"Mythical" Species Returns to the Desert

By: Bill Clark

It all happened so suddenly. I had just opened a fresh bale of alfalfa hay and was inspecting it carefully before putting it out for the unicorns. Alfalfa hay has excellent nutrition; rich in protein, calcium, and many vitamins. And since nutrition is closely linked to good health and reproductive success, it was very important to ensure that the unicorns had the best hay available. Alfalfa hay also has a marvelous aroma, which briefly distracted my attention.

My back was turned for just a moment. The first warning was a sort of explosive snort—the kind of indignant and belligerent sound that unicorns make when they want to express displeasure. The second warning was the sound of four pounding hooves galloping across the hard gravel desert floor. A glimpse over my shoulder verified that Cinderella was charging and had her horns aimed straight at my vital organs. I leapt toward an acacia tree and scrambled up among its thorns as Cinderella’s very impressive horns passed within a whisker’s breath of my own personal anatomy!

I muttered a few words of invective—but soon realized that I should have been celebrating. Cinderella was behaving precisely the way unicorns are supposed to behave. Her latent natural behavior was finally expressing itself. Unicorns are supposed to be impetuous and volatile and inveterately wild. The only thing predictable about a unicorn is its unpredictability.

Of course, not many people call them unicorns anymore, although that’s the name found in the King James Version and some other Christian translations of the Bible, as well as in the Jewish Masoretic translation. The biblical prophets knew them by their original Hebrew name: “re’em.” Modern scientists refer to them as Oryx leucoryx and categorize them as members of the subfamily Hippotraginae or “horse-like antelopes.” (Leucoryx, by the way, means “white oryx.”) These days, many people commonly refer to them as Arabian oryx, although Avraham Yoffe, my boss at the time, told me to call them “re’em tenachi,” the biblical oryx.

I prefer to sidestep Middle Eastern politics, and call them unicorns. It’s more poetic, and it best captures their unbridled wild magnificence.

I was working at that time as the newly-appointed manager of Hai-Bar Yotvata, a 14-square-mile expanse of natural habitat deep in Israel’s Negev Desert. Our primary mission was to breed and reintroduce native Israeli wild animals that had been locally exterminated during recent centuries—part of our mandate to help restore the biological diversity of the Land of Israel.

Quite naturally, the animals in our project were the same species that had been seen and discussed by the Hebrew prophets—people such Job, Jeremiah, and Isaiah.

Interestingly, the authors of the Bible were rather accurate observers of wildlife—the Book of Job’s author in particular. In Job, chapter 39, verses 9–11, the protagonist says

Will the unicorn be willing to serve thee, or abide by thy crib? Canst thou bind the unicorn with his band in the furrow? Or will he harrow the valleys after thee? Wilt thou trust him, because his strength is great? Or wilt thou leave thy labor unto him?

Certainly, I should have been more attentive to Job’s implied warning before turning my back to Cinderella! Although this was but a single incident, it underscores the prophet’s point about wildness. Some species, including the unicorns, simply will not be domesticated. They will not become beasts of burden. They will not tolerate a harness and drag a plow or harrow across a farmer’s field. The unicorns are wild animals, and must be respected as such.

And that’s a large part of what the Hai-Bar program is all about—helping relatively tame zoo-bred animals to regain that spark of independent wildness, to be able to live, and thrive, by their wits in one of the earth’s most hostile habitats.

Cinderella was born in the Los Angeles Zoo. When we first received her, she was docile and dependent. The Hai-Bar project’s mission was to reacquaint her with her ancestral habitats. The project’s mission was generational. We knew that Cinderella had too many taming influences in her infancy and youth, and she could never acquire all the skills needed for life in the wild. But maybe her offspring—the ones born at Hai-Bar and exposed to the searing heat and desiccating air from the first day—could.

For untold millennia, Cinderella’s ancestors ranged freely across more than a million square miles of Middle East desert habitat, from Israel on the Mediterranean all the way to Oman on the Arabian Sea. They were well adapted for the harshness of the desert and could go for months, even years, without drinking any water. The unicorn’s luminous white hair is actually hollow and serves as an excellent insulator—better than double-paned glass! Inside unicorn navel cavities, a structure known as the carotid rete contains specialized blood vessels that serve as radiators, discharging heat every time the animal exhales. With these, and many other anatomical and physiological adaptations, unicorns can safely experience core body temperatures up to 110°F. They thrive in extreme heat and dryness that would kill most other animals.

The unicorn legend may have arisen during the time of the Crusades, when European knights saw these spectacular animals from a distance. They truly are “horse-like” antelopes. Sometimes they lift their heads high and canter, just like a horse. And when they mean business, they’ll burst into a full gallop that reaches graceful strides comparable to any thoroughbred. Except for some facial and leg markings, these animals are pure white, and on days of particularly strong sunshine that white can glisten. Seen from a profile, their two straight horns often appear as one. Just like their mythical namesakes, these unicorns are the epitome of precisely adapted wild freedom.

The one adaptation the unicorns never acquired, however, was to become bullet-proof. Indeed, the unicorn’s own behavior is partly the cause of its near extinction. The great tragedy started just one century ago, during the First World War, when the famous T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) delivered 60,000 British Enfield rifles to arm the Bedouin revolt against the Ottoman Turks. After the war, none of those firearms were returned to British armories. Rather, their exceptional accuracy and rapid firing made them excellent hunting rifles. And the unicorns were hunted relentlessly.

When unicorns are hunted, they will normally try to flee. But if the pursuit is persistent, they often stop, turn, and face their antagonist. The unicorn’s horns are very straight and have sharp tips. They can thrust like javelins. They’re daunting enough to discourage packs of desert wolves that have shared their habitat for millennia. But confronting a hunter armed with a high-powered rifle is disastrous.

Trophy hunting became especially popular in the years following the Second World War. There are reports of very large hunting parties—sometimes traveling with as many as 300 vehicles—searching the Middle Eastern deserts for quarry. Gradually, each surviving population of unicorns was exterminated. The end came in 1972, when the last unicorn was shot dead by trophy hunters in Oman, near the border with Saudi Arabia. The last free-living unicorn was killed to satisfy human vanity.

Fortunately for the species, there were a few unicorns held in zoos (which are sometimes an expression of another type of human vanity). The challenge became finding a way to acquire zoo animals, restore their wildness, and then free them into very well-protected habitat.

Avraham Yoffe was the mastermind of the great endeavor. Born in a Galilean farming community, Avraham studied to become a farmer himself—a farmer with a special sentiment for nature and wildlife conservation. But violence in the Middle East diverted his efforts to a career of more compelling urgency. He became a soldier—indeed, a very noteworthy soldier. But even as a soldier, he embraced nature. “Yoffe Stories” abound to this day: There was the day that he detoured an entire brigade seven kilometers so they would not trample across a field of wild flowers. Another time, Avraham called a cease fire during a heated tank battle with the Egyptian army. Why? Because peering through his binoculars, he had seen a rare bird—a cream-colored courser (Cursorius cursor)—caught in the crossfire. With the shooting on one side halted, the courser took the hint and escaped. Only then did Avraham continue the battle.

After retirement, Avraham decided to devote most of his time to protecting nature and restoring wildlife. So he arranged to be appointed as the first director general of the Israel Nature Reserves Authority, which was charged with responsibility for all wildlife conservation and all nature reserves everywhere in Israel. With characteristic ambition, he threw his soul into the work. Within a few years, Israel had more than 300 legally protected nature reserves covering more than 20 percent of the country’s land area. And the Hai-Bar project was his special pet.

Unicorns were not the only species to be locally exterminated. The availability of high-powered rifles also meant the extirpation of fallow deers, roe deers, wild asses, ostriches, and others.

To manage the reintroductions of these wild animals, Avraham set up two Hai-Bar reserves: one on Mount Carmel for the temperate woodland species, and the second at Yotvata, deep in the Negev, for desert species.

A shoestring project got underway, and it thrived mostly on willpower. Our first unicorns arrived from California and were released into a paddock not much larger than the one where they were born. Incrementally, the fencing was pulled back—a half-acre paddock became a full acre and within a few months it was expanded to three acres and then to 10. Within a few years, the unicorns were roaming within 3,000 acres of fenced natural habitat.

Simultaneously, natural nutrition was added to their feed. Wild grasses, acacia seed pods, and selected herbs helped to wean the animals toward the natural diet that would sustain them after their release. We manipulated the water and deprived them of access from time to time. Some evenings we’d prowl in the darkness near unicorns with big German shepherds on leashes. Sometimes the dogs would be lurking near the watering sites. The unicorns had to learn to be wary, because once they were released to freedom, the unicorns would be encountering some of Israel’s healthy population of gray wolves.

Day-by-day and year-by-year, the unicorns made conspicuous progress. Their population increased nicely, and the locally born calves flourished in the hot desert sun. An atavistic influence was at work, and the unicorns recaptured their ancestral wildness while they readapted to their ancestral habitat. Herd integrity and social dominance structures became more conspicuous. They became more able to deal with local parasites without veterinary interventions. Slowly they were weaned off of their favored alfalfa hay. They grew strong and wild, dining on desert grasses and acacia seed pods. They became more vigilant at twilight.

And then they were set free.

The reintroduction of the unicorns occurred incrementally over many years. A dozen were released at a site in the northern Arava Valley, about 50 miles south of the Dead Sea. Subsequently, other groups were released at different sites in the Negev, each selected because of particular characteristics such as quality of vegetation or availability of water. (Although the unicorns can live indefinitely without water, they certainly do like to drink when it’s available!)

The project was a success. Today, there are at least 130 unicorns scattered in small herds around the Negev Desert. I’ve seen them threading single-file through the narrow chasm of Nahal Lavan, the parched “White Canyon.” I’ve seen them charging at full gallop across the barren hardpan north of Mishor Hiyyon in the central Negev. They have penetrated to the most remote reaches of this desert, and they are again thriving there.