Arabian "unicorns" come all the way back from virtual extinction

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The Arabian Oryx, which might have been the initial inspiration for the unicorn legend, has pulled off a comeback every bit as magical as its legendary counterparts, becoming the first species to go from almost extinct to not even endangered.

In 1972, the last wild Arabian Oryx was shot, leaving the species's last survivors as strictly creatures in captivity. The term for that is "extinct in the wild", and it's often a death sentence for the species, as it can be very difficult to ever reintroduce captive animals back into the wild. But now, less than forty years later, there are over a thousand Arabian Oryx in the wild.

That's enough for the International Union for Conservation of Nature, or IUCN, to upgrade them from endangered - which is where they were listed after their last evaluation in 1986 - to vulnerable, which means that they are no longer in serious danger of extinction. This is the first time that's ever happened, and Razan Khalifa Al Mubarak, the director general of Environmental Agency Abu Dhabi, celebrates this huge conservation victory:

"To have brought the Arabian Oryx back from the brink of extinction is a major feat and a true conservation success story, one which we hope will be repeated many times over for other threatened species. It is a classic example of how data from the IUCN Red List can feed into on-the-ground conservation action to deliver tangible and successful results."


As for how the Arabian Oryx ties into the unicorn legend...well, the creatures have long, thin antlers that, when seen in profile, can be mistaken for a single horn. The Biblical word "re'em", which is generally translated as "unicorn", is thought to also refer to the Arabian Oryx. Even if this is all just a coincidence - and it may well be - this mini-resurrection certainly lives up to their mythological namesakes.

For more on the IUCN's latest conservation report, check out Scientific American.


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