Human Disturbance Drives Desert Species to the Brink of Extinction
A century ago, hundreds of thousands of desert-adapted antelopes roamed the Sahara and Sahel regions of Northern Africa, a vast desert and sub-desert ecosystem that include parts of Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad, and Sudan.
Due to human disturbance, these creatures are in decline, and the magnificant scimitar-horned oryx is now extinct in the wild. The encouraging news is that recent surveys of Chad and Niger by National Zoo scientists suggest that these countries hold promise for launching aridlands antelope restoration and reintroduction projects.
Species such as the scimitar-horned oryx (Oryx dammah), addax (Addax nasomaculatus), dama gazelle (Gazella dama), slender-horned gazelle (G. leptoceros), and Cuvier’s gazelle (G. cuvieri) are exquisitely adapted for survival in extremely harsh desert.
Zoo populations of these desert antelope are thriving because of cooperation between North American and European zoos. Despite zoo breeding success, individuals of each species are widely dispersed globally which makes genetic management (to prevent inbreeding) difficult. At the National Zoo, we pioneered artificial insemination techniques for the scimitar-horned oryx to
We now are well positioned to use our experience, knowledge and facilities to continue to contribute to scimitar-horned oryx conservation, as well as for other rare desert antelope.
The challenge is to use these modern strategies to enhance captive propagation for providing genetically diverse, healthy individuals for reintroduction. Research must be expanded to include other high-profile desert antelope species at high risk of extinction, such as the dama gazelle and addax.
Genome resource banks for select species are necessary to ensure the availability of genetic material worldwide for breeding and reintroduction. We propose to develop "world herds" of select species, such as the scimitar-horned oryx, addax, and dama gazelles, whereby managed collections and genome banks would be established in North African states or the Arabian Peninsula, drawing from all living animals worldwide.
Objectives will be achieved by relying on the unique facilities and expertise of the National Zoo’s Conservation and Research Center, working in partnership with scientific and conservation colleagues around the world.
Ultimately, multidisciplinary programs that combine breeding, genetic management and training will be coupled with protected area management strategies that create incentives for local people, pastoralists and nomads alike, to protect wildlife wherever they are found.
Through collaborations with other scientists, conservationists and governments in North Africa, this program creates new knowledge that can be used to develop practical and effective tools to ensure the survival of desert antelope and the ecosystems they require for survival.