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In search of the Arabian Oryx

Fearghal O'Nuallain recounts a safari in Shaumari Reserve in NorthEastern Jordan.

· Geography,Science,Education,Conservation

We trundled around in the ranger's old 4X4 crossing the region of NorthEastern Jordan and SouthEastern Syria known locally as Badia; an almost, but not quite desert scrubland, tyres jittering on the dusty rutted track. In the distance F15 eagles growled as the took off on their sorties. The familiar grey of a US airforce cargo plane passed over head. It felt like an odd place for a nature reserve and getting at one with nature was impossible with the constant reminder of chaos in neighbouring countries. Who cares about the Arabian Oryx against the backdrop of wars in Syria and Iraq?

Keep your eyes peeled he said we don’t want to miss anything. Ashraf is the reserve manager at Shaumari Reserve and had agreed to take us on a search for the Arabian Oryx. Tem sat up front filming with his wide lens. Shane sat up top, scanning the horizon for a glimpse of the white bums and brown horns of the Oryx.

Oryx have white bodies and long elegant horns. Their legs are brown, and stop just below their hips and shoulders, giving them them the appearance of having sunk in mud to their bellies. They wear eye shadow and have black cheeks and a black triangle on their snout.

I was doubtful that we would. 17.4km perimeter and 80 animals in a gravel strewn shrubby patch of land in eastern Jordan. There are 850 living in the wild in total said Shane when we finally spotted some on the horizon. And 7,000 living in captivity. There were 25 lolling next to a bluff. Wagging their tails in the mid morning sun. 6 calves, the youngest with no horns yet. They grow their horns when they are 3months Ashraf said. How many males would be there? For Oryx each group there is one dominant male, he’s the only one allowed to breed with the females, he will fight any others who try. Usually the other males leave the herd and are solitary. We passed an enclosure with female in heat and encountered one lonely male wandering about, stopping occasionally to stare dolefully in at the females just on the other side of the fence. I could identify with his plight. He reminded me of teenage nights staring into night clubs not yet old enough to join the courting ritual.


There is one main female in the herd too. She’s the one who decides when they move and where they go.


A few hours into the search we stopped for tea boiled in a sooty pot over an open fire at a small hut. Starting a fire here isn’t difficult. Ashraf grabbed a few handfuls of scrub - branches of the tall orache plant- and in a few seconds hot flames licking the side of the kettle. A few minutes later a fistful of black tea was added and the water left to boil. The kettle is dented and charred. It’s been well used.

Tea is a central part of the culture in the Middle East and much like at home it forms an important focal point for social interaction. We had a lot to do and were keen to get going but when we said we might not be able to stay for tea, Ashraf’s face dropped so we changed our plans. It was strong and sugary. Tea made on the fire is better than tea made indoors announced one of Ashraf’s team. I wholeheartedly agreed. Everything tastes better with the sauce of outside.

On our way back to the station it was looking like our search was in vain then Ashraf skidded the car to halt and pointed ahead. A herd of Onagar was running across the horizon. I could just about see a dust cloud and little white specks with the naked eye. Use the binoculars urged Shane. There are 25 Onagar living in the park and this was a group of 14. They are related to donkeys and looked like a larger more chiseled version of the donkeys that stand in fields in Ireland and give rides at the beach in southern England. Shane was excited to see them. I know they look like donkeys he said, they’re actually really rare.

Back at the visitor centre we observed feeding in a fenced off enclosure. Four females and a male. As the rangers fed dried alfalfa a male came to the fence to challenge one of the occupants. The male inside ambled over to the fence and the two squared up. They walked parallel for ten metres and then turned back on themselves again. They’re measuring themselves against each other to see who’s biggest said Shane. You’ll see deer doing the exact same thing in the Wicklow mountains. Our Oryx won the day and the other walked off. See his horns said Ashraf, he has lost them from fighting through the fence.

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