Many scientists believe the world is in the midst of a sixth mass extinction and the rate of species extinction is accelerating, according to the United Nation. The number of animal and plant species under threat of extinction is also at a record high as a result of human activities including urban development and industrial mining, and the worsening effects of climate change such as desertification. Animals that are adapted to survive in the harsh and dry conditions of deserts are facing increasing threats to their survival. These are just seven of the most endangered species in the desert, from the Sahara to the Mojave Desert in the US.
Listed in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as a critically endangered species, Saharan cheetah numbers have dropped down to fewer than 250 individuals as a result of human-caused habitat loss, being hunted by growing local population, and reduced prey such as sheep and gazelles. The Saharan cheetah have shorter and paler coats compared to its African cousins, and are mostly found in rocky mountainous regions and the accompanying dry drainage and riverbeds. The significant loss of habitat has forced the cheetah to roam only about 10% of its historical range. The remaining small populations can now only be found in Algeria and Niger, and isolated pockets across the Sahara and Sahel from Mali in the west to the Central African Republic in the east.
Once common and widely spread in the arid regions (areas with little to no rain) of the Sahara desert, the dama gazelle now lives only about 1% of its historical range, and found primarily in Chad and Sudan. There are fewer than 400 individuals left in the wild, making it a critically endangered species. Its severe population decline is attributed to the various wars in their range, desertification, overhunting, competition with human and livestock population, as well as habitat loss and destruction. As the gazelle roams far and wide to find sufficient nutrition to feed from plants and grasses, the endangered species in the Sahara desert is especially vulnerable to habitat fragmentation.
North African Ostrich
Just a century ago, the North African Ostrich roamed across the entire Sahara desert, spreading across 18 countries. Today, the largest bird on Earth has lost 99.8% of its historic range and is found only across four countries (Cameroon, Chad, Central African Republic and Senegal) with a few small populations remaining in the region. Within the last 50 years, the North African ostrich population experienced dramatic declines due to the flightless bird being hunted for its feathers, food and egg, desertification, livestock grazing, not to mention the loss of habitat. Since being identified in the IUCN red list, a number of conservation efforts have been underway to help restore the species, from introducing more ostriches to Senegal and habitat rehabilitation to improving livestock fencing and management.
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This mouse-like desert mammal lives in the rare wetland marshes of the Mojave Desert in the US, which spreads from southeastern California, Nevada, Arizona and portions of Utah. According to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, no more than one square kilometre (247 acres) of uneven habitat for this species remains, making this species extremely vulnerable to extinction, particularly as habitat loss and fragmentation persist. After the US Fish and Wildfires Service listed the species as endangered, the animal has been placed in a captive breeding programme. The vole population is estimated to be made up of 67 individuals based on the most recent sampling efforts.
This IUCN-listed critically endangered species in the Sahara Desert is all but extinct from its original habitat due to habitat loss from agriculture and expansion of tourism, increased competition for vegetation, as well as illegal pet trading. Today, the smallest species of tortoises – they are no longer than 10cm in length at maturity – can only be found in the dry, rocky, desert and coastal salt marshes in Libya, between the northern edge of the Sahara Desert and the Mediterranean coast. As they are not legally protected in Libya, the species remains to be highly threatened and vulnerable. While some captive breeding programmes do exist, efforts to reintroduce Egyptian tortoises to the wild have struggled to increase population numbers.
Peninsular Bighorn Sheep
Easily identifiable by their dramatic large horns that circle their ears on the sides of their head, the peninsular bighorn sheep have historically been known to roam in the desert regions across North America, where population was reportedly as large as 2 million at the turn of the 20th century. However, persistent human activity including habitat destruction, urban construction and development, as well as other factors such as livestock grazing, disease, and predation have driven the species’ population numbers down to about 400 in 2000. Since 1988, the bighorn sheep has been listed and protected as an endangered species, and conservation efforts have been ongoing to protect its critical habitats and limit the number of wildlife-vehicle collisions.
This tiny freshwater pupfish, measuring only less than two inches long, is native and can only be found in the Sahara Desert in the Oued Saoura river basin near Mazzer, Algeria. Due to agricultural development, which has caused significant groundwater contamination and excessive water withdrawal, and increasingly frequent and prolonged droughts that are likely brought on by climate change, have severely impacted the aquatic vegetation that the species depend upon. This includes zooplankton and algae. The freshwater fish remains to be listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List.
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Featured image by: Wikimedia Commons