There is very little information available on the biology or ecology of cheetahs in the Sahara. Dorcas gazelles constitute their main prey but other species, like dama gazelle, Barbary sheep, hares, bustards and even feral donkeys are also known to be taken. In Niger, the late Alain Dragesco-Joffe recorded cheetah breeding in both hot and wet seasons (April-September). Litters of several young are born, and small caves and overhangs favoured as breeding lairs. As elsewhere in Africa, Saharan cheetah use large, prominent tress to mark their territories with urine and scats. Although they are apparently particularly sensitive to strong sunlight, spending long periods in shade during daylight hours, they are nonetheless remarkably well adapted to life in a largely waterless environment. Research underway in Algeria, using automatic camera traps, will certainly increase knowledge and understanding of this charismatic carnivore’s movements and social behaviour.
Today, Saharan cheetahs are invariably found in association with mountainous habitats and their associated drainage patterns of wadis and run-off channels. Habitat selection is certainly made as a function of prey availability (also increasingly restricted to mountainous regions because of persecution in more open, vehicle accessible terrain), tranquillity and ease of escape if disturbed. In mountainous areas, wadi systems allow cheetah’s easy access to vast areas by using them to cross watersheds into neighbouring basins.
The Saharan cheetah is very rare but can still be found in small numbers in Algeria (Ahaggar and Tassili N’Ajjer) and Niger (Termit and Aïr), and possibly also in Mali, Chad and Mauritania. Although a persecuted species, this large carnivore is probably scarce by nature and also impacted by the effects of periodic droughts on its prey species.
Among the main threats to Saharan cheetahs are the increased lack of suitable prey due to poaching and overuse, and conflict with herders over stock harassment and killing. In the central Sahara, cheetah’s are known to attack and kill young camels and goats, provoking reprisal from their owners. Traditionally, cheetah skins are prized as prayer rugs or used to make slippers.
The Saharan cheetah is inscribed on the 2009 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as Critically Endangered C2a(i). It is also listed on Appendix 1 of the CITES convention.
This article was kindly contributed by Farid Belbachir.