The Saharan Cheetah according to MammalMAP
The Saharan Cheetah (also known as the Northwest African Cheetah; Acinonyx jubatus hecki) differ from sub-Saharan cheetahs in several ways. They’re smaller, with coats that are shorter, whiter and have spots that fade from black (around the spine) to brown (around the legs). Their faces have fewer spots, and sometimes lack tear stripes. These majestic and sleek animals have also adapted their behaviour to the incredibly arid and hot Sahara Desert by becoming more nocturnal than their sub-Saharan counterparts. Their total population is believed to number 250 individuals, and they are classified by the IUCN as Critically Endangered. However, this is – at best – a guestimate, and remarkably little is known about these elusive animals. In an attempt to improve knowledge of the numbers, whereabouts and conservation concerns of Saharan Cheetahs, researchers from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and the Office du Parc National de l’Ahaggar (OPNA), in collaboration with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and Panthera, set out a 2800 sq km camera trap survey of the central Sahara. The images that these camera traps have taken have been nothing short of remarkable, and demonstrate how exceptionally useful camera traps can be. For more information visit the MammalMAP virtual museum or blog.
Habitat and Ecology
IUCN Red List Assessment
Red List Category
Red List Criteria
In Algeria, there are small cheetah populations in the Ahaggar and Tassilli National Parks (Hamdine et al., 2003; Wacher et al., 2005; Busby et al. 2006), with Ahaggar totaling the bulk of records during the last decades. Recent captures of live specimens have been reported from the Tefedest (Wacher et al., 2005) and Eggere Regions (Ouchen, 2007) in 2004 and 2006, respectively. Cheetahs have also been recorded, though less often, in the Immidir Mountains, located between Tamanrasset and In-Salah. However, it is possible that the Immidir act as a stopover area for cheetahs moving from Tefedest Mountains to Adrar-n-Ahnet, westward, during early cold seasons (Bernezat, 2004). Up-to-date estimates for cheetah population abundances in Ahaggar and Tassili N’Ajjer using relevant field methodologies are urgently needed to improve previous estimates (20-40 cheetahs in the Ahaggar [De Smet 2003; Hamdine et al. 2003]). Cheetahs historically occurred in the Saharan Atlas Mountains, ergs, Ougarta Mountains, Tindouf region and western high-plateaus (Hauts-Plateaux Oranais) (Kowalski & Rzebik-Kowalska, 1991). A wildlife survey jointly carried out by the Sahelo-Saharan Interest Group and the Algerian Direction Générale des Forêts, in March 2007, in the western Saharan Atlas and Western Great Erg (Grand Erg Occidental) failed to detect any cheetah sign. Recent informal interviews conducted with local people in the El-Bayadh Department, southwestern Saharan Atlas, indicated ‘large spotted or cheetah-like’ cats either sighted or killed recently or in a more distant past in the region and its vicinity (A. Fellous pers. comm. 2006; A. Bouzid pers. comm. 2007). Unfortunately, no physical evidences or indirect signs have been made available to corroborate actual cheetah presence in the aforementioned region (Belbachir, 2007b).
In Niger, records from the Sahelo-Saharan areas of the country involve the Aïr, Ténéré and Termit natural regions. Cheetah signs have previously been widely detected, though in small numbers, in a surface area totaling 275,000 km², including Aïr mountains, Talak and Azaouak plains, and Ténéré sandy expanses; with about 50 individuals estimated to be present in a 9,700 km²-area of the Ténéré (Dragesco-Joffé, 1993). Recent interviews conducted with representatives from the Ministry of Environment of Niger and the Réserve Naturelle Nationale de l’Aïr et du Ténéré indicated that adults and young cheetahs are regularly seen in this protected area (Drieux & Claro, 2002). In the Aïr massif, cheetahs have been documented to be mainly distributed in its central part (Poilecot, 1996). The Termit massif and its surroundings are definitely the sahelo-saharan area of Niger in which cheetah presence has been evidenced either by direct sightings, photographs or track detection in the last few years (Claro & Sissler, 2003; Wacher et al., 2004). The species may also be present in Gosso-Lolom, north of the massif (Claro & Sissler, 2003); and the population size in Termit has been guessed to total 30-40 individuals (Dragesco, 1983 in Claro & Sissler, 2003). Interviews with local Toubou nomads indicated that cheetah population in this area is dwindling (Claro & Newby, 2005). It is worth making the point that though Krausman & Morales (2005) assigned cheetahs of the Termit region to subspecies A. j. soemmeringii (based on Fig. 3, p. 2), recent photographs taken from a live free-ranging female in the region displayed a very pale coat and tear stripes on the face (Claro & Sissler, 2003), resembling the ‘Saharan cheetahs’ photographed by Dragesco-Joffé (1993) in the Ténéré region. In the southern part of the country, cheetahs are known to occur in the Niger portion of the W Transboundary Biosphere Reserve (also shared by Benin and Burkina Faso). A survey carried out in November 2002-March 2003 in the Parc du W-Niger and Tamou Wildlife Reserve (Réserve de Faune de Tamou) indicated that at least 15-25 cheetahs, including young individuals, roam mainly in the Parc du W (Claro et al., 2006), thus increasing a population size previously estimated to “at least 9 individuals” by Van Syckle (1995). Investigating the same protected areas, Di Silvestre (2004) estimated the presence of at least 16 cheetahs distributed in five groups. No recent information is available on cheetahs in southeastern Niger, close to the border with Nigeria and Chad (this population also being assigned to A. j. soemmeringii by Krausman & Morales (2005).
In Benin, the only refuges where cheetahs can still be found, in small numbers, are the Pendjari Biosphere Reserve and Parc du W-Benin. Based on two isolated records, the species has formerly been reported from northeastern Bembéréké (Sayer & Green, 1984). Recent information indicates an increasing number of observations as well as the number of cheetahs observed in the Pendjari Biosphere Reserve and Parc du W-Benin in the last six years (Berzins et al., 2007). A previous investigation in the Pendjari National Park and annexed hunting areas collated 40 cheetah observations between January 2001 and April 2002, chiefly based on interviews to park rangers, tourist guides, hunting guides, tourists, auxiliary agents, trackers, and local hunters (Di Silvestre, 2002). This study suggested the presence of at least 11-19 cheetahs roaming in the protected area, distributed in six groups, with an average abundance estimate of 0.003 cheetahs per km² (Di Silvestre, 2002). However, in a more recent survey carried out during the period December 2005-February 2006, Berzins et al. (2007) suggested a lower abundance comprised between 0.001 and 0.003 cheetahs per km² and a population size of 5-13 individuals. Furthermore, Di Silvestre’s (2002) study identified four cheetah areas in the Pendjari Biosphere Reserve: the Bondjagou Forested area near Kokombouri hunting zone; the area located between Pendjari Hotel and ‘Mare Tiabega’ pond; the ‘Mare Diwouni’ pond zone; and the area located between ‘Piste aux Elephants’ and ‘Piste de Chasse de Porga’. As highlighted by Berzins et al. (2007) in their survey, the bulk of observations involving cheetahs have been done in the northern part of the protected area, alongside the Pendjari River within the ‘Strates de l’Hotel et de Bondjagou’, with a particular concentration at the ‘Mare Sacrée’ pond. In the Parc du W-Benin, both the Founogo Sector alongside Founogo River, located northwestern of the protected area, and the Karimama Sector (‘Strate de la Mare 25’), eastwards, are the zones totaling the bulk of cheetah observations as recently reported by Berzins et al. (2007). Di Silvestre (2004) mentioned the ‘Chutes de Koudou’ Zone as an additional location where cheetahs have been sighted in 2002, as well as the southern part of the protected area, alongside the Alibori River. It is worth adding that photographs of two cheetahs have been taken in the Parc du W-Benin in December 2007 (C. A. Tehou & T. Sinadouwirou pers. comm. 2008). In 1998, two cheetahs were killed by a tracker in the vicinity of Alfakoara, in the Djona Hunting Zone, located southern Parc du W (Di Silvestre, 2004).
The cheetah population in Burkina-Faso is poorly known and current distribution may be restricted to the southeastern part of the country. Cheetahs were previously reported to range, in few numbers, in the north-east, centre-east and west of Burkina-Faso with an estimated population size not exceeding 100 individuals (Myers, 1975). Sayer & Green (1984) noted that cheetah records (sightings) in Burkina Faso were slightly more frequent in Arly National Park than in the adjoining Pendjari National park (Benin) during the period 1974-1979. Recent information obtained from forest agents and trackers includes records in the southeastern parts of the country: Konkombouri Zone (March 2006); ‘Chutes de Koudou’ in Parc du W-Burkina Faso (February 2007); Parc National d’Arly (2 records between December 2007-February 2008); and Pama Hunting Zone (3 records between December 2007-February 2008) (D. Traore pers. comm. 2008). In ‘Chutes de Koudou’ area, a former record indicated two cheetahs observed in 2002 (Wilson pers. comm. in Di Silvestre, 2004). Interview-based information revealed two additional observations of one adult cheetah in the Kondio Hunting Zone in the vicinity of the Parc du W (Di Silvestre, 2004).
Other northwest African countries where cheetahs may persist include: Mali, Mauritania, Togo.
No recent verified reports are available to assert whether cheetahs are still present in Mauritania. Information collated from local nomads in Tagant, late 1990s, suggested a possible presence of a small population in this region (J.-L. Bernezat pers. comm. 2008), as thought by Padial & Ibáñez (2005) who also suggested Hodh ech Chergui as another area where cheetahs might still survive.
In Mali, cheetah presence has recently been reported in the Adrar des Iforas massif, located in the Sahelo-Saharan belt of the country. Although no physical evidence or indirect signs have been collected during a survey in the area, in March 1999, cheetah occurrence in the vicinity of Tin-Essako (eastern Kidal) and Tin-Zaouâtène (northeastern Kidal) has been asserted by local herders (Drieux-Dumont, 2002). Last records include one individual seen in Ilebdjan valley in December 1997; tracks detected in 1998; and one individual seen in Anefis by local Tuaregs (western Kidal) a few times before the 1999 survey (Drieux-Dumont, 2002). Tombouctou and Gourma-Rharous are additional Sahel areas where cheetahs have previously been recorded (Sayer, 1977). There is no recent information on the cheetah population documented from the Boucle de Baoulé complex, in the south of the country (Nowell & Jackson, 1996).
In Togo, cheetahs have not been recorded for a long time (Myers, 1975) and nothing is known about actual population status. Recent information only indicates that cheetahs are still present in very few numbers in Oti-Kéran and Oti-Mandouri Protected Areas, as well as in Fazao Malfakassa National Park in the central region (K. Nada-Abi pers. comm. 2008). Threats to cheetahs and remaining biodiversity components include human occupation inside protected areas, poaching, habitat destruction and uncontrolled logging (K. Nada-Abi pers. comm. 2008)
Countries where cheetahs are presumed extinct include: Morocco and Western Sahara, Senegal, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leone, Côte d'Ivoire and Ghana (Myers 1975, Grubb et al. 1998, Marker 2002, Fischer et al. 2002, F. Cuzin pers. comm. 2007).
In Morocco, cheetahs were still common in the Moyen Draa during the 1950s and then became rare by 1960-1970 in this area and also in the northern Western Sahara (Cuzin, 2003). Last records include one individual killed by militaries in Maader Sellam (south Foum El Hassan) in 1992; two individuals seen in Mseyed and one killed in Lebouiret in 1993; one individual observed in southwestern Guelmim (Bas Draa-Noun) in 1993; and tracks in southwestern Aouinet Torkoz in 1994 (Cuzin, 1996, 2003). Although Cuzin (2003) suggested fewer than 20 individuals could survive, he now considers that they are likely extinct (F. Cuzin pers. comm. 2003).
Formerly documented as very rare in Senegal (Myers, 1975; Le Tallec, 1979), cheetahs may be considered almost, if not already, extinct in the country nowadays. A recent study on large carnivores in the Niokolo-Badiar Transboundary Park (shared by Senegal and Guinea Conakry), carried out between 1995 and 1998, failed to detect (or to collect any information on) any cheetah presence in the area (I. Di Silvestre pers. comm. 2008). However, Jebali (2008) mentioned a record of a cheetah poached in Kédougou (southern Niokolo-Koba National Park) in 1986, based on a personal communication from a former agent of the protected area (M. Mame Balla), and another observation of one cheetah towards Dar Salam, near the Niokolo-Koba’s northern entrance in 1990 (based on M. Malicomba’s personal communication). Even if cheetahs were previously suspected to occur in the Ferlo, it seems that they have been extirpated from the Sahel region of northern Senegal as far back as the 1980s (Jebali, 2008).
- 1996Endangered(Baillie and Groombridge 1996)
Northwest African cheetah
The Northwest African Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus hecki), also known as the Saharan Cheetah, is a subspecies of cheetah found in the northwestern part of Africa (particularly the central western Sahara desert and the Sahel). It is classified as critically endangered, with a total world population estimated to be about 250 mature individuals.
The Northwest African Cheetah is quite different in appearance from the other African cheetahs. Its coat is shorter and nearly white in color, with spots that fade from black over the spine to light brown on the legs. The face has few or even no spots, and the tear stripes (dark stripes running from the medial canthus of each eye down the side of the muzzle to the corner of the mouth) are often missing. The body shape is basically the same as that of the sub-Saharan cheetah, except that it is somewhat smaller.
Distribution and habitat
The Northwest African Cheetah ranges around the central and western Sahara desert and the Sahel in small, fragmented populations. The largest of these populations is believed to exist in the Ahaggar highlands of Algeria, but this is based on limited data obtained in 2009 from observations of only four individuals. Most recent records in this area are from Ahaggar National Park, some also from Tassili n'Ajjer. In Niger they occur in the northern parts of the country in the Ténéré desert and in the southern savanna region of the W National Park. More than 50 cheetahs are thought to live in Algeria, compared to 10 or fewer in Niger. The total world population is estimated to be about 250 mature individuals. Besides Algeria and Niger, the range is believed to include Togo, Mali, Benin, and Burkina Faso. 
These animals have important physiological and behavioral adaptations that allow it to survive in the extreme conditions of the Sahara desert, where temperatures may reach up to 113 degrees Fahrenheit (45 degrees Celsius) and there is no standing water. For example, the Northwest African Cheetah is even more nocturnal than other cheetahs, which helps it to conserve water and stay out of the daytime heat of the desert. In 2009, scientists from the Zoological Society of London were able to photograph a Northwest African Cheetah for the first time, by the use of a nighttime camera trap in the deserts of Algeria. In 2010, a Northwest African Cheetah was also photographed in the deserts of the Termit Massif, Niger, using a nighttime camera trap.
- Social activity
These felids are usually solitary and semi-nomadic. Small groups do occur though, usually as mother and cubs or male coalitions, which usually have only a very small range. Female territories are located in areas of high prey base, which therefore determine male territories.
- Hunting and diet
The main prey of the Northwest African Cheetah are antelopes which have adapted to an arid environment, such as the addax, Dorcas Gazelle, Rhim Gazelle, and Dama Gazelle. It may also take smaller animals such as hares. These cheetahs can subsist without direct access to water, obtaining water indirectly from the blood of their prey.
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- Wozencraft, W. C. (2005). "Order Carnivora". In Wilson, D. E.; Reeder, D. M. Mammal Species of the World (3rd ed.). Johns Hopkins University Press. pp. 533. ISBN 978-0-8018-8221-0. OCLC 62265494. http://www.bucknell.edu/msw3.
- Belbachir, F. (2008). Acinonyx jubatus ssp. hecki. In: IUCN 2008. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Retrieved 4 February 2009.
- "All Those Spotted Cats Look Alike". http://www.bigcats.com/cheetahsworkshop.php?C=1. Retrieved 2010-12-25.
- Rare cheetah caught on camera trap in Sahara. The Telegraph (London). 25 February 2009. Retrieved 2009-02-25.
- Zoological Society of London. "New evidence of critically-endangered cat". http://www.zsl.org/conservation/news/new-evidence-of-critically-endangered-cat,564,NS.html. Retrieved 2009-02-24.
- 'Ghostly' Saharan cheetah filmed in Niger, Africa. BBC - Earth News. Dec. 23, 2010. Retrieved 23 Dec 2010.