There are only three Saharan addaxes — corkscrew-horned antelope native to the sandy deserts of eastern Niger and western Chad — left in the wild.
The startling new finding comes from a comprehensive survey of addax habitat led by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. In March, researchers were only able to identify three addaxes in the region the animals are known to inhabit. They characterized the animals as seeming "very nervous."
"We are witnessing in real time the extinction of this iconic and once plentiful species,” Dr. Jean-Christophe Vie of the IUCN Global Species Programme said in a news release.
The social animals used to live in herds of five to 20, though sometimes these smaller herds would band together with others to form groups of hundreds moving across the desert. They adapted to harsh desert conditions, producing highly concentrated urine to conserve water.
Niger has outlawed hunting the addax, and the animals are protected in Chad under U.N. environmental legislation. But oil extraction in the Niger desert by the China National Petroleum Corporation has been disastrous for the addaxes' habitat, destroying many of the areas where the creatures graze on shrubs and other vegetation, according to the IUCN. Additionally, soldiers guarding the oil operation have been known to poach the animals for meat.
It’s possible that the researchers missed some animals while taking their survey. But even if the real population is five times what they counted, that’s still too small for the species to sustain itself, according to science news site Phys.org.
That means the only way to save the wild population would be to introduce animals that have been bred in captivity. But doing so is expensive and extra challenging when there are so few of them in the wild already, the IUCN’s Alessandro Badalotti told Phys.org. It’s also a pointless endeavor if the threats to the animals in the wild aren’t mitigated.
In a bizarre twist, people can legally hunt captive-bred addaxes in the United States.