January 3, 2007

Oryx Species to Help Revive Dying Breed

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- A pair of scimitar-horned oryxes from the Kansas City Zoo are among six from North America and four from Europe that are being reintroduced in Tunisia, the animals' native scrubland where they have been wiped out.

The two animals, members of the antelope family, from Kansas City were among 23 that have been raised at the local zoo. They will be part of a new herd that conservationists hope will revive the breed in the wild.

The scimitar-horned oryx has been pushed to extinction by a combination of automatic weapons and all-terrain vehicles, killed for sport because of their long, slender horns.

"When something as large as a scimitar-horned oryx can slip from the face of the earth without so much as a whimper or an outcry, things have gone terribly wrong," said Bill Houston, assistant general curator at the St. Louis Zoo who is heavily involved in the reintroduction program.

"To lose such a species before we fully understand its role (in nature) and the intricacies of its evolution is just astounding. A devastating blow."

The 10 animals from Europe and North America will be mixed with some oryxes that were relocated to a Tunisian national park in the 1980s.

"In order for them to survive long term and to bolster the population, we need to add more genetic variability," said Ed Spevak, coordinator of the Scimitar-horned Oryx Species Survival Plan, which is an agreement among North American zoos.

The Kansas City zoo started working with the breed about four years ago and has grown the population according to the survival plan.

"We've had 11 calves so far, and all are surviving," said Tim Wild, an animal area supervisor at the zoo. "We've got lots more on the way."

The new herd will initially be fenced in Dghoumes National Park, where they will be protected by the Tunisian government. Conservationists hope to eventually remove the fences so the oryx population can migrate.

Tunisia supports the reintroduction, and neighboring Algeria also is interested in re-establishing the breed. Conservationists also hope to work out protection agreements with Libya, Niger and other north African countries.

"There are reintroduction programs going on all over the world," Houston said. "But by the time you reach the point that this is your best remaining option, things are pretty messed up."


Information from: The Kansas City Star, http://www.kcstar.com