Monday, March 10, 2008

Scimitar-Horned Oryx

The Scimitar-Horned Oryx is a species of large antelope that once occupied the dry grasslands south of the Sahara desert. Its scimitar-like horns are said to have allowed it to kill lions, presumably by positioning those horns directly in the path of a lion's final charge and impaling the massive cat before it can react. That sounds like it would be an exceedingly dangerous manner of defense, preferable only to having no defense at all. Sadly, this tough and elegant species has been extinct in the wild for some years. Remarkably, I recently had the privilege of photographing one of the herds that are the final repositories of this species' genetic diversity, and therefore the key to its future, if it is to have one.

This herd lives not far from Johnson City, Texas, on a square mile of the Bamberger Ranch Preserve that has been carefully fenced, planted in African Klein grass, and reserved for the exclusive use of the Oryx. In this Species Survival Program (SSP), the Preserve donates the land, labor, and financial resources that sustain the herd, while the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) oversees the program, including the crucial task of determining which males and females will be mated each year in order to maintain the maximum possible genetic diversity within the herd. Margaret Bamberger has provided more information about the Oryx and the SSP in a recent posting on her blog. If Margaret's version of the facts differs from mine, believe Margaret.

All that aside, David Bamberger asked me some time ago to try to get him some glamour shots of the Oryx, and it didn't take a moment's thought to accept his offer. Unfortunately, only a few weeks ago did my first opportunity to attempt that photography arrive. There are several problems with David's request, not the least of which is that I have no experience in getting glamour shots of anything, except, possibly, landscapes. Fortunately, basic competence, stubbornness, and patience can make up for a fair piece of missing experience, given enough time. Another problem is that while the square mile occupied by the Oryx sounds like a lot of space, more often than not, there's still a fence, or other human artifact, somewhere in the background. (The fact that the males have to be kept separate from the females and juveniles so that their breeding partners can be controlled by the AZA means that the area has to be subdivided into several pastures. Thus there are more fences than you might expect.) Yet another problem is that the Oryx, though accustomed to having people around, don't want to be around people. I credit them for their good sense, but looking and smelling nothing like an Oryx, I found it a challenge to get close enough to take good photos, even with the equivalent of a 640mm lens. (If only my old mirror lens were autofocus....) Finally, my recent shoulder problems severely constrained my ability to crawl through the knee-high grass to make my final approach toward the herd. On the plus side, though, what little awkward crawling through the grass that I did manage may have helped with the not-smelling-like-an-Oryx problem, because there's no shortage of Oryx poop fertilizing all that grass, no matter where you go. I also became acquainted with the literal meaning of the old metaphor "ants in your pants". Fire ants, naturally.

Earnest efforts notwithstanding, this first outing with the antelope did not produce David's glamour shot, but, circumstances permitting, I'll keep trying. In the meantime, allow me to share some of the more interesting failures.

If you look closely at this photo, you can read the numbers on the ear tags of three of the Oryx. From left to right, they are 162, 134 and 142. Margaret has been kind enough to do some research on those animals, so I can pass along a few biographical details. First, all of them were born on the Preserve, and all are females (no surprise there, given the necessary separation of the sexes). No. 162's birthday was 25 May, 1994. No. 134's was 29 April, 1992, and 142 was born on 25 May, 1992. If Margaret has the time, she may yet tell me who's related to who (if they happen to be related in any recent sense), and their family histories. Those histories go back many generations and were the basis for the AZA's selection of the initial members of the herd (they needed animals that were unrelated as far back as records existed, or, failing that, as distantly related as possible), and their ongoing selection of mates.

Oryx heading away at a leisurely pace.

Oryx heading away at a good pace, but, I'm confident, at a small fraction of their top speed.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the very nice piece on the Scimitar-Horned Oryx. The pictures are good - better than those I've taken. I hope you can someday get glamour shots of the girls- they deserve it, and we will be delighted to have those portaits. We hope you'll come to the ranch again soon and crawl through the tall grass again to take more pictures.