Monday, January 23, 2017

Ghost in the dunes--the cheetahs of the Sahara



"This is the sense of the desert hills: that there is room enough, and time enough."

-Mary Hunter Austin

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Evening, in the windswept dunes of southern Algeria, is a welcome affair. Somewhere in that fine line between day and night, the Saharan sun transforms from oppressively radiant taskmaster to beguiling friend. A steady breeze tosses about grains of sand, as though an hourglass was being slowly and imperceptively turned. As the desert sky fades from gold to blue, slow yet purposeful footsteps can be heard. A cheetah is on the prowl.



That there are populations of cheetahs living in the Sahara desert and its southernly neighbor, the Sahel, is only slightly less than the sum total of human knowledge of their ecology. Records of their numbers are slight, and few population surveys exist. But the little we do know paints a picture of an elusive, wide-ranging desert carnivore precariously holding onto existence by the slimmest margins.

The latest population surveys, compiled by Sarah Durant and colleagues in a 2017 paper, suggest that there approximately 220 North African cheetahs, of which 191 live in Algeria and Mali. The others exist in relict populations in Niger, Benin, and Burkina Faso. Of the core Algeria / Mali population, only 13% exist in protected areas. Because the chances of survival decline significantly outside protected regions without intensive management, any conservation strategy for the North African cheetah must focus on reducing conflict with the humans who share their land, and securing an ample prey base.

Behaviorally, this desert phantom is a near total enigma. Camera trap surveys indicate that unlike its southern cousins, who are mostly diurnal (day dwelling), North African cheetahs are most active during the night, when temperatures are lowest. Based on a survey of 35 cheetahs living in and around Ahaggar Cultural Park, Algeria, researchers suggested an average home range size of 1,583 square kilometers, an area 2.5 times larger than New York City.

Videos and photographs suggest that North African cheetahs are smaller and more lightly spotted than their southern cousins. Nothing is known about their feeding habits, prey requirements, or breeding ecology.

Due to this data vacuum, any information that we can gather is vital for the persistence of one of Earth's rarest, most endangered large mammals. That the cheetah can survive in a landscape as harsh and foreboding as the Sahara is testament to its incredible resolve and resiliency. And, given sufficient research and on-the-ground action, I remain hopeful that the sands will not whisper of the cheetah in memory alone.




Photo credit: Fraid Belbachir / ZSL / OPNA

References: 


Belbachir et al. 2015. Monitoring rarity: The critically endangered Saharan cheetah as a flagship species for a threatened ecosystem. PLos ONE 10(1):  http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0115136

Durant et al. 2017. The global decline of cheetah Acinonyx jubatus and what it means for conservation. PNAS 114(3): 528-533