By Jeremy Hance
Bigger than all of Brazil, among the harshest ecosystems on Earth, and largely undeveloped, one would expect that the Sahara desert would be a haven for desert wildlife. One would anticipate that big African animals—which are facing poaching and habitat loss in other parts of the world—would thrive in this vast wilderness. But a new landmark study in Diversity and Distributions finds that the megafauna of the Sahara desert are on the verge of total collapse.
"While global attention has been focused on [biodiversity\ hotspots, the world’s largest tropical desert, the Sahara, has suffered a catastrophic decline in megafauna," the researchers write.
Looking at 14 large-bodied animals, the study found that 86 percent of them (ten of the species) were either extinct or endangered. Four of them (28 percent) are already extinct in the region. The Bubal hartebeest (Alcelaphus buselaphus buselaphus) is gone forever while the scimitar-horned oryx (Oryx dammah) is extinct in the wild, although there are efforts to re-introduce it. Meanwhile, two of the Sahara's once top predators are gone: the African wild dog (Lycaon pictus) and the African lion (Panthera leo).
Megafauna that are still around aren't doing much better. The dama gazelle (Nanger dama), the addax (Addax nasomaculatus), and the Saharan cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus hecki) are all on the razor-edge of extinction with each one listed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN Red List. The dama gazelle and the addax are absent from 99 percent of their historic range; less than 500 dama gazelles survive, while the addax is down to less than 300 animals. Meanwhile the Saharan cheetah is only found in 10 percent of its range with only 250 left. Another top predator—the leopard—is only found in 3 percent of its range. Even the North African ostrich (Struthio camelus camelus)—the world's biggesth—has lost 99.8 percent of its range.
"Greater conservation support and scientific attention for the region might have helped to avert these catastrophic declines," the researchers write. "The Sahara serves as an example of a wider historical neglect of deserts and the human communities who depend on them."
Of the 14 species, only one species is found in over half of its historical range: the Nubian ibex (Capra nubiana). Still even this ibex is currently listed as Vulnerable due to overhunting.
The researchers say that there are likely a number of reasons for the catastrophic declines. More....