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North Africa
Environment - Nature

Sahara desert antelopes close to extinction

Dune gazelle (Gazella leptoceros) in Sidi Toui National Park of Tunisia

© Koenraad de Smet / Bonn Convention (CMS)
afrol News, 21 June
- As conservation plans fail, several antelope and gazelle species of northern Africa's desert are on the brink of extinction. In addition to their amazing beauty, these wandering grazers have so far plaid an important role in hindering the spread of the Saharan desert.

The graceful desert antelope and gazelle species of northern Africa have plaid a central role in the region's folkloric life during thousands of years. Hunting them down has been the privilege of emperors or chiefs - more lately that of well-paying tourists or rich local businessmen. In additional to attract tourists to the desert, they attract even more visitors to European and American zoos.

These foreign zoos soon could become the last spots to observe the desert antelopes. Already for some twenty years, these species have belonged to the world's most threatened animals. Since that, civil wars in Algeria, Ethiopia and Sudan, the pressure from a growing population, widespread poverty in the region and the disruption of age-old ethnic and social structures have had a disastrous effect on people and wildlife.

Extinction is however nothing new. Already one century ago, entire desert antelope populations fell victims of organised hunting tourism. Still, hunting safaris are arranged - mostly for the nouveau riches from the Arabian Peninsula - where endangered antelopes are shot with automatic guns from helicopters or jeeps.

But also hunting in the Sahara is coming to an end. There is almost nothing more to hunt. No other region than the Sahara has lost more wildlife species in the entire Palaearctic - a giant fauna region north of the tropics, including Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and northern Asia. Losses especially include mammals and birds.

The dramatic decline in biodiversity in North Africa is due to a human over-exploitation of the few resources that exists in this scarce environment, giving a serious blow to to ecological balance of the fragile Sahara. Over-spending of water, over-grazing, agricultural efforts, expanding urban centres and over-hunting has only caused the desert to spread and lessening available resources.

For the remaining species, the situation is dire. Loss of natural resources and habitat is further accelerating the extinction rate of Saharan mammals and birds. Environmentalist specialists now in particular now in particular voice concern for Sahara's unique antelope and gazelle species - which could be the next to die.

The desert antelopes however have all the genetics it takes to survive the harsh desert environment. They can go for months without drinking water. Their ability to survive in large flocks in the most inhabitable dry regions for a long time was a favourite mystery for biology scientists.

The well adapted desert species manage this by substituting fresh water with the small amounts of water to be found in desert plants. In search for these often marginal pastures, they often cross long, non-vegetated distances. If rains are in the air, however, their instincts tell them about showers up to 200 kilometres away. Them, they immediately take off to the fresh pastures across the desert.

Also their own role in the Sahara ecosystem is of great importance. As opposed to the desert's domesticated animals - cattle, goats and camels - the grazing of the desert antelopes is concentrated on certain plants that are essential for the prevention of Sahara's progressive spread. By grazing on these plants, they are spread to other tracts of the desert and its outskirts.

The process if extinction is fast and seemingly unstoppable. The famous Oryx antelope - the largest desert species with impressive sable-formed horns - has already disappeared and is now only to be seen in zoos. A total of six additional desert antelope and gazelle species in the region are currently strongly threatened.

The Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) - a UN-backed body to oversee the 25-year-old so-called Bonn Convention - now however is taking action to prevent this sad development. All the six threatened desert species are particularly included in the CMS management mandate, giving the Bonn-based body powers to implement conservation efforts.

As the CMS this month celebrates its 25th anniversary, the body has chosen the Saharan desert antelopes and gazelles as one of its major focuses for the years to come. There are however concerns this action may come too late and become just another failure in a long list of missed chances and conservation effort.

Great plans were already made in the 1970s and 1980s. The governments of Senegal, Niger, Chad, Tunisia and Morocco thus agreed on wide-ranging environmental efforts to protect the desert antelopes. Despite early and local successes, the desert antelope populations living in the wild however has continued to decrease dramatically. Also several attempts to settle bred animals in the desert did not lead to a recovery of populations.

In 1998, government officials from 14 Saharan and Sahelian states and environmental groups agreed on an action plan to address the problem. It focuses on the conservation of the antelopes' habitat and the breeding of animals to strengthen wild populations. Long-term sustainability is to be achieved by including local communities, sensitisation on desertification and investments in ecotourism. But there were no funds to implement the action plan.

Since April 2002, however, there is renewed optimism among environmentalists working to rescue the desert antelopes. The French government at that point agreed to finance the regional conservation project, which since has found other sponsors, including the CMS. The Bonn agency is to now play a leading role in the implementation of the action plan to restore desert antelope populations.

- Fortunately, most types of antelopes and gazelles can be bred in large enclosures of zoos and parks, Ms Lenarz at the CMS Secretariat in Bonn informs. "This has been done during the past decades, so there are sufficient animals in private parks and zoological gardens of most of the six almost exterminated North African species, mainly in Europe and in the USA."

CMS plans to enhance the breeding of the threatened antelope species in these parks to prepare their resettlement in North Africa. "Their controlled relocation and settlement first will take place in large national park and other protected areas," according to Ms Lenarz.

- Here, the animals are to get used to the wilderness again, CMS says. "Later on, the fences are opened, so that the animals hopefully will resettle all of North Africa," the UN-backed body optimistically holds. CMS however still has to reach committing agreements with the 14 affected states to assure that the resettled antelopes will not meet the same fate as their predecessors.

The 14 northern African states agreeing to the 1998 action plan and now working together with the CMS include Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Senegal, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Sudan and Ethiopia.

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