Early Casualties of the Industry

Bedouin workers feed hay to endangered oryx at a downsized preserve in Oman's desert.
Bedouin workers feed hay to endangered oryx at a downsized preserve in Oman's desert. (By Ellen Knickmeyer -- The Washington Post)
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By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 12, 2008

JAALUNI, Oman -- One early loser in Oman's rush to boost dwindling oil production is a doe-eyed, snowy-white creature that medieval storytellers tended to mistake for a unicorn.

In 2007, concerned by his country's yearly drop in oil output, Sultan Qaboos bin Said asked UNESCO to delete from its list of World Heritage sites Oman's more than 10,000-square-mile sanctuary for the endangered Arabian oryx, a long-horned antelope.

In a decree, Qaboos also cut the preserve's territory by 90 percent. Officials said the smaller size made the preserve more manageable. UNESCO's World Heritage commission acceded.

By the time of the site's removal, oil and gas exploration within the old boundaries already had cost the preserve "its outstanding universal value," the International Union for the Conservation of Nature said.

Oman's oryx sanctuary is the only site to have been scrubbed from the World Heritage list.

"In layman's terms, the country decided it had another priority for the land," Christina Cameron, chairwoman of the UNESCO World Heritage committee, said by telephone from Canada. "We were told hydrocarbon exploration."

Canada opposed the sanctuary's removal from the list. The United States supported Oman's request.

Four years earlier, Shell, one of the government's partners in the Petroleum Development Oman consortium, became the first major oil company to pledge to avoid drilling on World Heritage sites. Removal of the site from the list removed the objection.

Last year, the state-controlled oil company drilled two exploratory wells a few miles outside the new, smaller boundaries of the preserve. As in a test before the site became a World Heritage site in 1994, the test indicated the oil there was too thick to feasibly produce.

Although international coverage of the move was limited, regional news media linked it to a subsequent government shake-up of Oman's environmental ministry.

Khalifa al-Hinai, an adviser with Oman's Oil and Gas Ministry, declined to comment last month on the exploration in the oryx sanctuary. "It's a touchy subject," he said.

The oryx is a large, white-skinned beast with black patches. Both of its thin, slightly spiraled horns jut straight from its head at the same angle. In profile, the two horns look like one. Many scholars believe the oryx's appearance gave rise to the myth of the unicorn.

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