Research by scientists and conservationists published today (28 January 2015) in PLOS ONE show that critically endangered Saharan cheetahs exist at incredibly low densities and require vast areas for their conservation. The research also offers some of the world’s only photographs of the elusive Saharan cheetah.
The findings are a result of the monitoring of Saharan cheetahs, a critically endangered cheetah subspecies, in Ahaggar Cultural Park, Algeria. Remote infra-red camera traps were used, and the photographs gathered have provided the world’s scientific community with some of the only close-up photographs ever taken of the Saharan cheetah. There are thought to be fewer than 250 cheetahs left in the Sahara, making them one of the rarest carnivores on the planet.
The findings by scientists and conservationists at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), University College London, UK, and Université de Béjaïa, Algeria, in collaboration with the Office National du Parc Culturel de l’Ahaggar, show that the Saharan cheetah adapts its behaviour to cope with the harsh desert environment in which it lives. Saharan cheetahs are active at night, probably to avoid heat or contact with humans, and must cover a vast amount of ground to find prey.
Research into how cheetahs survive within extreme desert conditions gives scientists a better understanding of how best to approach their conservation. The survival of large carnivores within the Sahara desert indicates that at present the Ahaggar Cultural Park is still a relatively healthy habitat; however there are threats to cheetah and their prey. Authors argue that more needs to be done to secure this habitat’s long-term survival.
Farid Belbachir, lead-author from Laboratoire d'Ecologie et Environnement, Université de Béjaïa, Algeria, said: “This is the first time we have been able to collect scientific data on the rare Saharan cheetah, as in the past we have had to rely on anecdotes and guesswork. We hope that this important carnivore does not follow the path to extinction like other Algerian desert species such as the addax antelope and dama gazelle.”
Dr Sarah Durant, co-author from ZSL, adds: “This research provides us with important new insights into the world of this remarkable desert-dwelling large cat. I hope that it not only provides invaluable scientific information about the ecology of the Saharan cheetah for the first time but also reminds the world of the value of studying and protecting desert species and their environments, which are often overlooked by researchers and conservation programmes.”