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Rare glimpse at the elu­sive Saha­ran cheetah

pub­lished 08 Feb­ru­ary 2015 | mod­i­fied 08 Feb­ru­ary 2015

New research into the crit­i­cally endan­gered Saha­ran chee­tah (Aci­nonyx juba­tus hecki) estab­lishes it as one of the world’s rarest large cats.

ResearchSaharan Cheetah Ahaggar Cultural Park in Algeria by sci­en­tists and con­ser­va­tion­ists from the Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion Soci­ety (WCS), the Zoo­log­i­cal Soci­ety of Lon­don (ZSL), and other groups pub­lished on 28 Jan­u­ary in PLOS ONE shows 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 this elu­sive big cat.

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 of these ani­mals left in the Sahara, mak­ing them one of the rarest car­ni­vores on the planet.

The find­ings by sci­en­tists and con­ser­va­tion­ists at WCS, 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. They 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.

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.
Farid Bel­bachir, lead-​author, Lab­o­ra­toire d’Ecologie et Envi­ron­nement, Uni­ver­sité de Béjaïa, Algeria »

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,” said Belbachir.

Dr Sarah Durant, co-​author from WCS and ZSL, added: “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.”

Con­fined to desert envi­ron­ments, the Saha­ran chee­tah lives in pock­ets of north and west Africa. The report shows that Saha­ran chee­tahs are more noc­tur­nal, more wide-​ranging and occur at lower den­si­ties than other chee­tahs liv­ing in Africa. The Saha­ran chee­tah is listed as Crit­i­cally Endan­gered by the IUCN Red List of Threat­ened Species.

(Source: WCS press release, 28.01.2015)

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