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Endangered Species in the Sahara Desert

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The Sahara Desert covers the northern regions of Africa, stretching across 13 countries, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea. It's the largest hot desert in the world; only the frozen waste of the Antarctic is bigger. While the Sahara includes the vast sand dunes commonly seen in movies, it also includes rocky plains, mountains, dried riverbeds and one permanently flowing river -- the Nile.

Despite the harsh desert heat, a number of animal species live in the Sahara. However, due to human encroachment, hunting, drought and loss of habitat, several species are on the brink of extinction.

Antelopes and Gazelles

The antelopes and gazelles of the Sahara have suffered from over-hunting, drought and loss of habitat. The sandy desert- and dune-dwelling addax (Addax nasomaculatus) is listed as critically endangered, with fewer than 300 antelope left in Chad and Niger. Also critically endangered, the range of the dama gazelle (Nanger dama) has been reduced to areas of Chad, Mali and Niger.

While only listed as endangered, the slender-horned gazelle (Gazella leptoceros) population is also severely reduced, with only 250 to 300 individuals remaining in Algeria, Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. The Cuvier’s gazelle (Gazella cuvieri) is in a slightly better position than other antelopes, with approximately 2,500 individuals scattered in parks across Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. While poaching is still a danger, the ban on hunting Cuvier's gazelles in Algeria appears to have had a positive effect on the species.

Egyptian Tortoise

The critically endangered Egyptian tortoise (Testudo kleinmanni), also known as Kleinmann’s tortoise and Leith’s tortoise, is effectively extinct in most of its original habitat. Only 4 to 5 inches long, the light colors of the shell reflect the sun's heat, allowing the tortoises to forage for grasses and other vegetation in the dry, rocky, desert and coastal salt marshes. Living between the northern edge of the Sahara Desert and the Mediterranean coast, the population of these tiny tortoises have been decimated by the loss of habitat and collection for the pet trade. The only known populations are in Libya, where the tortoises are not protected by law.

Sahara Aphanius

The Sahara aphanius (Aphanius saourensis) is only found in the Sahara Desert, in the Oued Saoura river basin near Mazzer, Algeria. Only 1 3/4 inches long, this tiny fish feeds on zooplankton, algae and other aquatic vegetation. While its watery habitat has been drastically reduced by drought, groundwater contamination and pumping for agricultural use, it's also threatened by the North American mosquito fish (Gambusia holbrooki). In 2004, mosquito fish outnumbered the native fish by a ratio of 100 to 1. The Sahara aphanius is listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List.

Saharan Cheetah

With fewer than 250 adult cheetahs left in the wild, the elusive Saharan cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus hecki) is listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List. Small populations exist in Algeria and Niger. The Saharan cheetah's primary habitat is the Sahara's rocky mountainous regions and the accompanying dry drainage and riverbeds. Its main prey includes Barbary sheep, dorcas gazelles, dama gazelles, large birds and rodents. Loss of habitat, hunting by the local people and the reduced population of its primary prey has placed the Saharan cheetah at risk of extinction.