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A Rare Glimpse of the Critically Endangered Saharan Cheetah

Feb 02, 2015 03:16 PM EST
Saharan cheetah

(Photo : Farid Belbachir/ZSL/OPNA)

Researchers have recently caught a rare glimpse of the Saharan cheetah, a critically endangered species that is reportedly in dire need of conservation efforts, according to new research.

The photos, featured in a study published in the journal PLOS ONE, are some of the first images of what is believed to be one of the rarest carnivores on the planet. It is estimated that there are fewer than 250 of these animals left in the Sahara - the world's largest desert.

"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. 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," lead researcher Farid Belbachir of the Laboratoire d'Ecologie et Environnement, Université de Béjaïa, Algeria, said in a press release.

To catch this elusive species on camera, Belbachir and his team used infra-red camera traps to monitor cheetahs in Ahaggar Cultural Park, Algeria. What they realized was that Saharan cheetahs, listed as critically endangered by the IUCN Red List, exist at incredibly low densities and require vast areas for their conservation. Experts report that there are probably only two animals per 10,000 square kilometers (3,861 square miles) - even as their personal ranges stretch to about 1,600 square kilometers. Saharan cheetahs once roamed across the entire Sahara, all the Egypt and through to Mauritania. (Scroll to read on...)

(Photo : Pixabay)

"This research provides us with important new insights into the world of this remarkable desert-dwelling large cat," co-author Dr. Sarah Durant said in the press release.

"They are incredibly sparse in the desert," she told CBS. "It may be there is some sort of loss of prey keeping them at low densities or it be may natural. We know so little about these animals. It's very difficult to say straight off."

What's more, the team found that their range is also "severely constrained by the harsh desert environment" and that they often are active at night - an unusual trait for big cats. Researchers suspect that the cheetahs are more nocturnal as a way to avoid contact with humans.

With the global human population rapidly increasing, we are encroaching more and more on the territory of various wildlife species, including Saharan cheetahs. So while some people may blame competition from large predators for the drop in cheetah populations, it's likely that the big cats can point the finger at humans. As their habitat gets smaller and smaller, they are forced to travel longer distances to find food.

"If you can imagine walking up and down sand dunes in high temperatures day in, day out, with no water to drink you start to get a feel for how challenging these cats' daily lives are, and yet they remain remarkably adapted and resilient," Dr. Michael Scantlebury, a researcher at Queen's University, Belfast, said in a statement.

Though they boast the characteristic spots of cheetahs, the Saharan species (Acinonyx jubatus ssp. hecki) is different in that it has a dog-like snout and pointed head rather than the typical round, fat face. But more work is needed to understand how this mysterious subspecies compares to other populations. This new study is a step in that direction.

"I hope that it not only provides invaluable scientific information about the ecology of the Saharan cheetah for the first time," Durant added, "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 programs."

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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