The scimitar-horned oryx has become a symbol of how humans can destroy animal populations with frightening rapidity. Its massive wild population in Africa crashed into extinction a few decades ago. But now, in an ecological experiment, scientists have brought the oryx back to the wilderness.
Photo by Jori Lewis
Over at NOVA, Jori Lewis writes about visiting the experimental park where the animals are once again living in the wild. This is one form of de-extinction, though not as radical as what people like Stewart Brand have proposed we do with woolly mammoths. The scimitar-horned orxy was extinct it the wild, but a few of them lived in zoos and in captivity. So the wild version of the species is being reinvented, simply by putting the animals back into their former native habitat. This is likely to change both the animals and the lands where they roam.
Lewis reports on what the fate of this de-extincted wild species might be:
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 19th century often spoke about the grand seasonal migrations over long distances 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, 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.
You must read the rest of the story over on PBS' NOVANext