Driving across West Texas recently, I passed quiet a few farms that deal in “exotic animals.” One had a rhino on the sign. It was no mystery to me what these farms were raising rhinos for.
The Scimitar Oryx once lived across the vast Sahara and the steppes of Northern Africa. Their four-foot horns are capable of killing lions, making them tough prey. What makes them tougher are their unique adaptations for surviving without water for weeks at a time. Instead of storing water, like a camel, they conserve water using hyper-efficient kidneys, and the ability to raise their own body temperature up to 116 degrees F to avoid sweating. That’s what I call hot-blooded.
Evolution gave the Scimitar Oryx the power to survive one of the harshest environments on Earth. But they’re not bulletproof. Mankind hunted them for their horns until they were extinct in the wild. There hasn’t been a confirmed sighting of them in Africa in 15 years. And the year they went functionally extinct, they counted 1,250 Scimitar Oryx in zoos and nature parks. They also counted 2,145 oryx in big game ranches in Texas. That’s right; there are more Scimitar Oryxes in Texas than in Africa and all the zoos in the world combined.
It’s called “canned hunting.” Texas has ample space and more than a superficial resemblance to the Serengheti, so ranchers have discovered they can make big bucks by stringing barbed wire around their lots, stocking them with exotic African animals, and inviting hunters to come play Ernest Hemingway. Since the animals can’t escape, you’re guaranteed a catch. (A new-fangled offshoot of canned hunting is “internet hunting,” in which you can shoot a water buffalo while in your underwear, from the comfort of your den, by guiding a remote-controlled rifle with a mouse, like a perverted version of Oregon Trail.) Pictures from the ranches show white men grinning while holding up the heads of elands, oryx, dik-dik and zebra. I’d venture that the greatest diversity of African ungulates in the world is not far from Lubbock.
You might say that hunting saved the Scimitar Oryx, if it hadn’t destroyed it. The fact is, you can talk about global warming all you want, but humanity’s primary mode of extincting animals is the old-fashioned way: killing them. Remember what happened to the lions, cheetahs, rhinos and camels that used to live here? We destroyed the “African” animals of North America by hunting them, only to bring them back… to keep hunting them. The paradox of hunting is that once an animal is “huntable,” it is usually kept alive solely to be hunted; we bring it to within an inch of extinction, and then put it on a short leash so it can’t cross over. Often, the leash isn’t short enough. The animal goes extinct anyway. Or, it escapes.
In the 1960’s, New Mexico brought over 18 East African Oryx as a big game animal, to promote tourism. Today, there are more oryx in our Chihuahuan Desert than there are in their native Kalahari Desert, and they eat everything, trampling the white gypsum soil and devouring the delicate plant life in this fragile ecosystem. Call it the Revenge of the Neolithic, the African-style animals regaining their original homeland 10,000 years later. Note to Texas: Six Scimitar Oryx were recently spotted roaming wild on the plains near Houston.