In search of the elusive Saharan cheetah

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By Sarah Durant
Zoological Society of London, Wildlife Conservation Society and National Geographic Big Cats Initiative 

Cheetah Camera Trap Image
The rare and enigmatic Saharan cheetah – a unique daylight photograph from remote cameras obtained during a survey of the Ahaggar Cultural Park in Algeria

It is 2008 and I am travelling through the magnificent red mountains and sandy plains in the Ahaggar Cultural Park in south central Algeria, with my PhD students, Farid Belbachir and Amel Belbachir-Bazi. We're setting up the first surveys of cheetahs here.  It was thrilling to think that a cheetah may well have passed through, perhaps just days, or even hours, before us. 

Once we were away from the nearest towns, signs of wildlife were frequent, and we came across Dorcas gazelle, hares, and even Barbary sheep. Their numbers were sufficiently plentiful to support cheetah. Then we found cheetah scat and finally and tantalisingly, tracks. 

The Sahara is the world’s largest desert, encompassing nearly ten million square kilometres and stretching across the width of the African continent, a distance of around 6,000km. At first sight it might appear to be an empty landscape, barren of wildlife. Closer inspection shows that not only is it teeming with life but, even more surprisingly, its most remote corners harbour one of the world’s most elusive big cats: the Saharan cheetah. 

The Saharan cheetah is classed as a separate subspecies – Acinonyx jubatus hecki. It has a more ‘dog-like’ face with a pointed muzzle and sharp facial features compared with its sub-Saharan relatives - who appear distinctly round-faced and thick necked in comparison. 

In a new article we use photographs from remote cameras to shed insights into the life of the secretive Saharan cheetah. These cameras trigger a photograph whenever an animal passes in front of an infrared motion detector. 

Surveying these immense landscapes is no small undertaking. We used 40 camera traps, each 10km apart, to cover a total area of 2,600km2. After 2-3 months, we were successful in capturing thousands of photographs of camels and feral donkeys! However, snuck in between the camels and donkeys, were also 32 precious records of Saharan cheetah. 

From these 32 sightings, we were able to identify five different individual cheetah using their distinctive spot patterns, and estimate the overall density of cheetah at 2-5 individuals per 10,000km2. This density is much lower than any cheetah density previously reported, and makes the Saharan cheetah one of the rarest large cats in the world. 

We also found that the cheetah roamed across massive areas. Over just 2-3 months, the two individuals that were most photographed travelled across an average area of 1,600km2.  Nearly all the cheetah photographs were taken during the night, often during the small hours, suggesting that the Saharan cheetah were also likely to be nocturnal, unlike their largely diurnal sub-Saharan cousins.

This evidence of Saharan cheetah surviving in the remote Ahaggar Cultural Park in Algeria is very welcome news. However, our findings have serious implications for their conservation. At such incredibly low densities, cheetah will need vast landscapes of hundreds of thousands of square kilometres for their conservation. 

The Ahaggar Cultural Park, together with the adjacent Tassili N’Ajjer Cultural Park, encompass an impressive 770,000km2. Yet our study suggests that even this enormous area may only support 160 cheetah. Cheetah also face problems due to the insecurity that currently pervade most countries in the region, including serious unrest in adjacent countries: Libya and Mali. This reduces access to conservationists and managers to monitor and safeguard these precious landscapes and their biodiversity. 

Not so long ago, the Sahara harboured a far greater diversity of life than survives today. This included the iconic desert antelope, the Addax, and Dama and slender-horned gazelles. However, there has been a dramatic collapse in Saharan wildlife over the course of the 20th century. Today, less than 250 Saharan cheetah are thought to remain, and the subspecies is listed as Critically Endangered by IUCN. 

The future of the Saharan cheetah hangs in the balance. Surely we will lose something of the magic of the spectacular landscapes of the Sahara if we allow the cheetah to disappear.

Ahaggar Cultural Park in south central Algeria
The spectacular landscapes of the Ahaggar Cultural Park in south central Algeria – home of the Saharan cheetah

 
Acknowledgements

Farid Belbachir is the lead author on the article published in PLOS ONE on 28th January 2015. Amel Belbachir-Bazi, Nathalie Pettorelli Tim Wacher and myself are coauthors. The study was made possible by the generous support of the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, Wildlife Conservation Society, the Dunstable Runners and a Dorothy Hodgkins Postgraduate Award. It also benefited from a partnership with Panthera. Finally, the study would not have been possible without the support of the staff and Former Director, F. Ighilahriz, of the Office du Parc National de l’Ahaggar (now the Office National du Parc Culturel de l’Ahaggar). 
A version of this blog also appears on www.nationalgeographic.com

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