The Arabian Oryx, whose distinctive horns are widely believed to have given rise to the unicorn legend, is back from the brink of extinction in the deserts of the Arabian peninsula. About 1,000 of the creatures now exist owing to nearly three decades of successful breeding, a Swiss-based conservation group announced today. Efforts to breed captive oryx and release them back into the Arabian Peninsula—the only place this species is found—began in Oman in 1982, a decade after the last one was apparently shot in the wild, the environmental group said.
It said the breeding program demonstrated that captive oryx could adapt to harsh wild conditions, first in Oman and later in the deserts of Saudia Arabia, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and, most recently, in Jordan. The creature can smell water from miles away, has wide hooves that let it easily navigate shifting sand, and lives in small herds of eight to 10 animals. When its long, narrow horns that curve slightly at the tip are viewed in profile, they can appear as one, like the fabled unicorn. But another antelope species, the Saola of Southeast Asia, is also seen as a possible source of the unicorn legend. (Read more endangered species list stories.)