Along a Hill Country Highway

Much of the dry, rocky land of central Texas is really best suited for small populations of grazing or browsing animals.  Ranchers may raise cattle, sheep, or goats, but for another income stream, they may raise exotic animals, and allow paying guests in to hunt.  On the way to our Hill Country property, we pass through some of these huge ranches, and occasionally we get a good view of the exotics.

On our last trip, we saw these Scimitar-Horned Oryx:

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They are native to North Africa.  Depending on the reference you read, these animals are either critically endangered or actually extinct in the wild, but they do very well in Texas.  From 2005 to 2012, they were exempted from the normal restrictions of the Endangered Species Act, and they could be hunted here.  One of our state Wildlife Management Areas even had them and allowed a few people to hunt every year.  Then the law changed, and oryx could not be transported or hunted without a permit.   That sounds well and good, because after all we can’t hunt any species without a permit, but no permits were being granted.

The reason I know anything at all about this is because I take Wildlife Management classes every year, and the instructors wanted to be sure everyone knew that taking an oryx would be a very, very bad thing.  I don’t hunt, but some of our friends hunt on our property, and while I didn’t expect to see an oryx turn up, just in case, I made sure that they all knew that if they saw one, they had to leave it alone.

I can see the reason for the rule change, because if you are a US Fish and Wildlife inspector, and you find someone transporting oryx horns, how do you know if they came from captive-bred oryx, or from one of the few remaining ones in the wild?  Reading the actual Department of the Interior’s Three Species Final Rule (which is written in surprisingly human language), it seems that when they first granted the exception, they did not have a time period for public comment, and they were ordered by the court to do so.  So they placed more restrictions on the oryx and two other antelope species (the “Three Amigos”) while they followed that court order.

I don’t know if they always planned to return to the original rules, but in 2014, they loosened the very tight restrictions, and now those three species may be hunted.  There are still many restrictions on them and lots of record-keeping is required — all noted in the Final Rule linked above.

When I pulled over to photograph these animals, they were oblivious to all the traffic whizzing by, but when they saw me get out of the truck, their heads went up and they kept an eye on me, even though I was a few hundred feet away.

The Department of the Interior reported 2010 estimates of captive animals as only 11,000 in Texas, and 4000 – 5000 in the rest of the world.  I feel very lucky to have seen them.