St. Louis Post-Dispatch
By Jeffrey Bonner
May 4, 2008

In the fifth of a monthly series this year, Saint Louis Zoo President Jeffrey Bonner explores a part of the globe where the Zoo is working to conserve threatened species, protect natural habitat and partner with other organizations to strengthen the web of life in which we all live.


If I had to come up with a new conservation bumper sticker, it would probably say something like, "Rain Forests Are All Wet."

Don't get me wrong. I love rain forests. They are the darling of the conservation movement and, consequently, get much of the media attention and a big percentage of all conservation dollars. And why shouldn't they? Save a couple thousand acres of rain forest, and who knows how many species you'll save? For the maximum bang for the buck, rain forests are the places to be.

This logic, while clearly true, means that the great deserts of the world have gone largely ignored from a conservation point of view. Dry places are important, too. In fact, arid zones cover just over 40 percent of the world's land surface and support 2 billion people.

While rain forests are inexorably shrinking under the onslaught of human development, deserts are actually expanding through a process called desertification. The Sahara, for example, is gradually expanding into the Sahel, a dry, sparsely vegetated grassland along the southern border of the North African expanse of sand.

Source of Hurricanes

Why should we care? Well, ask the people of New Orleans. The Sahara is where all of our hurricanes are born. As the Sahara expands, its capacity to spawn even more intense tropical storms may well increase. It's ironic that such a dry place could cause such incredible flooding.

Water is scarce in the Sahara and in the Sahel. Where water is scarce, biodiversity tends to be low. But that does not mean that the Sahelo-Saharan region is devoid of life. In fact, this area features some of the most fascinating animals on the planet, all of them exquisitely adapted to their harsh surroundings. But many are facing an even harsher future.

Edge of Extinction

Ask yourself: "What is the largest species to go extinct in the wild in the last 25 years and where did it live?" The answer is the graceful and beautiful scimitar-horned oryx of the Sahelo-Sahara. This impressive antelope numbered in the hundreds of thousands not long ago. They still exist, thanks to the work of zoos, but they no longer roam the Sahel.

Following close on the heels of the oryx is the addax, a powerful antelope with upright twisting horns. Their numbers have plummeted from hundreds of thousands to 300. Dama gazelles number less than a thousand, and the fascinating red-necked desert ostrich can no longer be found over 95 percent of its range.

In fact, surveys of the Sahelo-Saharan nations, including Niger, Chad, Mali, Algeria, Morocco, Ethiopia and Tunisia, show that wildlife is in steep decline everywhere.

The good news is that we're doing something about it. A group composed primarily of zoos from around the world has teamed up to start a conservation organization called the Sahara Conservation Fund. The Saint Louis Zoo is a founding member, and now Sahara Conservation Fund has become the strongest voice in the world for saving the many critically endangered species that roam the Sahara.

Animals, especially antelope, have declined dramatically for many reasons, primarily because of unsustainable hunting, in which game is extracted along with its density.

The introduction of automatic weapons and all-terrain vehicles in WWII tipped the scales against wildlife in the region. Formerly inaccessible herds of antelope in remote corners of the Sahara could now be easily reached and killed in great numbers.

Calling this hunting is misleading, because no scientifically based limits were placed on this harvest, and it lacked a management plan to sustain it. Slaughter may be the more appropriate word here. Tremendous poverty in the region has exacerbated the problem by creating a short-sighted economy of sorts in which unsustainable hunting practices by foreign nationals are allowed to go on in exchange for much-needed cash. They are literally selling off their natural heritage for short-term gain.

Future Survival

Yet the Sahara Conservation Fund provides great hope. Perhaps the most visible effort undertaken by the fund in recent months is the reintroduction of zoo-born addax and scimitar-horned oryx in Tunisia. Bill Houston, the Saint Louis Zoo's assistant general curator, was part of a team that traveled to Tunisia with 22 animals - nine oryx and 13 addax - for release back into the wild. In fact, one of the addax was born in St. Louis.

Releasing captive-bred oryx and addax has been something zoos have been involved with for years. Tunisia's Bou Hedma National Park was seeded with zoo-born addax and oryx in two waves: the first in the mid-1980s, the second in 1999. By the beginning of 2004, Bou Hedma had 130 oryx and 70 addax that could be used to seed additional parks. As a result of the 2007 reintroduction, zoo-born antelope are now repopulating Djebil National Park (addax) and Dghoumes National Park (oryx). More importantly, we have bolstered genetic diversity in Tunisia's small but growing addax and oryx populations.

If reintroductions are the most visible efforts of the Sahara Conservation Fund, it could fairly be argued that protecting the remaining animals (especially the addax) that still live in the wild are the most important. Much of this work is focused on a fabulously beautiful area of pristine habitat located in Niger. This area, called the Termit/Tin Toumma region, is the last stronghold of the addax in the wild. It is, by all accounts, a region of stark but compelling grandeur.

While the area may seem lifeless at first, dama and dorcas gazelle, Barbary sheep and addax wander the rock and sand. Cheetahs (along with two other species of desert cats), hyenas, jackals and three species of foxes all prey on an amazing array of reptiles, small mammals and birds. At a glance, the sky might seem empty, but if you look long enough, you'll find bustards, buzzards, eagles, kites, owls, finches, larks, sparrows and vultures - more than 80 different bird species in all! The desert may seem empty, but it is not.

The Saharan Conservation Fund is making extraordinary progress in this huge region of Niger. Someday the Termit/Tin Toumma area will be a true national park, and the wildlife that remains will grow and prosper. The local population has embraced the idea of bringing the wildlife back and dream that someday eco-tourists will explore their remarkable home.

The groundswell of interest in Termit/Tin Toumma has led to a re-examination of the unsustainable hunting practices that have been allowed there in the past. The Republic of Niger has significantly curtailed hunting permits until a more rational and sustainable management plan can be developed for the wildlife of the Termit/Tin Toumma region.

The Sahara and the Sahel are truly vast, and the problems for both people and wildlife can be daunting and complex. Arid zones are, by definition, marginal parts of our planet, and the people who live in them are often some of the poorest. But arid lands constitute major parts of our earth, and we cannot afford to ignore them. The Sahara Conservation Fund is currently the only major conservation organization working in this vast expanse.

Republished with the permission of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
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