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Meeting the Challenge of Preserving Endangered Species

The National Zoo’s Reproduction and Reintroduction of Desert Antelope project uses recent advances in the reproductive sciences to enhance the genetic management of antelope, and to reintroduce herds of these rare species to their native Sahelo-Saharan range in North Africa.

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.

The Scimitar-Horned Oryx:
A Model for Desert Antelope Conservation

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

  1. ensure reproduction between valuable, but behaviorally incompatible pairs
  2. eliminate the risks of animal transport
  3. provide a means to exchange genes among populations.

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.

Where to Go From Here

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.

Meeting the Challenge

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.

Current Projects in Need of Support

  • Expand research initiatives at the National Zoo and Conservation and Research Center to include high-priority desert antelope, such as the addax, dama gazelle, Cuvier’s gazelle, and slender-horned gazelle.
  • Update oryx habitats at the Conservation and Research Center, which will enable us to continue with breeding, research, and training programs.
  • Establish a "world herd" genome resource bank for the scimitar-horned oryx that can be used to help in global genetic management while ensuring that suitable animals become available for planned reintroduction programs.
  • Support Sahelian range country field surveys to determine the status of antelope populations and their habitats, and explore ways to improve protected area management and to develop sustainable reintroduction programs.
  • Create an 80,000-square-kilometer protected area in Chad and Niger where we can conserve endangered Saharan animals.
  • Enhance capacity building through training to improve wildlife protection, monitoring and the management of protected areas.