Wadi Rum is the setting for an ongoing experiment in wildlife reintroduction. The Arabian oryx (Oryx leucoryx) – a white antelope with long, straight horns that formerly roamed the deserts of the Middle East – has been extinct in the wild in Jordan for many decades. A captive breeding programme in the 1970s and 80s at Shaumari was successful, but after the first Gulf War 1.7 million sheep and goats, brought into Jordan by refugees from Iraq, decimated the rangelands through overgrazing, rendering the planned oryx release impossible. Oryx have remained in captivity at Shaumari ever since. Other regional projects have fared little better: Oman’s oryx reintroduction recently failed due to excessive poaching, and schemes in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Syria and elsewhere have had varying degrees of success – always (bar one release area in Saudi Arabia) with the oryx remaining behind fences.
In 2009, after meticulous planning over several years, twenty oryx were brought to Wadi Rum from Abu Dhabi for acclimatization in a large, fenced zone behind Jabal Rum, away from tourist routes, before release into the open desert. Twenty more followed in 2012, boosting the herd’s viability; a hundred gazelle also live alongside. By all accounts, the local bedouin are thrilled to see the animals back in the area: oryx have a uniquely poetic resonance in bedouin culture. They have vowed to protect them, not least because they also recognize that oryx-spotting safaris could become a major money-spinner. An oryx-spotting ecolodge is also planned. Time will tell how the project develops: for up-to-date information, ask at the Visitor Centre.