First Published: 2017-12-23

Oman opens oryx reserve to tourists
Once extinct in wild, rare member of antelope family famed for its elegant horns has been dragged back from precipice.
Middle East Online

The story of the Arabian "unicorn" is one of miraculous survival.

MUSCAT - The Gulf sultanate of Oman is looking to carve itself a new niche in ecotourism by opening up a sanctuary for one of the desert's most fabled creatures -- the Arabian oryx.

Once extinct in the wild, the rare member of the antelope family famed for its elegant horns has been dragged back from the precipice in a sprawling reserve fenced off for decades from the public.

That changed last month when authorities for the first time officially opened the sanctuary to visitors -- part of a broader bid by Oman to boost tourism as oil revenues decline.

On a recent outing, wildlife rangers in SUVs patrolled the sandy plains of the reserve in central Oman's Haima province, spotting groups of grazing oryx and other indigenous species.

For years, the main goal has been a basic one -- ensuring the oryx can survive by focusing on "helping the animals here reproduce and multiply", said sanctuary spokesman Hamed bin Mahmoud al-Harsousi.

But now, as numbers have ticked up from just 100 some two decades ago to almost 750 today, the authorities began eyeing another role for the reserve.

"There has been more interest in its tourism potential -- to take advantage of its uniqueness and rare animals," Harsousi told AFP.

- 'Arabian unicorn' -

The story of the Arabian oryx -- sometimes referred to as the Arabian "unicorn" due to its distinctive profile -- is one of miraculous survival.

Hunted prolifically, the last wild member of the species was killed in Oman by suspected poachers in 1972.

The species only clung to existence thanks to a programme to breed them in captivity and in the early 1980s a batch of 10 were released into Oman's Arabian Oryx Sanctuary.

Since then, regenerating the oryx has been an often precarious process.

The Omani sanctuary sprawls over 2,824 square kilometre (1,100 sq miles) of diverse terrain -- from flat plains to rocky slopes and sandy dunes.

Its own fate has been nearly as tortured as that of the oryx it houses.

In 2007, the sanctuary became the first place ever to be removed from UNESCO's World Heritage list as the government of Oman turned most of it over to oil drilling.

- On guard against poachers -

Now, as oil prices have plunged over the past few years, it is the wildlife once again that has become an increasing priority for the authorities.

Harsousi puts the current number of Arabian oryx in the sanctuary at 742 and says that other species are flourishing there too.

"In the past three years, we have been able to increase the number of the Arabian gazelle, known as sand gazelles, from 300 to about 850," he added.

In addition to the animals, there are 12 species of trees that provide a habitat for diverse birds.

Oman has been on a push to transform itself into a tourist draw -- pitching its beach resorts to luxury travellers and desert wilderness to the more adventurous.

Officials in the sultanate told AFP that a major tourism plan would be announced within a matter of weeks.

Those working at the oryx sanctuary hope that it can help play a lead role in luring visitors to the country.

But there are also fears that greater openness could see the return of an old foe -- hunters.

With that in mind security is being kept tight, said Abdullah Ghassab Obaid, a wildlife guard at the reserve.

"Thirty guards and a police patrol are working to provide security in the reserve to prevent any infiltration."

 

Sudan clamps down on journalists covering bread protests

Tribal feuds spread fear in Iraq's Basra

UN warns of "lost generation" in South Sudan's grinding conflict

Trump dashes Netanyahu’s hope to move US embassy to Jerusalem

US to overtake Saudi as world’s second crude oil producer

Aid for millions of Palestinians hostage to politics

Lebanon thwarts holiday attacks using IS informant

Mortar fire wounds 14 in Syria mental hospital

Turkish military fires on Kurdish forces in Syria's Afrin

More than 32,000 Yemenis displaced in intensified fighting

Saudi's refined oil exports offset crude curbs

Turkey's EU minister rejects any option other than full membership

Turkey says not reassured by US comments on border force

UN chief wants to revive Syria gas attack probe

US has no intention to build border force in Syria

Lebanese intelligence service may be spying using smartphones worldwide

Egypt's Sisi sacks intelligence chief

Cyprus denies bail for Israeli organ trafficker

Rising Yemen currency sparks hopes of relief

Turkish ministries to investigate underage pregnancy cover-up

Iraq PM launches online appeal for election allies

Iran central bank sees claim for billions from German stock market blocked

Iraq signs deal with BP to develop Kirkuk oil fields

Israeli occupation forces raid Jenin, kill Palestinian

HRW chief says 'Nobody should be forcibly returned to Libya'

IS poses threat to Iraq one month after 'liberation'

Seven years since ousting dictator, Tunisians still protest

Iran says Trump jeopardising Airbus deals

China says Iranian oil tanker wreck located

Sudan arrests communist leader after protests

Syrian opposition joins condemnation of US 'border force'

Israeli judge detains teen until trial for viral ‘slap video’

Arab league slams US freeze of Palestinian funding

Dubai billionaire to sell 15 percent Damac stake

Britain to put women at heart of peace work in Iraq, Nigeria, South Sudan

Saudi to give Yemen government $2bn bailout

US withholds $65 million from UN agency for Palestinians

Saudi Arabia intercepts new Yemen rebel missile attack

Syria Kurds vow to cleanse enclave from Turkish 'scourges'

Israeli police find missing Briton’s belongings in desert

Algeria gas plant workers mark five years since jihadist siege

UN says over 5000 children killed or injured in Yemen war

European leaders’ response to Iran protests raises questions

Erdogan to visit Pope Francis next month

Iran slams US-backed 'border security force' in Syria