These elegant, wary animals have long, thin, finely ridged horns that curve up over their backs; the name ‘scimitar’ comes from the curved swords used for centuries by Arabian people. Scimitar-horned Oryx are now extinct in the wild, and visiting Werribee Open Range Zoo’s small herd is an opportunity not to be missed.
Scimitar-horned Oryx were once widespread in North Africa but the species is now classed as ‘extinct in the wild’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (on the IUCN ‘red list’). There has been a long-term decline in numbers because of climate changes (excessive drought), uncontrolled hunting by people, agricultural encroachment on their habitat, and excessive grazing of limited vegetation by domestic livestock.
There have not been any confirmed sightings of Scimitar-horned Oryx in the wild for over 20 years, although perhaps as many as 9000 animals are kept in zoos, safari parks, ranches and public holdings around the world. As a participating member of the Scimitar-horned Oryx international breeding program, Werribee Open Range Zoo follows the Australasian Species Coordinator’s recommendations for breeding this species to manage captive numbers and the genetic diversity of the population. In 2005, more than 1500 individual animals around the world were in captive breeding programs; animals have been released into fenced, protected areas in Tunisia, Morocco and Senegal and reintroduction is planned for other countries.
Scimitar-horned Oryx usually live on arid plains and deserts, but in some areas they also inhabit rocky hillsides and thick brush.
Herds of more than 1000 used to congregate in areas of fresh pasture, surface water after rainfall or during the wet season migrations. Now, a typical herd has fewer than 20 members and has a tight social structure.
Breeding males will hold a territory and aggressively defend it and their group of females. Solitary males will also sometimes maintain a territory in which they seek to control and mate with the females that are present.
Scimitar-horned Oryx are ruminants with a compartmentalised stomach that allows for more effective digestion of the food they eat. All ruminants re-chew their food, a behaviour known as ‘chewing the cud’.
They feed at night and during the cool of early morning when the dry desert plants, on which they live, have higher water content. Desert plants during the day contain only 1–2% water but absorb moisture during the night to increase their water content up to 40%. Oryx will browse on a wide range of grass species, leafy shrubs and fruits.
- Scimitar-horned Oryx have an interesting way of coping with a shortage of water. They are able to raise their body temperature by several degrees, up to 46.6 degrees C, to conserve water by avoiding sweating
- Egyptians used to bind the horns of oryx together to make them appear like they had one horn. Soon their horns would grow together. This may be where the unicorn myths began
- Reintroduction of oryx in some areas is problematic because they are migratory animals, and move to vast pastures. Unfortunately, livestock or crops now occupy most pastures
- There may be considerable competition between males, but it involves mainly ritualised, horn-to-horn sparring, with no serious injuries
- Courtship between oryx can be quite aggressive. Inter-male fighting differs from male-female fighting in that the partners stand farther apart and their heads are stretched up. The male and female in courtship stand close together with heads low. If the female does not wish to mate she tries to ‘defeat’ the male in this sparring, if she breaks free the male pursues her
- Flight is always the first defence, but failing this, the oryx will spin and face the predator
- They defend themselves by lowering the head, so that the sharp horns point forward