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Unicorn Hunting in Texas: The Case of the Scimitar-Horned Oryx

The scimitar-horned oryx and the case for hunting an officially extinct species.

Believed to be one of the inspirations for the unicorn myth, the scimitar-horned oryx is a magnificent creature from North Africa. With beautiful white fur and long, curving horns on both the males and females, the oryx is certainly a sight to behold. Unfortunately, due to loss of habitat and climate change, this animal has been declared extinct in the wild.

In an unexpected twist of fate, the scimitar-horned oryx continued to thrive as a species due to the efforts of American hunters. Along with their cousins, the addaz and the dama gazelle, the oryx species was revitalized in hunting ranches in Texas, where tens of thousands of carefully bred, genetically diverse herds roamed. As strange as the new home of the species might seem, the oryz is extremely resilient to heat, and can even go weeks without water, making Texas a surprisingly hospitable environment.

Hunting ranches

The hunting industry in Texas is powerful, and because of it, the oryx herds are greater in this state than anywhere else on Earth. Not only is it good for the species, it’s very good for the ranchers. Each ranch built its herd up from nothing, spending a fortune to maintain it, but the hefty fees of $3,000 to $22,000 per trophy oryx killed, culminating in the loss of only 10-15% of the herd each year, are more than enough to sustain and make a profit.

Additionally, hunters pay $250 per day for bed and breakfast accommodations, a guided hunt, transportation, and the ultimate dressing of the animal, all in addition to activities for non-hunting guests.

All in all, the hunting ranches provide a lucrative business that should please conservationists and trophy hunters alike. However, there are those who would rather see the species go extinct than continue in this fashion.

Endangered status 

In March of 2012, the scimitar-horned oryx was finally granted endangered status in addition to being declared extinct in the wild. By and large, this is a positive move for most species. However, for the oryx, it could prove catastrophic.

As the majority of the species exists specifically within hunting ranches, the sudden ban of hunting this species won’t necessarily boost their numbers. As the trophy hunters disappear, so goes the economic incentive for ranchers to maintain their herds and ranches.

Priscilla Feral is president of Friends of Animals, the interest group chiefly responsible for the new classification, and has cited that she would rather see the oryx and its cousins go extinct in Texas than allow the continuation of what she calls “canned hunts.” Because the animals are bred for the express purpose of hunting and ultimately cannot escape their ranches, activists like Friends of Animals view the ranches as an unnecessarily cruel alternative to extinction.

Feral has opposition in the form of Charlie Seale, the director of the Exotic Wildlife Association. He argues that the ranches have been extremely beneficial to the species and are, in fact, one of the largest conservation efforts in the world. Furthermore, he predicts that if these restrictions remain, the population of the scimitar-horned oryx in Texas will plummet to under 1,000 in the next decade.

Check out our spotlight on endangered US fish and wildlife.

Ranchers can apply for permits to continue hosting hunts, but the process is difficult and oftentimes frustrating, with certain restrictions many cannot stand. For example, ranchers can be subject to inspections at any time without warning.

Only time will tell what the ultimate fate of the scimitar-horned oryx will be. Until then, it is worth acknowledging the incredible contribution these hunting ranches have made to the continuation of the species, and how the measures intended to help may ultimately hinder them.

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Unicorn Hunting in Texas: The Case of the Scimitar-Horned Oryx