Threatened Desert Diversity
Though the image of desert regions is not linked with images of rich plant and animal life, the Sahelo Saharan region encompasses a wonderful variety of habitats and was home to abundant large mammals. Conflict with human activities has decimated these species in recent decades.
The Sahelo-Sahara region contains ergs (huge sand dune complexes), mountains, wadis (dry river beds) and the oases usually associated with ‘deserts’. There are also the dry forests and seasonal grasslands of the Sahel in the south and Mediterranean coastal region in the north.
The variety of habitats is inhabited by similarly striking animals. Several species of elegant gazelle , the corkscrew-antlered Addax , the Arabian oryx and other iconic species such as cheetah and the Houbaba bustard used to be common here. Grazers played a central role in the maintenance of the Saharan ecosystems. By keeping the vegetation balance constant, they preserved the biodiversity of these systems. Historically, antelope have been central to the culture and livelihoods of indigenous peoples of the region.
Saharan Africa has lost more of its large mammals than any other region in Europe, Africa or Asia and there has been a rapid decline in Sahelo-Saharan antelopes over the last century. One factor has been the sensitivity of the Sahelo-Saharan region to environmental change, so desert boundaries vary seasonally and between years. Both humans and wildlife have traditionally moved with the boundary, to follow shifting resources. This natural movement has intensified human-wildlife conflict and greatly complicates land management.
Another factor has been the degradation of antelope habitat caused by intensive farming methods and severe drought. Civil wars in many Saharan countries and illegal hunting with highly effective modern techniques have added further pressure. As a result, wild antelope populations are severely threatened. Some species are extinct in the wild, such as the scimitar-horned oryx , others are on the brink. There are only 200-300 wild Addax remaining.
Today, antelope remain one of the few sustainable natural resources in these arid lands. The importance of these desert antelope has been recognised in international conventions such the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) , the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) . ZSL is working closely with our local and international partners to restore these magnificent animals to the desert ecosystem.