long-distance, seasonal migrations of the scimitar-horned oryx, as well as other antelopes and gazelles. “It resembled what we might think of as a little Serengeti in West Africa. There were large herds with thousands of animals in Chad, in Niger, in Mali,” he says.

Over time, though, country-by-country, they started to disappear—casualties of overhunting, development and competition from livestock. Local extinctions happened progressively—1850 in Egypt, 1900 in Senegal, 1950 in Burkina Faso, and in Chad in the 1980s or 1990s after a period of civil unrest led to uncontrolled hunting. Soon, no wild animals were left anywhere in Africa. In 2000, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) declared the scimitar-horned oryx extinct in the wild.

But by chance or foresight, thousands of scimitar-horned oryx lived on in zoos and private game parks around the world. Almost a full century after the oryx disappeared from Senegal, conservationists decided to bring it back. (There are also reintroduction programs in Morocco and Tunisia.) In 1999, eight oryx—three males and five females—arrived at a small park in Senegal, from Israel’s Hai-Bar Reserve. And in 2003, a small group of animals was transferred to the North Ferlo Wildlife Reserve, a chunk of almost desert where temperatures regularly soar past 100˚ F.

Here, inside the gate, a kind of experiment is taking place. Here, scimitar-horned oryx roam the grasslands again.

Inside the Park

As we motor in through the gate, the oryx run off at the sight of the park service truck. Captain Cheikh Ahmed Tidiane Djigo, who oversees the park and the whole Ferlo reserve, tells me that their skittishness in the face of humans is a positive thing; it shows that they still retain their wild tendencies. We wait on the edge of an open plain when, suddenly, a big group of more than 30 animals start to emerge from a woody thicket and run. Djigo says that they like open spaces where they can see any predators on the horizon.

The fence surrounding the Katané enclosure keeps cattle out and scimitar-horned oryx in.

For the past 10 years the animals have thrived here, eating the native grasses and tender tree leaves, drinking from natural ponds during the rainy season and park service-provided reservoirs during the dry season, and reproducing in their own good time. During the latest official count, agents estimated that there were about 120 oryx living in the enclosure along with two other reintroduced gazelles species, the dama gazelle and the dorcas gazelle. As the animal population has expanded, so has the area of the fenced park—up from an original 1,235 acres to almost 3,000 acres.

Captain Cheikh Ahmed Tidiane Djigo peers through binoculars trying to identify a gazelle in the distance.

Djigo says the goal is to eventually release the animals into the world outside of the park, but the government’s plans for that eventuality are vague. The scimitar-horned oryx lives in a sort of limbo here in the Ferlo. That’s not surprising given the circumstances: As Captain Djigo puts it, if he were the president of Senegal, tasked with constantly beating back the policy monsters at the gate—from high youth unemployment that leads to the civil unrest to failing infrastructure and uncertainties linked to terrorism—then the fate of an antelope with funny horns would rank pretty low on his list of concerns. And so the oryx wait.

The Social Science of Reintroduction

Although people have been moving around continents with their domesticated animals for thousands of years, the practice of bringing wild animals back to their old habitats is a recent phenomenon. A few high-profile reintroductions in the 1970s and 1980s, which all seemed to be successes, brought attention to the practice. “It became even more popular for a while,” explains wildlife biologist Philip Seddon from New Zealand’s University of Otago. “It sounded like a fairly straightforward thing to do. You take some animals, you put them out there, you let them reproduce and you have a repopulation, ” he says. But, in practice, it is a lot more complicated.

In Senegal, the situation is complicated at every level. The government has to maintain a delicate balance between conservation, political, and social interests. In the Ferlo, the semi-nomadic Fulani herdsmen who live here care mostly about just one thing—their herds of humpbacked cows and shorthaired sheep. The government estimates that the cow, sheep, and goat population of the entire country is some 15 million, and a good portion of those animals live in Northern Senegal. You can see the animals’ imprint on this fragile landscape. Spiny trees and Sodom apples are the only things that escape their hunger. Inside the Katané fence, though, another world has taken shape. Tall grasses grow in a thick carpet and trees maintain their leaves long into the dry season. Basic things, but they are extraordinary here.

Senegal is also a poor country, where economic and development goals often rate higher than environmental conservation. In the government, money for monitoring and policing the park is hard to come by, so the national parks agency is understaffed and has few vehicles or computers or technology.

scimitar-horned oryx hai-bar
Scimitar-horned oryx rest in the shade at Hai-Bar Nature Reserve in Israel, one of the breeding centers involved in the reintroduction program.

Reintroduction projects in Senegal are often funded by and rely heavily on researchers and donors from abroad. The Katané park has benefited over time from support from the Spanish government, an American animal rights group called the Friends of Animals, and from that organization’s nemesis, the Exotic Wildlife Association, a consortium of private reserve owners, many of whom organize special (and expensive) hunts of captive scimitar-horned oryx.

But this kind of reliance on the whims of foreign donors has its drawbacks. Recently, a Spanish-government funded project on the reintroduction of the dorcas gazelle was put on hold because of funding cuts. Abdelkader Jebali, who first came to Senegal in 2003 for his doctoral research on the reintroduction programs, says the program is spare. There are no surveillance collars or radar here, no high-tech breeding programs, or any attention to breeding at all, really. “Here, nature has done all the work,” he tells me.

Given how quickly the oryx have mounted a recovery inside the fence, Jebali thinks that with just a little bit effort, it could become a true success.

A Changing Habitat

At 63 years old, Omar Gallo Ba, the chief of Katané village, said that he’s old enough to remember when life was different in the Ferlo. He remembers wild animals here, lots of them, enough for some people to have proper livelihoods as hunters. “In the old days you could go out hunting and come back with five or six animals to sell, but now there’s not enough,” Ba says. I ask him what changed. He shrugs a little and said that maybe there was too much hunting in those days, and then there was the great drought, he says, referring to the drought that gripped the greater Sahel from the 1960s until the 1980s, contributing to widespread famines in the region. That drought changed this part of Africa, speeding up rural flight as people decided to try their luck in the big cities of Africa and beyond to Europe and the U.S.

Ba and his family stayed here in the Ferlo, though, with their herds. He says when the government first came to talk about the reintroduction project, he and the other villagers were against the project and its the fence. They did not understand why the government needed to put up a fence across their grazing land or exert so much effort for a few animals. The people here have needs, too, his wife Coumba Sarr Gaye Ba tells me. “We need a development project,” she says. They want a project that might bring seeds and fertilizer for the communal vegetable garden or maybe a mill to grind millet. They say they need roads, food, money, and a mosque. They wanted more development in the region and, in some ways, they got it. The two-lane road I took to get to the Ferlo is, in part, brand new—a fresh lifeline to a region that has long been cut off from the rest of the country. The road is still a long way from Katané, but it’s a start.

So the villagers put up with what they call the government’s gazelles and the government’s fences because they also see their own interests on the horizon. Since the park rangers have been here, the government built a health clinic, although it is still waiting for qualified staff. There are more transportation options available to them, so they feel less isolated. And, during the dry season, agents sometimes let them inside the park to harvest a little grass for their animals.

But Ba gives me a non-answer when I ask what would happen if the government released the oryx. He responds, “Those animals are better off in the park.” Another villager, Djibril Abdoulaye Diallo gave the question a little more thought. “The oryx is like a cow, so I think they can live together,” he said and then paused before adding a proviso, “If there’s lots of rain.” Lots of rain would mean enough good pasture for everyone, but the rains have long been uncertain in the Ferlo.

When Captain Djigo looks at how fragile the environment is here, he wonders if the oryx will be able to compete. But Teresa Abaigar, a biologist from the Arid Zones Research Center’s gazelle dorcas reintroduction project, says she is optimistic about the chances for the oryx and the other reintroduced gazelles. “If the Ferlo can regularly support the millions of cows, sheep and goats that live here it can support 100 or so oryx. The main problem is that we have to think about how to manage the natural resources, but I think the Sahel has the capacity, even in its degraded state, to support them,” she says.

What Next?

Other people are betting on the Sahel, too. In Chad, the government and the Sahara Conservation Fund are getting ready to start an ambitious new project release hundreds of scimitar-horned oryx into a large, unfenced reserve—a 19-million acre reserve that makes the 3,000-acre Katané park look like an infinitesimal dot. There, despite similar pressure from livestock, the animals will have room to migrate seasonally at they used to. John Newby, a wildlife biologist who has studied the scimitar-horned oryx for decades and serves as the chairman of the Sahara Conservation Fund, says this project might be the best opportunity to release the scimitar-horned oryx into its old habitat and the best chance for the Sahel and the Sahara to restore their populations of roving antelopes and gazelles. “At the end of the day, we’ll never find out whether it works if we just fantasize about it,” Newby says. “We have to take the brave step of letting these animals go and see what happens.”

However, there are some cautionary tales. Take the case of the Arabian oryx in Oman, which was released into the wild in 1982 after a successful captive breeding program. For a while, everything went well. The Arabian oryx population grew. Conservationists enlisted the local communities to work as rangers to patrol the reserve. But a black market trade in live animals, especially for calves and female oryx, developed throughout the region.

“By the time the authorities were on top of it, that free-ranging population was on the verge of collapse,” explains Seddon, the Kiwi wildlife biologist. “So what they had to do was protect the animals that were still in the wild by getting them into captivity again.” Seddon was involved with the Arabian oryx reintroduction in Saudi Arabia where the animals were reintroduced in two areas—some to a large fenced park and others to the edge of the great desert where poaching remains an intermittent problem and has limited population growth. “In the Middle East, there may not be a future the Arabian oryx outside of a fenced reserve,” he says—not just because of poaching but also because of oil infrastructure and urban development and border fences.

And maybe that’s okay. Maybe the question of whether or not the scimitar-horned oryx can be released in Senegal is not the right question. Over time, the thinking about reintroduction has changed. Many conservationists aren’t so eager to tear down a reserve’s walls just to recapture a lost world and a lost time. More and more, conservationists are considering the continuum between wild and captive, says Markus Gusset, the chief conservation officer at the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums. “This is born out of the realization that the wild of the past simply does not exist anymore. Every ecosystem on earth is somehow impacted by human activities and most wildlife populations will need to be managed in the future,” Gusset says.

A herd of scimitar-horned oryx traverse part of the Katané enclosure.

Back in the Ferlo, when agents patrol the Katané park, sometimes they find that other wild animals, the precious few that are left in the region, have found their way inside the fence—in search of the sanctuary and the food it provides. There’s a gaggle of guinea hens, a few warthogs and ostriches, a jackal or two, and at least one of the increasingly rare red-fronted gazelles. The agents let the truly wild animals stay, even the predators. The system is rebuilding, they say, a system of predators and prey, checks and balances. But if a goat or sheep slips through, the agents kick it out.

The scimitar-horned oryx population here continues to grow more and more every year. It’s a situation that both thrills and concerns Captain Djigo and others in the park service. They brought this animal back from the brink of extinction and restored it to the grasslands of Africa, which is an amazing achievement. But the thriving population means there is still lots of work to do. “There will be a moment when the enclosure will be full again,” Djigo says. “What will we do then? Continue to manage the population? But until when?”

Photo credit: mirsasha/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND) , Judith Anenberg/Flickr (CC BY-NC)

Funding for NOVA Next is provided by the Eleanor and Howard Morgan Family Foundation.

National corporate funding for NOVA is provided by Draper. Major funding for NOVA is provided by the David H. Koch Fund for Science, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and PBS viewers. Additional funding is provided by the NOVA Science Trust.