Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute welcomes new foals, calves into the herd


Five Scimitar-Horned Oryx calves and three Persian Onagers were born at the SCBI this summer

FRONT ROYAL, Va. (WDVM) — It’s been a busy summer at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Virginia, particularly for the ungulate keepers, with eight new foals and calves joining the herds.

Ungulates are mammals, like horses and cattle– but at the Institute, keepers are caring for more rare species, like the Scimitar-Horned Oryx and the Persian Onager.

The Scimitar-Horned Oryx once roamed much of north Africa but was declared extinct in the wild in 2000. Breeding programs such as the one at the Institute have been successful though, with five births just this summer, marking a second chance at survival for their species.

The programs have been so successful, conservationists began reintroducing captive-born scimitar-horned oryx to Chad.

“Currently there’s estimated 200 in the wild,” said Lawrence Layman, one of the Institute’s ungulate keepers. “The females actually that were born in the wild are giving birth in the wild, so we have a second generation.”

The five calves born in Front Royal won’t be headed to back to Africa, but the research and breeding efforts they’ll be part of will hopefully help the wild population as well.

“We do a lot of the testing and research that is used in the wild,” Layman said. “For instance, we tested the radio collars here that will be used on the animals in the wild.”

One pasture over from the oryx, a herd of Persian Onagers grazed. The species of wild Asiatic ass is native to the desert steppes of the Middle East, and is capable of surviving on just one gallon of water a day. Despite its hardy nature, the Persian Onager is endangered.

“Their numbers are declining because of climate change and environmental factors and stuff like that,” said Morgan Vance, another ungulate keeper. “If you think about it, if there’s already a drought due to being in a desert, if it goes a little bit longer, it can be devastating for these guys.”

With the birth of a filly and two colts this summer, the Onagers numbers are up to six males and six females at the Institute, which is a big deal for the keepers. There are few institutions in North American that breed onagers, and one of the largest herds is at the Institute.

“We took at least a couple years off from breeding these guys,” said Vance, adding that they follow guidance from the Species Survival Plan as to developing breeding pairs and how frequently to breed the individuals in order to ensure as much genetic diversity within the captive population as possible. “We got our recommendations through the species survival plan and we were able to breed”

The oryx calves and onager foals will stay with their mothers for a bit longer, before the males are separated from the females and sent to join so-called bachelor herds with the adult males. Then, those individuals may head to other institutions for breeding programs, or live out their lives with the researchers in Front Royal.

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