The arabian oryx Oryx leucoryx is a charismatic animal; merely the beautyof its eyes was enough to inspire the poets of the Arab world. Unfortunately, this beauty did not
confer immortality, and over hundreds of years the Arabian oryx was pursued and hunted in its most remote desert strongholds. The last wild Arabian oryx was probably killed in 1972, and its death became a symbol of human destruction of the natural world. The capture of a few of the last wild oryx in 1962 marked the creation of the ' world herd '. Through captive breeding, the return of descendants from the founder herd to Arabian lands was possible and oryx were first returned to the wild in Oman in 1982.
The restoration of the Arabian oryx in Saudi Arabia is a core programme to the SWA. Concurrent projects for the protection of large areas within the former range of the Arabian oryx, and the captive breeding of oryx at the NWRC have together enabled the restoration of the species in Saudi Arabia. With releases into the wild, attention has shifted from the captive-breeding stock to the free-ranging Mahazat as-Sayd and ' Uruq Bani Ma'arid oryx populations.
The first area chosen for oryx releases in Saudi Arabia was the 2553-sq-km Mahazat as-Sayd protected area, 160 km north-east of Taif. In 1989 the entire reserve was fenced to exclude poachers and grazing livestock. Sine 1990, 38 Arbian pryx from foreign, private or national collections and over 34 oryx from the captive-breeding unit at the NWRC have been taken to the reserve, held within a 200-ha enclosure, then released into the wider reserve.
The genetic make-up of the population was enhanced by selecting a genetically diverse, initial founder herd. During 1990-92, a team of rangers under the supervision of the reserve's manager tracked and located oryx daily. As the population grew and animals dispersed into many small groups it became increasingly difficult to account for all of the oryx each day. Sine May 1995 a monthly transect census has been carried out in the reserve, and by January 1998, the population was estimated to be 350 individuals. Since 1998, because if severe drought conditions, the population has levelled off around 350-400 individuals.
Uruq Bani Ma'arid: the return of oryx to the Empty Quarter Following the successful establishment of a self-sustaining oryx population in Mahazat as-Sayd, the NWRC undertook the reintroduction of oryx into 'uruq Bani Ma'arid protected area. This protected area covers approximately 12,000 sq. Km at the western edge of the Rub' al-khali, or 'Empty Quarter'. Ungulates vanished from the area as a result of over-hunting. According to loval people, oryx and sand gazelles were seen at the edge of the top of the escarpment as recently as 35 years ago. This is probably due to the relatively good vegetation found in the wadis at the escarpment edge. Since 1995, when the first releases took place in the " Empty Quarter", 121 oryx ( 57 males, 64 females) have been translocated. One hundred thirteen of these animals were captive-born, whereas eight came from the Mahazat as-Sayd protected area.
Deaths among reintroduced animals were recorded in the reserve since the first arrivals. Main causes of death were fights between males (37%), starvation (25%) due to the lack of consistent rainfalls in 1997, 1998, and poaching (19%). However, monitoring carried out by KKWRC and NWRC staff continues to indicate very satisfactory population growth. Productivity of the released animals is still satisfactory, and although the area received less than average rainfalls in 1998 and 1999, animals are currently doing very well. By mid May 1999 the population of free-ranging oryx was estimated to number nearly 190 animals.