Scientists reintroduce oryx in Chad

One of 23 scimitar-horned oryx is shown with its high-tech radio and GPS tracking collars. Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute scientists have been working with foreign governments and other entities to reintroduce the oryx to Chad. The scimitar-horned oryx is extinct in the wild. Photo courtesy of Sahara Conservation Fund

Scientists’ work with foreign governments and conservation programs in attempting a reintroduction of the scimitar-horned oryx into the wild has been taking shape as 23 of the extinct-in-the-wild members of the antelope family have been flown to Chad to be part of the program.

Steve Monfort, director and chief scientist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, explained the idea and the breadth behind the “long-term project.”

“We created a partnership between a number of zoos and the Smithsonian partnered with the governments of the United Arab Emirates and Chad,” Monfort said. “Working through this small group called the Sahara Conservation Fund, we are reintroducing them back into Chad.”

Monfort explained how the 23 animals that have been released into the wild are in a sense pioneers, and that the data and information gained from this first installation will be invaluable in the broader goals of the project.

“The project is much more important than just the oryx that are being released,” Monfort said. “This is far more important than a single species. This is about a whole system that involves humans and people. The plan is for a total of 500 animals to be reintroduced over the next five years. The first group of 23 individuals were released this past couple of weeks. They were trucked to a site in Chad and basically they were acclimated there for a couple of months. About three weeks ago, a team that included scientists from SCBI put satellite transmitter collars on the animals before they were released. The animals are now free-living. The satellite signal about their location is being transmitted daily.”

Monfort said that this is the first time that an effort of this nature has been attempted with this particular species. He said there have been reintroductions of previously extinct animals but not the scimitar-horned oryx.

He went on to say that a result he and others involved would love to see would be the removal of the oryx from the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s “extinct” ranks, but that goal is a longterm one. In the meantime, Monfort said he hopes to simply observe and learn their behavior in the wild.

“The best evidence of success would be to see over a reasonable timeframe to see that the population is growing at the predicted rate that we would need to be at self-sustaining numbers,” Monfort said. “But a lot can go wrong. The best measures of success is, ‘Is the pop(ulation) we’re reintroducing growing?’ Are they reproducing well and living long enough? Are they healthy? … This is a long term commitment.”

Monfort said that some of the animals released in Chad are descendants of animals that were housed at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute – once the oryx was deemed extinct in the wild there were still quite a few in zoos and preserves around the world. However, those domestic animals were less biologically diverse than is ideal, and part of Monfort’s goal is to change that.

“We do genetic testing now to identify the most diverse population we can create,” he said. “Then those animals will be used to breed up animals that will be reintroduced into the wild. The idea is to create this well managed, genetically diverse herd that will serve as the source population.”

Contact staff writer Nathan Budryk at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or nbudryk@nvdaily.com