Endangered Species Handbook

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Grasslands, Shrublands, Deserts

Drylands of the World: AFRICA: Page 1

     The Sahara Desert represents an extreme case of grassland destruction by humans.  African Elephants (Loxodonta africana) lived in the Central Saharan highlands 10,000 years ago, and until 6,000 years ago, much of the Sahara was a vast grassland, interspersed with lakes and rivers.  People inhabiting this region at that time recorded the wildlife in paintings on mountainous cliff faces and on cave walls.  Massive petroglyphs of larger-than-life-size Giraffes (Giraffa camelopardalis) have been found in Niger's Sahara (Clottes 1999).  The male Giraffe is almost 20 feet long in a striking, deep engraving delineating each patterned blotch, crafted some 8,000 years ago (Clottes 1999).  Drawings of antelope,  ibex, Brown Bears (Ursus arctos), Lions, Cheetahs, elephants, gazelles and Black (Diceros bicornis) and White Rhinoceroses (Ceratotherium simum) froze in time an environment that gradually vanished.   Five thousand years ago, Egyptians began cultivating grasslands for crops, overhunting wildlife and draining marshland bordering the Nile for agriculture (Ponting 1991).  Ancient Egyptian paintings show the panorama of wildlife that once flourished in the grasslands and marshes in the Nile River region.  Large and small wild cats were common, as were Giraffes, rhinoceroses, Hippopotamuses (Hippopotamus amphibius) and other large mammals.  By the Old Kingdom period (2950-2350 B.C.), the African Elephant, rhinoceroses and Giraffes had disappeared from the Nile Valley (Ponting 1991).  The Cheetah disappeared from northeastern Africa at an early period.  These graceful cats had been domesticated by the Egyptians and appeared in their paintings, but were gradually killed off or over-captured in the wild.  Misuse of the land, which ended in turning grasslands into sand dunes and destroying the fertility of the seasonal flood plains and marshes, was the major cause of the demise of the Egyptian civilization (Ponting 1991).  Desert sands have interred many of the monuments and pyramids of this once flourishing culture. 
     Following the decline of the Egyptian civilization, the Sahara became a crossroads of nomadic peoples and their livestock.  Over the centuries,  grasslands turned to shrub and isolated patches of vegetation from overgrazing, resulting in a drying of the climate and a decline in large mammals.  Sand dunes now dominate this enormous region, and the majority of grassland species have been eliminated.  Only those animals able to subsist in extreme heat and desert-like conditions survive here today, and even these have been restricted to the few remaining pockets of vegetation and near oases.  These green spots in the Sahara are fed by springs and were once havens for wildlife and plants.  Humans have gradually taken them over for livestock, agriculture and human habitation.  Until recently, camels transported salt across the Sahara, traveling in caravans of as many as 20,000, which required vast amounts of vegetation for fodder. Nomadic tribes such as the Tuareg continue to herd large flocks of sheep and goats consuming what vegetation manages to survive in this arid environment.  Shrubs and trees are cut for firewood, further desertifying the region.  During the 1970s and 1980s, severe droughts and an expanding desert resulted in the deaths of many domestic camels (Onishi 2001).  As a result of desertification and consequent loss of vegetation, especially in Niger and Mali, many of these nomads are finally giving up their lifestyle and becoming farmers near oases (Onishi 2001). 
     During the 20th century, Saharan wildlife came under intensified pressure from increased numbers of livestock and hunting from all-terrain vehicles equipped with machine guns (see Persecution and Hunting chapter). By the 1970s, virtually all large ungulates had become endangered or disappeared altogether.   Smaller species, such as gazelles, became rare.  
     Deterioration of the Sahara during the 20th century resulted in the expansion of its boundaries by about 250,000 square miles along its southern edge between 1925 and 1975; in parts of the Sudan, the desert boundary moved south by 120 miles in the years from 1958 to 1975 (Ponting 1991).  The Sahara now covers an area equal to that of the United States, or 8 percent of the land area on the planet.  Lacking vegetation other than on the far-flung oases, the landscape is marked by dune fields, gravel plains, rocky plateaus with deep gorges and stark mountains (Allan and Warren 1993). 
     Scimitar-horned Oryx (Oryx dammah) originally lived in arid grasslands from Morocco and Senegal east to Egypt and the Sudan, an immense range.  In historic times, herds of 100 animals were commonly seen, increasing to 1,000 or more during wet season migrations (Nowak 1991).  Their populations and range gradually shrank with hunting, overgrazing and agricultural encroachment on natural grasslands.  The species disappeared from Egypt and Senegal in the 1950s, and by the 1970s, about only 6,000 animals remained in the wild (Nowak 1991).  The 1996 IUCN Red List Animals listed this species as Critical, Extinct in Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Mauritania, Senegal, and Western Sahara, and probably extinct in Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Niger, Sudan and Tunisia.  Four years later, the 2000 IUCN Red List Species listed the Scimitar-horned Oryx as Extinct in the wild. It now survives only in zoos and animal parks.   
     Another large antelope, the Addax (Addax nasomaculatus), once ranged from Western Sahara and Mauritania to Egypt and Sudan.  It is now nearly extinct in the wild as a result of heavy hunting combined with loss of its grassland and shrubland habitat to agriculture and competition with livestock.  Perfectly adapted to life in the desert, Addax are able to spend their lives without drinking water, deriving moisture from plants on which they feed (Nowak 1991). The 1996 IUCN Red List Animals listed the Addax as Endangered, Extinct in Algeria, Egypt, Libya, and probably Sudan, and surviving only in Chad, Mali, Mauritania, possibly Niger and as a reintroduced population in Tunisia.  Its status declined over the next four years, and in the 2000 IUCN Red List Species, the Addax is listed as Critical, the most endangered category. 
     Small gazelles have also declined drastically in the Sahara. The Slender-horned Gazelle or Rhim (Gazella leptoceros), native to North Africa, is now extinct in Western Sahara, and endangered throughout its range, according to the 2000 IUCN Red List Species.  The endangered Dama Gazelle (Gazella dama), also a heavily hunted species, is extinct in Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco and Western Sahara; it has been reintroduced into Senegal, and populations are now confined to Chad, Mali, Niger and Sudan (Baillie and Groombridge 1996).  Cuvier's Gazelle (Gazella cuvieri), another North African species, is extinct in the Western Sahara and survives in endangered populations in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, according to the IUCN.  Gazelles in the Saudi Peninsula and Near East have suffered similar declines, with several races of gazelle, the Acacia (Gazella gazella acaciae) and Muscat (Gazella gazella muscatensis), now in the Critical category (Hilton-Taylor 2000).  The Saudi Gazelle (Gazella saudiya) is now considered Extinct in the wild by the IUCN.
     Large herds of Wild Asses (Equus africanus) ranged throughout the Sahara in prehistoric times.  Over the centuries, they gradually disappeared as a result of hunting and loss of habitat. The species is now Critical, verging on extinction.  The Asian Wild Ass (Equus hemionus) declined or disappeared in the Near East and Central Asia from the same causes.  The Syrian race (Equus hemionus hemippus) became extinct in the wild, and other races are now endangered or highly threatened (Hilton-Taylor 2000).  Likewise, their close relatives, zebras, have suffered similar fates.  Burchell's Zebra (Equus burchellii burchellii) is now extinct, and the finely striped Grevy's Zebra (Equus grevyi) of East Africa is considered Endangered by the 2000 IUCN Red List Species.
     The southern boundary of the Sahara, the Sahel, is 100 miles closer to the Equator than it was 100 years ago.  Somewhat more verdant than the Sahara, the Sahel was a mosaic of grassland and shrubland until recent times. Its decline into desert occurred rapidly.  In the late 1970s, an elderly Upper Volta native, Chief Issoufi Alimonzo, recalled:  “There were once elephants and giraffes and lions here. The father of my father saw them.  When his forefathers came to this place 300 years ago, there were so many trees you couldn't see the lake" (Gore 1979).  Today, the region is bare of the trees harvested to sell as fuel in the cities of the area, and surrounding countries of the Sahel are experiencing similar devegetation (Gore 1979).  Rainfall is now too scarce to permit agricultural crops.  Each year, the climate has grown dryer.

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