When the last scimitar-horned oryx disappeared from the grasslands of Chad, the loss was profound, akin to America losing its buffalo or Australia its kangaroo. But now, after 30 years of dedicated work by conservationists, the iconic animal is heading back into the wild once again. 

Image: John Newby/Sahara Conservation Fund

Some 25 collared scimitar-horned oryx are being released in Chad's Sahelian grasslands, thanks to a collaboration between the Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi, the government of Chad, the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) and the Zoological Society of London.

"This is an epic homecoming for this majestic species," says SCBI's Steve Monfort. "Every conservationist aspires to ensure that wildlife thrive in their natural environment. This project was designed to ultimately give scimitar-horned oryx that chance, while also helping restore this grasslands ecosystem and to inspire and inform similar reintroduction efforts for other species."

The animals must be closely monitored over the coming months, but the team remains optimistic that the reintroduction will be a success. Tracking collars fitted on the animals will "ping" crucial information to researchers twice each day, including the position of each oryx. That data will help paint a clearer picture of how the antelope use their grassland habitat. 

"[We'll now know] where the oryx go seasonally, how far they travel, whether they stay together or disperse into different social groups, and even if a poacher has taken an animal," says the team.

The animals will be closely monitored over the coming months. Image: John Newby/Sahara Conservation Fund
Image: John Newby/Sahara Conservation Fund

By looking at data from each collar's on-board accelerometer, which monitors up-down, and left-right movement (the same tech that picks up your smartphone's orientation), scientists will be able to determine how much time these animals spend eating, sleeping and avoiding predators.   

"We're essentially opening up a window that will help us understand how and why individuals move across the landscape and allow us to monitor each individual in a way that was never before possible."

Unregulated hunting for their meat and tough leather drove the once-abundant oryx to extinction in the wild in the late 1980s. Now that they've made their return, strong hunting protections are crucial, but other conservation efforts will also be needed if we're to see these animals thrive for years to come. Habitat loss and human encroachment are now the biggest threats to their survival. 

The African reintroduction isn't without risk. One concern is the possibility of a genetic bottleneck, whereby the gene pool becomes too small to produce healthy offspring in future. The researchers hope they've sidestepped that problem by carefully selecting breeding stock from programmes in London, the United States and the Middle East. 

The plan is to release 500 oryx over the next five years, and while every individual will be collared, a built-in drop mechanism ensures the animals will wear the electronic accessories only for a short period. 

Community education will be a crucial factor in the reintroduction's success. The Sahelian landscape has changed a lot since oryx last roamed here, and the new arrivals will now be competing for grazing rights and access to water with livestock. Without the support of local communities, their stay could be short-lived.

"We can't claim victory at this time," Monfort said earlier this year in an interview with Smithsonian. "We can't say, 'we've got these animals back into Chad and we're done.' Its a continuum. We're 10 steps down the road that's 30 steps long. Conservation is hard."

But there is hope: in perhaps the most exciting news, a few of the females set for release may be pregnant. If born soon, the new calves will likely imprint on the release site. "It would be a momentous occasion," says the team. "The first oryx born on native soil in decades."

Each one of the 500 oryx set for release will be fitted with a tracking collar that transmits vital data to scientists. Image: John Newby/Sahara Conservation Fund
Image: John Newby/Sahara Conservation Fund
The collars are designed to drop off after a set period of time. Image: John Newby/Sahara Conservation Fund
Image: John Newby/Sahara Conservation Fund
Image: John Newby/Sahara Conservation Fund
Image: John Newby/Sahara Conservation Fund
Image: John Newby/Sahara Conservation Fund


Top header image: John Newby/Sahara Conservation Fund