Above is shown the Sand Cat.
Above are shown the mystical White Oryx. Below is shown the Lappet-Faced Vulture.
The White Oryx of Arabia’s Empty Quarter
The White Oryx has always enjoyed a special, almost magical status. Well adapted to the harshest of environments, it can go without water for weeks, and with the ability to disappear into the desert at will, this white antelope was always revered by Bedouin for its resourcefulness, physical strength, and virility. The White Oryx traditionally played an important part in Bedouin folklore. The first Europeans to explore Arabia saw in the white oryx a vision of the unicorn, a mythical animal with a horn. In recent times the oryx has become a conservation icon, rescued from the brink of extinction and symbolic of man’s efforts to help save his environment.
The Arabian Oryx lives in small herds of a mature male and a few females with their young. Sub-adult males are usually solitary but occasionally join with others to form a bachelor herd. The Oryx’s white coat reflects sun rays, helping to keep it cool in summer. During the colder winter weather, the white hairs stand on end, exposing the black skin below, which then absorbs warmth from the sun. Splayed hooves allow the Oryx to walk easily over soft sand and serve as shovels for digging hollows in the sand in which to shelter from sandstorms. They have few natural predators, with only the Wolf a threat but only to young or sickly animals. An adult Oryx can inflict serious injuries with its horns should it get caught.
Much of Oman is extremely arid, but the southern fringe has an annual monsoon called the Khareef. For a few weeks, the landscape is transformed by fresh vegetation. The boundary between the rejuvenated by rainfall, green zone, and the desert beyond can be seen clearly. The rain fills with water any shallow holes in the ground and is greeted with appreciation by wildlife. Travellers have recorded seeing crowds of birds appearing seemingly from nowhere to drink in the temporary pools.
Below an eagle
Birdlife in the Empty Quarter includes several species of lark, eagles, and vultures. The Houbara Bustard was once widespread here but is now rare. Historically, the local Bedouin lived around the edge of the desert and only ventured deeper in winter after the periodic rain produced new, green pastures on which they could graze their camels. The first expedition to the area by Europeans was in the 1930s when Bertram Thomas and Harry Philby made their journey across what was then one of the world’s last great unexplored wildernesses. They both recorded that the wildlife they saw was surprisingly diverse in birds, mammals, and invertebrates. Their main interest was, however, the elusive oryx.
Arabian Oryx are highly mobile, moving endlessly across the desert in search of vegetation. They can cover 20 kilometres in one night and are capable of detecting rainfall at a range of several kilometres. Although they prefer to eat grasses, they will graze on a variety of vegetation, and even dig up tubers and roots. The harshness of the conditions is probably the reason for their smaller, than other oryx species, stature, as they are only a metre or so high at the shoulder. The size of the herd also depends on the amount of food available, from 20 to 30 when is plenty and only five in bad times.
The fortunes of the desert’s wildlife took a downturn in the early years of the twentieth century which brought motorised transport and modern firearms. Bedouin always killed gazelle, oryx and ostrich for food and hides. As they hunted on foot and used bows and arrows, the numbers of killed animals were small. With the arrival of firearms, it was possible to kill a large number of animals very quickly, and killing for ‘sport’ took root. Meanwhile, vehicles were now able to cover the distance in a few hours which used to take days. The remote parts of the desert became open to human interference and the population of larger mammals went into freefall.
By the 1960s the numbers of oryx, in particular, were critically low, verging on extinction. At this time a captive population had been established at Phoenix Zoo in the USA under the programme ‘Operation Oryx’. It proved to be highly successful, and it is safeguarding the future of the species, at least in a captive situation. I find ironic that after a long-running campaign to close zoos, now they are the only safe place for the oryx. There are hopes that once the appropriate conditions and better security are established, it will be possible to introduce the species to the wild. The location considered is a remote plateau in the heart of Oman and close to the Empty Quarter. It has extensive gravel plains, and the landscape is notable for the heavy mists that cover the sparse vegetation. These are good conditions for oryx, which loves grazing on wet foliage.
The other animals of the desert include Ruppell’s Sand Fox. It is a nocturnal creature that spends daylight in an underground shelter-den. Small but resilient, Sand Fox is common across Arabia and North Africa.
The largest of the lark species found in the Omani desert is the Hoopoe Lark that is distinguished by its long bill. Like many desert birds, it will often run away from danger rather than taking to the air.
The future of wildlife, particularly in Oman, is uncertain as lucrative commodities lie beneath the sand and rock. The discovery of oil and valuable natural resources has transformed Gulf states in many ways. The region’s deserts are no longer remote and undisturbed and are increasingly affected by development and new infrastructure. After the exploration of hydrocarbons was carried out on a large scale, UNESCO took the decision in 2007 to remove its World Heritage Site status – the first time anywhere in the world that this had been done. Prospecting for oil, in particular, has already opened up many desert areas in the Middle East and elsewhere to other forms of exploration, and wildlife has generally been a loser in such situations. However, there is some hope as the reintroduced herds of Arabian Oryx are now thriving in Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. In the future focus has to be on maintaining the long-term security and wellbeing of those animals that are returned to the wild.
Below – all the animals in the danger of being extinct.