Wild Life

Spirit of the Sahara

For the residents of the world’s most iconic desert, including tiny fennec foxes, it will take grit and perseverance to weather a challenging suite of threats. Fortunately, those are two traits the desert dwellers have in abundance.

The first time Bruno D’Amicis set out to photograph wild fennec foxes (Vulpes zerda) in the northern Sahara Desert, the sand very decisively shut him down. After months of fruitless phone calls and emails, he had finally found a local guide and translator to lead him on his quest, and they’d spent the better part of their first day in the field setting up a hulking, traditional tent—woven goat and camel hair stretched across a heavy wooden frame. Then the wind picked up. “I was instantly in one of the worst sandstorms I’d ever witnessed,” says D’Amicis. “Within 10 minutes, we were covered in sand.” Two days later, the winds still raging, there was sand in their eyes, sand in their food, and sand in all of D’Amicis’ gear. They made an emergency call for extraction and retreated to a small village south of Douz, Tunisia to regroup.

Even after the trio had found sturdier lodging—an abandoned concrete hut with a still-functional well about 50 kilometers (31 miles) into the Tunisian Sahara—the sand and wind continued to pose nearly insurmountable challenges. At dawn, weather permitting, they would set out in search of fennec tracks, hoping to follow the trail back to a den. But in the Sahara, tracks never last for long. When the sun rises, the wind gathers steam, and, more often than not, smooths the sand back into a blank slate. “Believe me, nine times out of ten, the moment you’re following a nice track, the wind picks up and completely erases it,” D’Amicis says with a rueful laugh. “And then the whole day is gone. There’s nothing more to do, because there’s no animal around, so you have to wait until the next day.”

Then there were the days, too many to count, when the wind wouldn’t even allow them outside.  In the world’s largest sandy desert, windstorms frequently send clouds of fine, light-reflecting grains of sand skyward, reducing daytime visibility to near zero. “It’s really difficult to keep yourself focused and in good spirits when you can’t see anything outside, when it looks like you’re in a glass of milk,” says D’Amicis. Confined to their concrete hut for the duration of the storms, all the team could do was wait, sometimes for up to seven days straight, for the whiteout to pass.

After weeks of seeing little more than sand and fleeting tracks, it’s easy to understand why D’Amicis was so overcome when he finally found a set of fennec tracks that led to a den. With a scarf wrapped around his head and a big jug of water to help him endure the searing heat, he waited, giving the den a wide berth, hardly daring to breathe for fear of disturbing its occupants. Then, after a seeming eternity, the sun sank over the dunes, and three fennec foxes emerged in succession from the den—a mother with two young kits. “When I saw that first fennec coming out, my heart collapsed. I was crying. It was absolutely one of the most beautiful moments of my life,” says D’Amicis.

Even when they’re fully grown, fennec foxes are surprisingly small. Measuring just 24 to 41 centimeters (9 to 16 inches) from nose to rump, they are the daintiest species in the dog family; an adult that is curled up and resting is just about the size of a man’s shoe. But the fennecs’ diminutive size is not their biggest claim to fame. If the foxes are known for anything, it’s for their disproportionately large ears, which extend a remarkable 10 to 15 centimeters (4 to 6 inches)—more than a third the length of their bodies in many cases.

These oversized appendages, which are laced with blood vessels that lie close to the surface of the skin, help the animals cool their core body temperature during hot desert days. They also give the foxes a more obvious advantage—a sense of hearing so keen it borders on a superpower. When hunting at night, fennecs can hear a beetle walking across the sand several meters away, or a rodent tunneling deep beneath the surface. And as D’Amicis learned during the course of the five months he spent photographing the animals in Tunisia, they can hear the click of a camera shutter from a distance of more than 150 meters (492 feet).

A fennec’s ears are not its only adaptation for surviving in the desert. Its paws are also perfectly suited for life in a hot, sandy home. Long, curved claws help the canid dig through compacted sand with speed and precision—a useful skill when tunneling to catch underground prey like lizards, insects, and burrowing rodents. Such digging prowess is also a plus when excavating a den, especially since a fennec’s daytime refuge can be a huge and labyrinthine cavern with the square footage of a two-bedroom, two-bath apartment and up to 15 separate entrances.

In addition to being well-endowed with claws, the bottom of a fennec’s paws are lined with a thick coat of fur, offering protection from the hot desert sand in the event of a rare daytime outing. Such built-in footwear would probably offer ample insulation even for a slower-moving animal, but it’s unquestionably sufficient to protect a fennec fox. “They move so fast that they don’t even seem to touch the sand,” says D’Amicis. “They look like a hovercraft.”   

For many of the same reasons that fennec foxes are difficult to photograph in the wild, they are also challenging to study. In addition to the harsh physical environment and logistical hurdles, scientists attempting to conduct research in the Sahara have also had to contend with significant political instability and terrorist activity. As a result, most of what we know about fennecs today comes from either brief observations in the wild or studies of captive populations. Indeed, in the small library of publications that exist about wild fennec foxes, one of the most common sentiments is that an in-depth study of the species is long overdue.

Without comprehensive information about the fennec’s distribution and population dynamics, scientists can only make educated guesses about the species’ conservation status and prospects. However, they have at least begun to better understand the niche the foxes occupy in their inhospitable desert environment. About a decade ago, researchers working with the Sahara Conservation Fund and the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU) at Oxford University conducted the first, and to date only, ecosystem niche modeling study of the mammalian carnivores in the Sahara, using a nature reserve in Niger as their field site. What they found confirmed assumptions that had been made for many years: As the smallest of the Sahara’s mammalian carnivores, fennec foxes can’t directly compete for resources with larger canids and cats. Instead, they tend to target smaller prey species that other predators either can’t catch or prefer not to bother with. Additionally, fennecs are able to tolerate hotter, drier habitats than the other members of the desert carnivore guild.

Unlike other canids, fennec foxes can live their entire lives without drinking a drop of standing water, extracting all the moisture they need from their food. In part, this is because the foxes supplement their primarily carnivorous diet with juicy fruits, leaves, and tubers. But it’s also made possible by their unusually efficient kidneys, which filter out extremely high concentrations of urea with very little water loss. While fennecs will drink water if they can find it, their ability to go without allows them to occupy areas that other carnivores can’t—helping them to avoid both stiff competition for prey and the direct threats posed by larger predators.

Although these adaptations have enabled the fennec fox to carve out an existence in one of the most extreme environments on the planet, they haven’t prepared it particularly well for life alongside humans. In fact, as run-ins with people have become more common in recent decades, the fennec’s signature characteristics—namely its diminutive size and large ears—have often made it a more desirable target in the international wildlife trade.

When D’Amicis first set out to photograph wild fennecs in Tunisia, he assumed his portraits of the species that had fascinated him since he was a young boy would all be set in the foxes’ natural habitat. But during the months he spent working on the project, he saw far more fennecs on leashes than freely traversing sand dunes. The captive foxes D’Amicis encountered—young kits in most cases, all presumably pulled from their dens—were being offered up to tourists for photographs or for sale as pets. And, as he later learned, such transactions weren’t just happening in Tunisia. The trade in fennec foxes, driven by poverty at the local level and deep-pocketed demand in other parts of the world, has been growing in China, Russia, the United States, and beyond. A 2015 study found that the fennec fox is now the fourth most common mammal in the global exotic pet trade.

While the current popularity of fennec foxes as pets may or may not be short-lived, it is enabled by an even more troubling, long-term shift in the region. What was once a vast, unsettled wilderness is increasingly impacted by human activities, and this change is affecting not only fennec foxes, but the Sahara ecosystem as a whole.

Nomadic people have traversed the Sahara for millennia, but they were generally few in number, possessed relatively primitive weapons, and rarely stayed in any one place for long. Those days are gone in many parts of the desert, says John Newby, the CEO of the Sahara Conservation Fund, who began working as a biologist here in the early 1970s. Since that time, he says, economic development programs that created permanent water sources and other infrastructure in the region have made it possible for once-nomadic people to settle and build permanent communities in the desert. As the human population here has grown so, too, has the prevalence of livestock, motorized vehicles, and guns—and the impacts on Saharan wildlife have been devastating.

Since becoming less mobile and more numerous, hungry domestic livestock and herders seeking fuel for their cookfires have dramatically reduced the amount of vegetation in many regions of the desert. Such plant-razing affects not only the wild herbivores that feed on these already scarce resources, but also the many species, including fennecs, that need plants for shelter. With their extensive network of roots, plants provide the dune stabilization services that enable fennec foxes and other burrowing species to create such large and effective dens. They also often offer shade and sustenance to the insects, rodents, and birds that are staples in the foxes’ diet. As these pockets of vegetation have diminished, so, too, have the many animals that rely on them.

Still, as dramatic as habitat loss and degradation have been in the Sahara, Newby emphasizes a more catastrophic factor in the demise of many of the region’s largest and most charismatic species. “Hunting, hunting, and hunting,” he says, when asked about the biggest threats to Saharan wildlife. Although the practice has been an integral part of life for as long as people have been in the Sahara, the growing human population, the relative ease with which hunters can now drive deep into the desert, and the effectiveness of the weapons they carry have taken a heavy toll.

This multitude of threats has left pronounced and potentially permanent marks on the biodiversity and ecology of the region. According to recent analyses conducted by the Zoological Society of London and the Wildlife Conservation Society, of the 14 large vertebrates that once occurred in the region, four are now extinct in the wild, and the majority have disappeared from more than 90 percent of their Saharan range. All of these species face extinction unless steps are taken quickly to reduce the threats to wildlife and their habitats—and perhaps provide additional help for the most critically endangered species through captive breeding programs.  

Wildlife in the Sahara has been rapidly disappearing for more than 50 years, but it wasn’t until the last decade or so that the global conservation community started to take much heed of the losses. Unquestionably, that lag was driven in part by the many obstacles to conducting scientific research in the Sahara. But it was also the result of a commonly embraced bias toward conserving the places and habitats on our planet that support the most abundant and diverse assemblages of life.  

“One of our biggest challenges when we set up the Sahara Conservation Fund was, and still is to a certain extent, getting people to recognize that the Sahara is biodiverse in its own way,” says Newby. Despite the common assumption that they are barren, lifeless places, deserts worldwide host about the same number of species as the planet’s forests. Indeed, deserts are home to 25 percent of Earth’s terrestrial vertebrate species. In places like the Sahara, these species offer valuable insights into the physiological and genetic basis of extreme heat and drought tolerance—knowledge that could inform and improve our approaches to dryland agriculture, conservation management, and even medical treatments.

When Newby talks about the need to change misperceptions about this iconic desert ecosystem, he doesn’t just mean among the general public. “We actually had to start out by getting the conservation community to recognize that the Sahara was worthy of attention,” he says. Since those early days nearly 20 years ago, Newby has found increasing support for that message. In 2013, Sarah Durant from the Zoological Society of London and 41 coauthors from across the globe published a paper that detailed the losses sustained in the Sahara and persuasively called for increased research and conservation funding in order to save what remains of the region’s unique wildlife.

While the Sahara’s growing group of scientific advocates still faces an uphill battle, several recent success stories offer hope for the future. One stars the scimitar-horned oryx (Oryx dammah), a species that was declared extinct in the wild in 2000. In March of 2016, the government of Chad and the Environment Agency–Abu Dhabi worked with the Sahara Conservation Fund to reintroduce 25 captive-bred oryx to Chad’s Ouadi Rimé-Ouadi Achim Game Reserve. Today, after two additional introductions, there are 90 oryx in the park, including 18 wild-born calves.

In Niger’s Termit and Tin Toumma regions, an expansive nature reserve that was signed into existence in 2012 now provides a last stronghold for a number of endangered species, including the only viable population of wild addax (Addax nasomaculatus) and some of the last few herds of dama gazelle (Nanger dama). Encompassing 100,000 square kilometers (62,000 square miles), the park is one of the largest protected areas in Africa, making it an invaluable resource for desert species that must travel long distances to find food and water.

While these species reintroduction programs and newly created protected areas offer great promise, they won’t be successful in the long run without buy-in from the people who make their home in and around the Sahara. “The average nomad is extremely knowledgeable about their environment, and they’re not blind. They can see what’s going on,” says Newby. “And they recognize that their survival is dependent on environmental health. But they also have to feed their kids, and they’re at a loss in many cases for options and alternatives.” If fennec foxes and other species are to persist in the Sahara sustainably, the region’s growing and changing human communities must be given both reasons to value wildlife and the means to coexist with it.

One potential avenue for doing so is ecotourism—if it’s implemented in a way that actually benefits local communities. “It’s expensive tourism, because it’s logistics-heavy. And it’s never going to be like ecotourism in eastern Africa or southern Africa,” says Newby. “But there are places in the Sahara with very high tourism potential. And I think the sooner we can get people into the Sahara to see it, to spread the word, the better.” Increased awareness about the surprisingly rich and charismatic cast of species in the Sahara is a necessary precursor to stronger international investment in integrated wildlife conservation and sustainable development programs in the region. 

For D’Amicis, who witnessed both immense beauty and heartbreaking destruction during his time in the Sahara, one thing gives him hope: the spirit of the people he met along the way. He tells a charming story to illustrate his point about the town he used as a home base between his trips into the desert. A few days after he first arrived, D’Amicis discovered that the town’s collective trash was all being dumped into the dunes. Disturbed, he started composting scraps behind his house and collecting paper products, figuring that if they couldn’t be recycled he could at least burn them and keep them out of the dunes. Pretty soon, he said, dozens of other people in town were picking up paper on the streets and bringing it home to burn.

“It’s really amazing how sensitive Tunisians can be to other people’s stories. They are open to debates and discussions like very few other people I’ve met,” D’Amicis says. “And I believe that they can change, because they’re very fond of their heritage. And they are easy to persuade that this is something they could lose forever. They just need help.”

Bruno D’Amicis

A nature enthusiast since he was a child and with a bachelor’s dregree in biology, Bruno D’Amicis became a full-time nature photographer in 2004 with an emphasis on the conservation of natural habitats and biodiversity. His work has appeared in National Geographic, GEO, BBC Wildlife, and many others, and he has won numerous awards, including first prizes at the World Press Photo 2014, Photographer of the Year 2014, and GDT - Fritz Pölking Prize in 2015. He lives in Italy’s Abruzzi Mountains.

Stephanie Stone

Stephanie Stone

Stephanie Stone is an award-wining science journalist who covers biodiversity and the people working to understand and sustain it. A seasoned writer and video producer, Stone is the cofounder of bioGraphic and a contributor to a number of other publications, including Hakai Magazine, Discover, Cosmos, and the San Francisco Chronicle. She has also served as a judge for the International Wildlife Film Festival and as a commissioner for the Jackson Wild Media Lab. Follow her on Twitter @StephStoneSF.

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