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Amazing images of the Saharan cheetah

Carnivore Project

In July and August, 2010, camera traps captured for the first time in Niger nocturnal images of the rare and extremely elusive Saharan cheetah. With support from the zoo communities of the United States and Europe, and in concert with the Wildlife Conservation Unit of Oxford University, SCF is studying the ecology, distribution and behaviour of the truly unique guild of sympatric carnivores that live in and around the Termit Mountains of east-central Niger with a view to their conservation (link to the carnivores project).

The Saharan cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus hecki) is remarkable for being able to survive in exceptionally hot, dry areas without access to free standing water. They probably satisfy their water requirements through the moisture in their prey and on having extremely effective physiological and behavioural adaptations. They can endure exceptionally high temperatures (upwards of 50°C in the shade) and comparatively low prey densities that requires high mobility and very large home ranges. The few photographs taken show very pale individuals with a short-coat, appearing paler and rangier by comparison with the more familiar image of cheetahs elsewhere.

Very little is known about the behaviour and ecology of the Sahara’s cheetahs and to date they have only been captured twice on camera in our study. Direct observations are also very rare (no more than 1-2 a year) but supplementary data is also collected from finding and following their tracks, analysis of their scats and mapping of the trees they mark with their urine. They are incredibly shy and elusive animals. Home ranges are certainly very high due to the natural scarcity of prey (gazelles, hares, large birds, smaller rodents). There appears to be a preference for caves and rock shelters as breeding dens. Saharan cheetahs are also likely to be far more nocturnal than other cheetahs in an effort to reduce the combined impacts of high temperatures and lack of water.

One issue of great interest to us is the impact, if any, of cheetahs on domestic animals. They are accused of taking goats and even baby camels, and as a result persecuted just like most other large predators. Work underway with local nomads is putting together the true picture of livestock predation in an attempt to reduce the arbitrary slaughter of carnivores that has massively reduced populations of cheetah and striped hyenas and has led to the poisoning of many smaller carnivores, vultures, crows, etc. through the illegal use of poisons like strychnine.

In all, there are probably no more than 10 cheetahs in our Termit study area but from tracks and rare pictures taken in the past we do know at least they are breeding. Throughout the entire Sahara there are now probably fewer than 200 cheetahs. Their conservation is of the highest priority both from ecological and genetic standpoints given their extreme desert adaptations. The few observations we do have are really important in providing tangible evidence for the cheetah’s existence. The more we know about the animal the better we can conserve it, including pin-pointing key areas for extra protection. The cheetah’s presence also adds weight to arguments for Termit’s protection as a nature reserve and strengthens our ability to raise support for conservation activities. The government of Niger is currently looking to declare Termit and the surrounding desert a legally protected area that would make it the largest in Africa at over 38,000 square miles (larger than Belgium or the state of Indiana).

As one year ends and another begins, SCF wishes to thank all its friends supporters for their help. We are especially grateful to the following people and institutions for the donations that are making our project to research and conserve Saharan carnivores a reality: Abilene Zoo, Adam Eyres, Fresno’s Chaffee Zoo, Saint Louis Zoo, Saint Louis Zoo AAZK Chapter, John Ball Zoo, AZA Conservation Endowment Fund, The Living Desert, WildCRU/Oxford University, Bronx Zoo/Wildlife Conservation Society, Wildlife World Zoo and Aquarium, Lynn Hall, Buffalo Zoo, Marwell Wildlife, Zoo d’Amnéville, Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Zoo de la Palmyre, Erie Zoological Society, Nashville Zoo, Zoo New England, Exotic Endeavors, Fossil Rim Wildlife Center, Zoo Osnabrück, Oregon Zoo and Phyllis Frazier.

John Newby/Thomas Rabeil (Sahara Conservation Fund)