New Life for the Unicorn

THOMAS LAND

February 26, 1993|By THOMAS LAND

London. -- The last unicorn to survive without human care in the wild was slaughtered in 1972 by a motorized hunting party in the Omani desert.

But the species (Oryx leucoryx) has been rescued by nature reserves and zoos in Europe and North America breeding the creature in captivity. And the first full wild herd of what must be one of the earth's rarest mammals has now been re-established in Oman under the care of a nomadic tribe.

Operation Oryx is an outstanding success story of the global nature-conservation movement. And it may also lead to rational new systems of game management in arid areas across Africa as well as the Middle East, with the dual purpose of supplementing the high-quality protein derived from domestic livestock production and avoiding over-exploitation which might otherwise lead to the extinction of some wild species.

The creamy white antelope with the long straight horns (which look like a single horn when seen in profile) once roamed the deserts of the Arabian and Sinai Peninsulas. Unicorn legends go back to the Bible, and were perpetuated by the Crusaders to the Holy Land. The unicorn -- nowadays called the Arabian oryx -- became popular in medieval folklore, tapestries and art, and its single ''horn'' sometimes shifted from between the ears to the snout. It represented purity, magical powers and courtly love. Now it may also become the symbol of a fresh approach to livestock as well as game management in arid and semi-arid regions where many millions of people live at the edge of starvation.

''Might the recurring impact of drought in the Sahelian zone of Africa have been softened,'' asks a discussion paper published by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, ''If populations there had learned to develop game farming, especially among wild species naturally adapted to such rigorous conditions?

''The major attraction of such development is the ability of many wild species to thrive on vegetation far too sparse to maintain domestic herds. The oryx is able to gain weight on forage supplies that would not maintain cattle, and on half the drinking-water requirement of sheep.''

The programs began in 1962 when the Fauna Preservation Society of London captured three of the last surviving oryx in the wild. They formed the nucleus of the world herd at the San Diego Wild Animal Park in California, the Tierpark in Berlin and elsewhere.

Two decades later, a dozen oryx were cautiously reintroduced to their natural habitat in Oman under the protection of the Harasis, a nomadic tribe of 500 people who consider their unique task a great honor. They were chosen because of their concern for nature conservation and their knowledge of the deserts. And in the past 10 years, they have taught the art of desert survival to the semi-domesticated animals whose ancestors had been experts at it.

The antelope's movements in the wild have never been well understood. Their eyesight is keen, and they can disappear quickly in the desert sands when humans approach. They are known to drift spontaneously over very great distances in search of areas of recent rainfall; and they can also go for months, even a year, without drinking, relying only on desert grasses and herbs for moisture.

Variations of the unicorn myths have been the species' undoing. It was believed that eating the meat of the antelope could expel a bullet from a gunshot wound. Killing a creature of such great strength and endurance is still regarded as evidence of manhood. Its powdered horn has been used as an aphrodisiac. And the prince of the deserts, which could outrun with ease the traditional camel-back hunting parties of the region, was finally brought down with the advent of four-wheel drive vehicles and automatic weapons.

Specialists from the London Zoological Society have visited several countries in the southern Sahara seeking suitable sites from game reserves where the oryx and its many relatives still surviving in the wild can be reared as a source of food or export revenues.

Eland are already farmed successfully, either alone or with cattle, in Kenya, Zambia, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and South Africa. Complete domestication is of course not the objective. Indeed, it is feared that domestication may bring with it environmental pressures that reduce the very hardiness and adaptability on which game farming intends to capitalize.

More than 70 oryx have now dispersed through the desert, traveling in small groups, some of them carrying radio transmitters to enable computers to plot their course. The zoo-bred animals needed some years to adapt to their original environment; but more than 40 native oryx calves have never been inside a zoo.

Scientists are delighted, but they caution that the herd still needs another 200 survivors to provide a sufficient genetic diversity essential for a secure future.

Thomas Land is a free-lance writer.

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