The legend of the unicorn – was it really inspired by Qatar’s national animal, the Arabian oryx?
These statuesque, milky-white antelopes, with their curved horns, were thought to be behind the enchanted one-horned horse depicted in children’s fairytales and the Old Testament. But while oryx might appear to have a single horn when seen in profile, that’s where the similarity begins and ends.
Unlike the unicorn, described by Greek historian Ctesias as ‘exceedingly swift and powerful, so that no creature, neither the horse nor any other, can overtake it’, oryx are completely at the mercy of mankind. They once roamed the depths of the Gulf desert, but herds in the wild were decimated during the ’60s and ’70s by overhunting. Not only were these prized animals hunted for their meat, Bedouin tribesmen also believed their long horns acted as a powerful aphrodisiac.
Gradually, these elusive, shy beasts – who couldn’t outrun the speed of 4x4 vehicles – became more and more rare, until 1972, when the last surviving herd was killed in a remote region of Oman called Jiddat al-Harasis. It was feared the species had been lost forever, but the efforts of international organisations like the Fauna Preservation Society (FPS) in London and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) succeeded in rescuing Arabia’s ‘unicorn’ from extinction.
Here in Qatar, one man’s love of the oryx saw the country become the first Arab nation to begin breeding them in captivity. The tale is cloudy, but it’s thought that during the late ’60s, Sheikh Qassim bin Hamad became fascinated by the oryx when he was hunting them in the depths of the Rub’ al-Khali desert. When one charged towards him and speared its horn through his tyre, he decided then and there to never hunt again. Instead, he began to capture live oryx and nurture them at his private ranch in Doha. Eventually, the Sheikh’s oryx began to breed, though many were plagued by disease. Today, the breeding programmes are overseen by the Department of Wildlife Conservation, and numbers are flourishing. There are now more than 1,000 under protection in reserves at Shahaniya, Ras Ushaijrij and al-Maszhabiya, though none roam freely in the wild.
Keen to get a closer look at these potentially mythical beasts, Time Out Doha paid a visit to the Arabian Oryx Breeding Centre, also known as the Al Maha Sanctuary, in the Shahaniya region. We arrive at Al Maha (which means ‘oryx’ in Arabic) just as dawn is breaking and are greeted by Salem, a caretaker who has worked at the sanctuary for more than seven years.
As we walk around the eight enclosures – wide, sandy, fenced areas with herds of oryx grazing on dry grass – Salem tells us there is little chance of these animals being released into the wild in Qatar as similar programmes in Saudi Arabia and Oman have done. He unlatches the gate to one of the enclosures and we walk in slowly, trying our best to tread quietly and act casually. But our every move is being watched by dozens of pairs of intense-looking eyes. From the audible rustle of discontent passing through the herd of 30 or so animals, it’s clear the oryx aren’t impressed by this surprise visit. Many remain passive and continue to chew on their dry feed, but others stamp their hooves and toss their heads nervously.
Salem tells us to keep a respectful distance. ‘We have to keep back,’ he warns, gesturing at the oryx’s sharp, erect horns, which look slightly more menacing than they did on the other side of the fence. Though it’s unlikely the oryx – who seem more suspicious than aggressive – will attack us, males are prone to fighting each other, especially during the breeding season. The formidable battle wound scars seem to act as visible warnings etched on their bodies.
Suddenly, a female oryx trots towards us, and in the corner of our eyes we see something very small and brown scampering across the ground. It’s a calf, and from the glare of its mother, we weren’t supposed to go near it. Not that we saw it: watching it gallop ungainly towards the back of the herd on awkward, coltish legs, Salem tells us that calves aren’t born the luminous white colour of the older animals. Instead, they are born a light-brown colour; an extremely effective camouflage when the frail creature is resting underneath trees or desert scrub. ‘After some months it changes to white,’ Salem explains ‘Then the brown marks become clearer on his legs and the face. They grown horns after two weeks.’
It’s a clever way of nature working to protect the species and, indeed, if it weren’t for hunters and their fast cars, the oryx has a remarkable resilience to the harsh, desert climate. Unlike its African counterpart, the Arabian species has developed larger hooves, helping it to tread more easily across sandy dunes. Its short, sparse, white coat reflects the intense sunlight, and the animals are able to live for months without fresh water, surviving by licking the condensation off leaves. And, ultimately cementing their desert worth, oryx have a mysterious capability of detecting rainfall from great distances.
These days, Salem tells us, the breeding programme achieves around 75-100 calves every year – they even welcomed twins last year. Sadly, many are stillborn and the animals are always at threat of disease, which is staved off by vaccines and multivitamins. ‘In 1992, we lost 75 per cent of these animals to a disease like the flu,’ says Salem. ‘All the animals were falling down and their stomachs swelled up. Within two days they were dead. So we used a vaccine from a British zoo. If that hadn’t happened, we would have had a count of maybe 3,000.’
To boost the programme, the centre employs artificial means, moving males between enclosures (and occasionally transferring them between Qatar and other breeding centres in Oman and the United Arab Emirates) to encourage varied breeding and help eliminate diseases. But in other ways, the programme is careful to let nature take its course. For example, keepers don’t interfere when a female is giving birth. ‘We keep it like nature,’ Salem says. ‘We don’t want to come in and put our hands on the animal – we keep it like it is in the wild.’
These days, the oryx has grown into an iconic image for Qatari people as the country’s national emblem. The gift of an oryx to a neighbouring countries’ Sheikh is regarded as a great cultural honour and the animal has even been adopted as the symbol of the national airline, Qatar Airways. But it was during the 2006 Asian Games when the oryx shot to worldwide fame when Orry the grinning oryx was unveiled as the official games mascot, and a statue was erected on the Doha corniche (see circle pic).
According to a ‘special interview’ with the games committee, Orry said he was chosen ‘because I have lots of energy and really enjoy sport; but what’s most important is that I don’t give up easily. I always go out and try my hardest and that’s what matters’. Whether or not it’s because of Orry, interest in the oryx means the Al Maha Sanctuary features heavily on tour company fliers. Salem tells us around 50 or 60 tourists stop by the farm every day and, undoubtedly, there’s potential for more, as tourism and interest in Qatar grows.
Later that night as we walk along the corniche, the statue of Orry is a constant reminder to us of the peaceful, graceful animals we watched chewing on grass in Shahaniya. Obviously, Orry, clad in an aquamarine shorts and a permanent grin, isn’t an exact replica, but the sentiment is there.
Interested in visiting the centre? Tourists are welcome to view the oryx with local tour companies, though special permission must be sought to explore the grounds. Call the Ministry of Environment on 443 7171 for details.