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Back from the brink of extinction

December 12, 2023

A group of scimitar-horned oryx in Tunisia

Marwell Wildlife is today celebrating after long-term conservation efforts have helped bring the scimitar-horned oryx back from the brink of extinction.

The species was declared Extinct in the Wild in 2000 but has today been downlisted to Endangered in the IUCN Red List thanks to conservation efforts from partners around the world, including Marwell Wildlife.

Once common across North Africa, scimitar-horned oryx disappeared from the wild by the end of the 1990s due to over-hunting and prolonged droughts.

Today, after extinction across its global range, the scimitar-horned oryx is now re-established in the wild and its fate has been reversed.

The IUCN Red List downlisting recognises the self-sustaining population of scimitar-horned oryx of over 600 animals, which now thrives within Chad’s Ouadi Rimé-Ouadi Achim Faunal Reserve. The project was led by the Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi and the Chad Government and implemented on the ground by Sahara Conservation, along with international partners.

A group of scimitar-horned oryx in Tunisia

Marwell Wildlife contributed to the re-establishment of the oryx in Chad. As the manager of the European Ex situ Programme (EEP) coordinators from 1989 to 2016, Marwell collected a genetically diverse group of oryx from across European zoos, including Marwell, and transferred them to the Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi (EAD) to increase the genetic diversity of the source population for the reintroduction to Chad. Genetic diversity is crucial to establishing a sustainable population as it enables a population to adapt to changing environmental conditions. The Hampshire conservation charity was also part of the team modelling the release strategy at a workshop in Abu Dhabi in 2012 when plans for the project were being developed.

Dr Tania Gilbert, Head of Conservation Science at Marwell Wildlife, said: “The change in status of scimitar-horned oryx from Extinct in the Wild to Endangered is a testament to the power of collaborative conservation action, and gives us all hope that we are able to make a real difference and restore nature.

“The species is still at risk from extinction (Endangered), but the conservation work in Chad, Tunisia, Morocco and Senegal greatly reduces this risk and has given the species a real chance of recovery.”

Marwell Wildlife, which today manages the WAZA International Studbook for scimitar-horned oryx, was awarded the prestigious WAZA Conservation Award 2023 earlier this year for its tireless efforts to re-establish scimitar-horned oryx back in their habitats in Tunisia.

A scimitar-horned oryx in Tunisia

Marwell has worked with the species since the zoo opened in 1972 and along with Edinburgh Zoo, donated the first group of oryx to the pioneering reintroduction programme to Bou Hedma National Park in Tunisia in 1985. Since then, Marwell has co-managed reintroduction projects to a further three protected areas in Tunisia.

Since 2011, Marwell has its own expert team based in Tunisia, who work with local communities to give local park rangers, vets and students the skills, knowledge and resources they need to ensure threatened species have a much brighter future.

Professor Philip Riordan, Director of Conservation, said: “Our journey to restore scimitar-horned oryx and its habitats is a testament to the power of persistence and belief in the possible. We believe that humanity can correct its past mistakes, and modern zoos and aquaria are perfectly placed to lead these conservation efforts.”