You may have never heard of the addax, but you’d remember if you’d seen one. The critically endangered antelope has a brown-and-white mask and a distinct spiraled horn. These pale creatures with the corkscrews are also known as white antelopes or screwhorn antelope. They have adapted to live in the harsh conditions of the Sahara, but apparently not well enough.
There may now be only three Saharan addax left in the wild. The shocking discovery comes from a report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. In March, researchers were only able to identify three of the animals in the area they are known to inhabit in Niger. They described the animals, huddled together in a small group, as "very nervous."
"We are witnessing in real time the extinction of this iconic and once plentiful species," said Dr. Jean-Christophe Vié, deputy director of IUCN Global Species Programme, in a news release.
It's illegal to hunt addax in Niger or remove them for any reason. The animals are also protected under the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) in neighboring Chad.
But the IUCN blames the animal's shocking decline on oil installations in Niger operated by the China National Petroleum Corporation. Not only has oil extraction disturbed the animals' habitat, according to the IUCN, but the soldiers hired to protect the oil operation have poached the animals for meat.
"Without immediate intervention, the addax will lose its battle for survival in the face of illegal, uncontrolled poaching and the loss of its habitat," says Vié.
Although extremely rare in its native habitat, the addax is common in captivity, like this duo at the Yotvata Hai-Bar Nature Reserve in Israel. (Photo: MathKnight/Wikimedia Commons)
The group is calling for "emergency measures" to help save the addax from extinction, including monitoring and securing the wild addax population, stopping poaching, and reinforcing the existing population by introducing captive-bred stock.
Currently, a few thousand addax live in captivity in zoos, nature reserves and breeding programs in Africa, Europe, Japan and Australia, according to Scientific American. More can be found on private ranches in Texas where, ironically, the animals can legally be hunted.
There's a chance researchers missed a few animals when they were counting. But even if there are five times as many addax still roaming the desert in Niger, that's still too few to guarantee a self-sustaining population, Alessandro Badalotti, coordinator for Save Our Species, told news agency AFP.
"In the current context, the species is doomed to extinction in the wild," he said.