Photos: Rarest cheetah photographed for the first time

Jeremy Hance
February 23, 2009

On the edge of extinction, desert-dwelling cheetah photographed for first time by camera traps

With only 250 individuals left the Saharan Cheetah is on the brink of extinction. Little-studied, this imperiled subspecies has been photographed for the fist time by scientists from by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and Office du Parc National de l’Ahaggar (OPNA) using camera traps.

“The Saharan cheetah is critically endangered, yet virtually nothing is known about the population, so this new evidence, and the ongoing research work, is hugely significant,” said Dr Sarah Durant, a Senior Research Fellow with ZSL.

Saharan cheetah. Photo by Farid Belbachir.
Four individual Saharan Cheetahs were identified from the camera traps, which were set in Algeria. Scientists were able to separate the individuals by unique spot patterns.

The Saharan cheetah, also called the Northwest African cheetah, roams the desert and savannahs of North and West Africa. Five nations beside Algeria may contain the subspecies, including Niger, Benin, Burkina-Faso, Mali, and Togo. It is believed that Algeria possesses the largest populations.

“This is an incredibly rare and elusive subspecies of cheetah and current population estimates, which stand at less than 250 mature individuals, are based on guesswork,” says Farid Belbachir, who is implementing the field survey. “This study is helping us to turn a corner in our understanding, providing us with information about population numbers, movement and ecology.”

“This first camera-trap confirmation of cheetahs in Algeria is a landmark success toward our efforts to save these big cats,” added Dr. James Deutsch, Director of the Wildlife Conservation Society's Africa Program which, together with Panthera, helped support the camera trapping survey. “Findings like these help us refine our conservation strategies for the cheetah across its entire range.”

Saharan cheetah caught by a camera trap. Photo by Farid Belbachir.
Scientists plant to work with Saharan nomadic pastoralists, the Tuareg, to uncover what this desert-dwelling community knows about the Saharan cheetah and its threats.

The photos of the Saharan cheetah are apart of a systematic camera trap survey of the central Saharan desert, which has made additional discoveries. Photos have confirmed that the sand cat inhabits Algeria as well. Researchers also uncovered past evidence of Scimitar-horned oryx, which is extinct in the wild due to poaching for its distinctive horns. The species only survives in captivity.

With luck and continuing research such a fate may be avoided by the Saharan cheetah.

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Jeremy Hance
mongabay.com (February 23, 2009).

Photos: Rarest cheetah photographed for the first time.