Conservation in deserts
Desert and rangeland areas of the earth contain unique plant, animal and human communities that have adapted to survive in these extreme and fragile environments.
However, these ecosystems are being degraded through unsustainable practices leading to desertification and wildlife losses. Responding to these threats, ZSL has long been involved in aridland conservation, through genetic research, wildlife veterinary work, captive breeding and reintroductions, reserve management and tourism development, and wild population monitoring.
Deserts Under Pressure
The North African and Arabian desert environments are important for the very large area of the globe that they cover, for their beauty and rich cultures and for the economic impact of the vital mineral resources they famously harbour. Although we tend to think of them as remote wilderness areas, the sudden impact of recent development in pursuit of those resources has been singularly heavy across this region. One symptom is the uniquely high proportion of the specialist large mammal community that is now classified under serious threat by IUCN criteria. Saharan Africa has lost more of its birds and mammals than any other region of the Palaearctic (Europe, Africa and Asia). ZSL’s desert conservation programme uses an array of management, community and species-led approaches to mitigate these impacts, build local capacity and promote integration of conservation with development for desert communities and ecosystems.
A Sustained Tradition of Action
ZSL participated in the formation of the original captive ‘world herd’ of Arabian oryx in the early 1960s, contributing to all aspects of planning the species’ recovery, and is still participating in the re-introduction and monitoring of the world’s only unfenced wild population in the Arabian empty quarter nearly 50 years later. In the interim, ZSL helped lead the first repatriation of scimitar-horned oryx to Tunisia (1980s), and implemented the captive breeding and successful large scale re-introduction of desert antelopes in Saudi Arabia (1990s). In the past five years, ZSL, working in partnership with the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) and the Sahara Conservation Fund , has played a key role in identifying remaining Saharan conservation hotspots , assisted with protected area development and an array of conservation management, training and research activities in six different Saharan countries and continues to manage the King Khalid Wildlife Research Centre in Saudi Arabia.
- The region’s largest antelope, the Scimitar-horned oryx, was last seen in the wild in 1982 in Niger
- The most desert adapted antelope, the addax, is restricted to perhaps 200 in Niger, and a handful in Chad and Mauritania
- In the last 10 years, wild dama gazelles have only been reported from four regions
- Saharan cheetah have only been recorded recently from Algeria and Niger; their prey base is reducing everywhere
- 50 years ago all these species were found from the Atlantic to the Nile
The ZSL desert conservation programme has, amongst other things:
large populations of mountain and sand gazelles to the wild by captive breeding and re-introduction in Saudi Arabia
- Contributed to national conservation strategies for wild ungulates in Morocco and Tunisia
- Pioneered methods for extensive desert surveys collecting rapid assessment data on fauna, flora and habitat and human land use activity
- Contributed with partners to the first sustained assessment and monitoring of remnant wild addax populations
- Conducted the first systematic surveys of slender-horned gazelle in the great Ergs of Algeria and Tunisia
- Established the first camera trapping study of Saharan cheetahs in Algeria
- Developed a detailed proposal for dama gazelle monitoring based on Wildlife Picture Index principles for dama gazelle and other fauna of the Termit mountains in Niger.
ZSL seeks to work with a network of international government and NGO partners to carry out a mix of activities tailored to the differing requirements of threatened species across the Saharan ecosystem. Key objectives are to halt the loss of species and diversity in the Saharan and Middle Eastern deserts by supporting establishment of secure populations of remaining fauna across their ranges, by promoting support from all
sectors of local societies who are well informed of the status and value of this natural heritage through provisions of accessible information and by encouraging use of nationally supported strategic plans to organise these activities.
Future ZSL desert conservation targets include:
Carry out surveys of previously unexplored sites across the Sahara focusing on areas of high potential to highlight conservation needs and actions, in partnership with the Sahara Conservation Fund as part of the Pan Sahara Wildlife Survey.
Develop and introduce standard conservation monitoring protocols and assist development of management plans for range state collaborators responsible for extensive desert ecosystems.