Oryx – The life of a desert nomad

Oryx portrait in the Namib Desert, Sossusvlei

The oryx is a type of animal that many people in Africa don’t even know much about. These wild desert-roaming antelopes are some of the most interesting animals on the continent.

Not only are they quite large for an African antelope, but their unique survival tactics make them capable of thriving in areas where most big animals struggle.

If living in temperatures that can exceed 40 degrees celsius isn’t enough, these majestic creatures have been fighting the odds against survival for many years.

With this oryx guide, you’re going to learn everything there is to know about one of Africa’s hardiest animals.

What is an Oryx Animal?

The oryx isn’t just one animal. Four different species make up the genus Oryx. These wild African animals are antelopes that live throughout the continent – even extending into the Arabian Peninsula.

They are all relatively similar in size, ranging from approximately 0.8m-1.2m in height. Their most notable characteristic is their majestic horns. The majority of these animals have remarkably straight horns, although one species has a noticeable curve.

Different Types of Oryx

Although they might look similar, there are four different types of oryx surviving in the wild today.

1. Gemsbok (Oryx gazella)

Herd of gemsbok under pink clouds, Nxai Pan, Botswana

If you’re an English speaker, you might be wondering how to pronounce the word ‘gemsbok’. Don’t worry, you’re not alone. This strange word comes from Afrikaans/Dutch and has managed to stick around into English.

The gemsbok, or South African oryx, is the most well-known and abundant horned oryx in Africa. They are also the only species of oryx that are of ‘least concern’ according to IUCN.

These antelopes mainly live in Namibia, where an estimated 373,000 animals roam through the arid and semi-arid environments.

Gemsbok are the largest oryx species, standing 1.2 m tall. However, this is excluding their incredible horns which average 85 cm. That’s more than half their body size.

These animals are light brown and have lighter patches on their rear. In contrast to their bodies, the oryx face is a combination of black and white. Another striking feature is their white ‘socks’ with black patches on both front legs.

2. East African Oryx (Oryx beisa)

Herd of common beisa oryx in Ethiopia

The East African oryx is very similar in appearance to the gemsbok. It is no surprise that these animals were, for a long time, considered to be a subspecies of the South African oryx.

There are two subspecies of East African oryx, namely the common beisa oryx and the fringe-eared oryx. Both of these animals live in East Africa. The beisa oryx lives north of the Tana River and in Ethiopia, while the fringe-eared oryx inhabits the south.

This antelope stands just over a meter tall and weighs approximately 80 kg. Their coat is brown, though it has a more greyish tinge. Their underside is white and can be clearly distinguished from their brown bodies by a black stripe.

If you haven’t studied pictures of this animal, you will struggle to differentiate it from its cousin the gemsbok. One noticeable difference is that the East African oryx has less black on its legs than the gemsbok.

3. Arabian Oryx (Oryx leucoryx)

Arabian oryxes in the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, United Arab Emirates

This is the only oryx naturally occurring outside of Africa. The Arabian oryx lives in the desert and steppe areas of the Arabian Peninsula.

Although they were facing extinction, a small population of these desert herd animals managed to survive. Thanks to repopulation efforts, the animals have increased in numbers and are now listed as ‘vulnerable’. There are an estimated 1220 wild Arabian oryx, so there is still a long way to go before they are safe.

These antelopes are very similar in size to their African cousins. Luckily, they are much easier to tell apart because of their beautiful white colour. Although Arabian oryx usually have straight horns, some pairs may have a slightly curvier appearance.

Arabian oryx rest during the day and are very adept at detecting rainfall. Their keen sense allows them to travel over 3000 km in search of water.

4. Scimitar Oryx (Oryx dammah)

Scimitar oryx resting under a tree

The last antelope on our list is the scimitar oryx. They get their name from their noticeably curved horns which makes it much easier to identify them.

The scimitar animal is a beautiful sight with its white coat and red-brown chest. They have noticeably less black markings on their face compared to other oryx.

These animals were once abundant throughout Northern Africa. During the neolithic period, climate change in this area caused their numbers to dwindle. In modern times, scimitar oryx horn became very popular and humans hunted them until they were functionally extinct.

Luckily, a small pocket of scimitar oryx survived in captivity. Since 2016, these antelopes have undergone a reintroduction program, with a small herd surviving in Chad. These animals also live in private exotic animal ranches in the Texas Hill Country.

Oryx Habitat

Although these four different species live thousands of kilometres apart, they all share similar environments. Oryx are masters of surviving in hot and dry conditions, which is why they do so well in semi-deserts and deserts.

One of the most fascinating things about these animals is how they survive in unbearable conditions. Most large mammals regulate their body temperature around 37 degrees celsius, but not the oryx.

Oryx have adapted to their hot environment by being able to increase their body temperature up to 45 degrees celsius. Only at this temperature will they start cooling down through nasal panting and sweating.

Heat is one thing, but they are also capable of surviving with very little water. To ensure proper water management, oryx concentrate their urine. They absorb as much moisture as possible and every drop counts.

What Do Oryx Eat?

A gemsbok feeds on a wild melon near Aus, Namibia

Just like any antelope, the oryx diet consists mainly of grass. Other shrubs, succulents, and desert plants are also on the menu. Depending on where they live, oryx may need to travel hundreds, sometimes thousands, of kilometres in search of food and water.

These desert animals will also look for water-rich plants like succulents, wild melon, and leafless twigs to provide much-needed hydration.

Oryx Reproduction

These herd animals reach sexual maturity by 2 years old. They usually breed during the cooler months between March and October, although there is no specific breeding period. Environmental conditions affect the frequency of their mating.

The gestation period is quite long, lasting 270 days. Female oryx give birth to either 1 or 2 calves and subsequently leave the herd.

Calves remain hidden for up to 6 weeks after they are born. After this, both the mother and calf will rejoin the herd. At approximately 4.5 months old, oryx calves become independent.

Oryx Predators

Cheetah with gemsbok kill at Okonjima

Because these oryx live in such vastly different habitats, their natural predators also vary. Gemsbok and East African oryx have the hardest time, having to deal with lions, cheetahs, and leopards.

Wolves prey on the Arabian oryx, while the scimitar oryx has no known natural predator. Although predation might not be a serious problem, hunting, malnutrition, and dehydration have been enough to cause severe declines of all but the gemsbok populations.

9 Interesting Oryx Facts

  1. Oryx may have been the original unicorns. When you look at an oryx from a certain angle, it looks as though it only has one horn. Even Aristotle himself believed this, considering the oryx as the unicorn’s prototype.
  2. The name ‘gemsbok’ comes from Dutch and German names for the male chamois goat-antelope, despite not being closely related.
  3. Gemsbok have a diploid chromosome count of 56 compared to the East African oryx’s 58 – making them genetically distinct animals.
  4. Oryx can survive without water for 9-10 months thanks to their adaptation to desert habitats.
  5. A large population of gemsbok live in New Mexico, USA. Between 1969 and 1977, humans released ninety-three animals. Without any natural predators, the animals’ population boomed. There are now estimated to be over 3000 gemsbok living in the area. The only way to keep their populations down is through regulated hunting.
  6. Oryx are generally not aggressive towards their own kind. This allows large herds to live together peacefully for long periods of time.
  7. The Arabian oryx is the first animal to have reclassified to ‘vulnerable’ status after being previously listed as extinct in the wild.
  8. The Arabian oryx is the national animal of Jordan, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Qatar. It is also the symbol of Qatar Airways.
  9. Ancient Romans and Egyptians used to breed scimitar oryx in captivity.

The Masters of the Desert

Lone gemsbok pictured from above in Sossusvlei, Namibia

These desert masters have been living in some of the toughest environments on earth for thousands of years. Although most species have been struggling through climate change and hunting, reintroduction efforts have been very successful.

Now is as good a time as ever to book a safari in Africa, or the Arabian Peninsula, to steal a peek at these majestic creatures. If you’re lucky, you might even spot a fabled unicorn.

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