Arabian Oryx
An Arabian Oryx wandering the desert.

Arabian Oryx
Aaron Noah M.

Arabian Oryx are everywhere…on paper.  This striking animal is proudly displayed on the fifty dirham note of UAE currency, but finding one in the wild is tricky business.

50 Dirham Note

50 Dirham Note. Scan: Ian Walters

By the 1960s in the UAE and the 1970s in Oman, the Arabian Oryx was hunted out of existence in the wild.  Luckily there were just enough animals in captivity in both countries to initiate breeding programs to bring back the Arabian Oryx from the brink of extinction.  It has only been in the last few years that they have been released back into the wild, so your best chances of seeing one are still at wildlife centers (such as Sharjah or Al Ain) or protected reserves (such as Sir Bani Yas Island,  Al Maha, or Jiddat Al Harasis).

However, a few of these critters can now be observed back in their natural surroundings.  The Oryx photographed above was spotted in a lonely stretch of desert about 9km past the end of Al Qudra Road (UAE).  At the time all I had was a pocket camera (Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX38) and, after a quick glimpse of those lengthy skewers on top of the Oryx’s head, I opted NOT to press my luck with a closer shot.  There has been speculation that it was the parallel horns of the Oryx, when viewed in profile, that gave rise to the legend of the unicorn.  As the Oryx marched away from me into the desert, I understood the case for mistaken identity; sometimes it did indeed look like a white horse with a single horn.

But myths are myths, and we’re not talking about a horse here, but rather a medium-sized antelope.  Most of the fur on an Oryx is white, with the exception of a few black patches on its legs, tail, and head.  The white coat is excellent for reflecting sunlight, and underneath their white hair is, surprisingly, black skin, which is good at absorbing ultraviolet rays.

Arabian Oryx

A closer look.

You’ll find them on gravel plains or in the dunes.  Oryx can survive in very hostile conditions, getting all of their water intake from the plants they ingest and from dew.

They are normally social grazers, roaming the deserts in herds up to about 30 individuals, led by a dominant male and female.  Any remaining males usually leave the herd to take up a solitary existence in a territory of their own.  Unlike gazelle, they rarely run, but with those horns for protection I can see why they take their time!

Update! 13 October 2011:

I managed to spot another Oryx…actually, an entire herd of them.  Check out Chasing The Light: Chapter 1 to see updated photos of these amazing animals.

Another Update! 12 November 2012:

There’s a bike path but the herd is still there.  Check out Good News For Cyclists for even more.