Deserts make up 17 percent of the world’s landmass and are home to all sorts of endangered species. And yet, when was the last time you saw a bumper sticker demanding that we “Save the Scimitar-Horned Oryx”? That’s what I thought.
Jungle cats and pandas in misty, green forests get lots of attention (as they should), but a recent study published in A Journal of Conservation Biogeography says that deserts dwellers deserve some love, too. According to researchers from the Zoological Society of London and the Wildlife Conservation Society, those dry, sandy dunes and salt flats—or anywhere outside the tundra that gets less than 10 inches of precipitation a year—may not have high densities of species, but they are home to 25 percent of Earth’s terrestrial vertebrates. And many of these animals, such as the dama gazelle and Saharan cheetah, are in serious trouble.
The researchers reviewed large mammals and birds that roam (or once roamed) the world’s most massive tropical desert, the Sahara. Of the 14 species and subspecies profiled, all but one currently have smaller ranges than they once did. (The lone exception is the bearded and crazy-horned Nubian ibex, though its status is still classified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as vulnerable.) Half of the species either no longer exist in the region or live in just 1 percent or less of their previous habitat. Of those, four animals—the scimitar-horned oryx, bubal hartebeest, African wild dog, and lion—have just plain disappeared from the desert.
Threats to Saharan megafauna are manifold. Six percent of our human population lives in deserts, and many of these societies are among the world’s poorest. Many communities that were once nomadic have begun to abandon traditional (and often more ecologically sustainable) ways of life in favor of farming and mining settlements. Hunting, development, and habitat destruction (mostly due to the overgrazing livestock) all present problems for local wildlife. Many Saharan nations—Sudan, Libya, and Egypt, to name a few—have been the scene of recent violent conflicts and political instability, which directly affects wildlife populations and complicates efforts to save them. Worst of all, evidence suggests that climate change will exacerbate the problem. But wait, aren’t deserts already pretty hot and inhospitable? Yes—and it’s important they don’t become more so.
“[Desert] species are often already living at the limits of drought and/or temperature tolerance,” says biologist Sarah Durant, who led the study. “And so small changes in climate may have substantial impacts on their viability.” In other words, it wouldn’t take much to push these populations into the danger zone.
Upsetting as it is to think about losing beautiful and bizarre animals like the already extinct bubal hartebeest or the struggling African wild dog, larger issues are at stake than the survival of any one species. For decades, biologists have been trying to figure out the intricate relationship between biodiversity and ecosystem stability. There is a lot to it, but simply put: the more diverse organisms an ecosystem has, the more capable it is of coping with disturbances—climate or otherwise. For example, when we clear forests to make way for farms, we remove a complex ecosystem, often in favor of a monoculture. All that can be great for food production, but it can also make those acres more susceptible to pests, drought, or extreme weather.
Follow this diversity-stability hypothesis into the Sahara and losing large numbers of species could have a negative impact on the ecosystem as a whole. Predators like the cheetah manage prey populations. Grazers like the gazelles keep plant growth in check. The North African ostrich might play a role in seed dispersal, and so on. The point is we don’t fully understand yet what we’re losing. As the study notes, there has been scant biodiversity research conducted in this desert over the last decade and “the central Sahara has been almost entirely neglected.”
Conservationists often argue that limited amounts of money and resources should concentrate on “conservation hot spots,” such as tropical rainforests. The thinking goes that because more types of plants and animals are living in these biologically rich places, that’s where environmental work gets the most bang for its buck. Perhaps this is why from 1991 to 2009 Saharan nations received just 12 percent of the Africa’s funding from the Global Environment Facility, a 183-country partnership for sustainable development initiatives, despite the fact that these nations cover 43 percent of the continent. During a similar timeframe, the United Kingdom’s Darwin Initiative dished out 23 percent of its funding to forests, while desert biomes received, ahem, 1 percent.
Durant says spending more money on desert conservation and research would benefit all the stakeholders: the people, the environment, the disappearing megafauna, and the smaller animals and plants not included in this study (I’ve got two words for you: fennec fox). And the IUCN says deserts make excellent investment candidates because money goes farther there. Relatively low human densities and sparse cultivation mean you can enact big changes on the cheap.
In light of all this, I’d like to make a plea to all the eco-chic hipsters out there: If you act now, you can start saving desert species way before it’s cool. While the rest of the world works to save those dewy tigers and sloths, you can campaign in the name of the addax, Barbary sheep, and a bunch of other arid-loving animals nobody’s ever heard of but sound awesome. Dry … it’s the new wet.
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