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 unlike the unicorn, 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 also believed their long horns acted as a powerful aphrodisiac.
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 one charged towards him and speared its horn through his tyre. He decided never to hunt again, and 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.
Keen to get a closer look at these potentially mythical beasts, Time Out 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 (inset), 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 tells us to keep a respectful distance as we look around. ‘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.
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. 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 its 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.
Salem tells us that the breeding programme achieves around 75-100 calves every year – they have even welcomed twins. Sadly, many are stillborn and the animals are always at threat of disease, which is staved off by vaccines and multivitamins. To boost the programme, the centre employs artificial means, moving males between enclosures (and occasionally transferring them between Qatar and other breeding centres around the region) 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 – such as the symbol of the national airline, Qatar Airways, and as the mascot of the 2006 Asian Games. The Al Maha Sanctuary features heavily on tour company fliers, and Salem tells us around 50 or 60 tourists stop by every day. 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.
Tourists are welcome to view the oryx at the centre with local tour companies, though special permission must be sought to explore the grounds. Call the Ministry of Environment on 443 7171 for details.