They had ranged the open sand habitats of the Arabian Peninsula, the Empty Quarter Desert and Sharqiyah Sands (Wahiba Sands).
Though preferring sandy desert, they came down to the gravel desert of central Oman when it rained, in search of pasture and water. There were no hunters, no habitat degradation; two decades ago, the Arabian sand gazelles (Gazella subgutturosa marica), thrived across the Saudi Arabia-Oman border.
A survey by the Saudi Wildlife Commission in 1990 had reported a sizeable herd ranging across 30 kilometres of the border area of Ghanim on the Omani side. Ten years later, a two-day line transect by car in the central sand desert of Oman could sight just 44 gazelles besides tracking 34 others (totaling 78 gazelles - density of 1.26/sq km). The population trend has been on a decline and the unprecedented economic development in the region and the availability of 4WDs and automatic rides to poachers led to an almost complete wipe-out of the Arabian sand gazelles in Oman.
Something had to be done in Oman. Many countries had established captive populations of sand gazelles in zoos and breeding centres and some of them were re-introduced into the wild. In Saudi Arabia, a captive group had already been successfully re-introduced into the Mahazat As Sayd Reserve, a fenced protected area. Oman, too, couldn't turn a blind eye.
As the gate opens to this big enclosure, we see that Oman hasn't ignored the IUCN's (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List which has classified Arabian sand gazelle as vulnerable. Inside the enclosure and between the ghaf, samr and salm trees we spot them, a few hundreds of the sand-hued creatures with their beautifully 'carved' horns, pitch black eyes and tagged-ears, feeding on alfalfa hay. We are right in the middle of 'a large-scale programme undertaken by the Office for Conversation of the Environment of Oman's Diwan of Royal Court to introduce a free-ranging Arabian sand gazelle population in Al Wusta Wildlife Reserve (WWR) of central Oman'.
"This enclosure has two big sections besides four holding pens and we currently have here 344 sand gazelles," says Metab Al Ghafri, senior wildlife biologist in Jaaluni. The large section has a mix of 15 males, 114 females and 148 calves, while the other houses 'fighting' males, he adds. And there are holding pens which would ensure the reserve breeds a genetically diverse population with gazelles from three countries and a total of around 10 staff to look after them.
It has been more than a year since the launch of the project and the captive sand gazelles are doing well, says Khalifa Hamed Al Jahwari, the field manager and the senior specialist at the reserve. "Though there are no specific plans now on when to release them into the wild, they are expected to join Arabian Oryx and Arabian gazelle (mountain gazelle) in the reserve (100 kilometres to the east of Haima and enclosed by a two-metre high chain-link perimeter fence) in future," he adds.
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