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A picture of the Arabian oryx, a Red List success story

Arabian Oryx at the U.S. National Zoo's Center for Reproduction and Conservation in Front Royal, Virginia.

Photograph by Michael Nichols, National Geographic

Christine Dell'Amore

National Geographic News

Published June 17, 2011

It's no fantasy—the so-called Arabian unicorn is alive and well in Middle Eastern deserts, conservationists have announced.

A frequent muse for Arabic poetry and paintings, the Arabian oryx resembles a unicorn in profile, when its two long horns appear to fuse into one.

But it seemed the hardy antelope was headed for an entirely fictional existence in 1972, when only six animals existed in the wild.

Five of the remaining antelopes were either killed or taken into captivity over the course of the year, and the last wild "unicorn" was shot in Oman in 1972—capping decades of uncontrolled hunting for food and sport.

Now, however, the oryx has leaped to at least a thousand individuals in parts of its native range within Saudi Arabia, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Jordan, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) announced with this week's release of its updated Red List of Threatened Species.

"If you consider there were about six animals in the wild ... in 1972, to go from six up to a thousand is amazing," said Craig Hilton-Taylor, manager of the United Kingdom's IUCN Red List Unit.

As a result, the organization has upgraded the antelope's status from "endangered"—facing a very high risk of extinction in the wild—to "vulnerable," facing a high risk of extinction in the wild.

It's the first time in IUCN history that a species considered extinct in the wild has rebounded enough to advance past the "critically endangered" and "endangered" conservation categories.

(Related pictures: "Ten Climate Change 'Icons' Announced [2009].")

Arabian Oryx a "Conservation Success"

The oryx's comeback is due to a wide-ranging alliance of conservation groups, governments, and zoos that worked to save the species by breeding a captive "world herd"—descendants of the last wild animals captured in the 1970s, as well as royal stock from the UAE, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia.

In 1982 conservationists started reintroducing small Arabian oryx populations from this captive herd into protected areas where hunting is illegal.

Though the release process was largely trial and error—a whole population of animals died after one attempt in Jordan, for example—"we've learned a lot about carrying out reintroductions successfully," Hilton-Taylor said.

Thanks to the program, the Arabian oryx was upgraded to "endangered" by 1986, a status the species held until this latest upgrade.

(Related: "Most Captive-Born Predators Die If Released.")

Overall, the return of the oryx "shows with concerted conservation efforts, we can make a difference and turn things around," Hilton-Taylor added.

"It's a real conservation success."

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