Save the deserts

Published online 14 June 2012

As governments and conservationist gather for the Rio Earth summit 2012, desert conservationists are calling on governments to stop neglecting desert ecosystems. Sarah Durant, a conservation biologist at the Zoological Society of London working to save the Saharan cheetah, explains what she found in the deserts of Africa and what needs to be done to help save them.

Tony Scully

How did you first get involved in desert conservation?

I became involved in a project in the Sahara to investigate a critically endangered subspecies of cheetah in 2008. As I moved into the Sahara, I realized that this ecosystem was in an appalling state in terms of its mammal biodiversity. There was a huge crash in numbers in nearly all its large mammals across the whole of the Sahara. This happened under our noses without the awareness of the larger conservation community that this sort of thing was going on.

Is the conservation community ignoring deserts?

Deserts were getting so little attention from the conservation community, but also in terms of development and sustainable land management. Desert ecosystems are incredibly important. Not only are they stunningly beautiful with a unique biodiversity, but they are also very important for the people that depend on and live in them.

Do you think that conservation biologists have focused on forests to the detriment of deserts?

Forests are important and they need to remain an important biodiversity target. The problem is that when there is this focus on one biome, tropical forests, you start to forget about all the other biomes. They also have important biodiversity and are important for the people who live there. They need to be supported to become sustainable systems that can support the diverse life including people's livelihoods.

Is the conservation strategy for forest ecosystems suitable to deserts?

Deserts require a slightly different approach. A lot of forest conservation is based on stopping forest loss. Whereas with deserts, you're looking more at sustainable land management options so that you can actually restore a functioning ecosystem for not only wildlife but also these people that live and depend on these areas.

How useful is the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species for the Sahara?

Deserts will be a component of the [Rio+20] discussion. What we would like is that deserts become an equally important part of the discussion.

The red list is a very useful measure of threatened species. If you look at it you'll see that in the Sahara, large mammal populations have declined to small and fragmented populations. Addax, which used to be widespread across the Sahara are now reduced to no more than 200 individuals. Scimitar horned oryx is now extinct in the wild. Cheetah numbers are down to 250, lions wiped out, wild dogs wiped out. Leopards – maybe tiny fragments left. This is a vast area and yet we've lost most of its large vertebrates in this area.

Are there any targets that you are recommending for the Rio20+ meeting?

Often, deserts occur in developing countries and so they tend to have less of a voice in these meeting and I think they need to be listened to more than they have in the past.

At Rio20+, the UNCCD is asking for a minimum target to halt land degradation. We should exceed this minimum. We think that dessert ecosystems need to be restored to benefit both biodiversity and people. Deserts will be a component of the discussion. What we would like is that deserts become an equally important part of the discussion.

Do African governments appreciate the importance of their desert ecosystems?

Definitely, they have full awareness of the value of their desert ecosystems. Niger has just set aside a massive protected area solely for biodiversity conservation. The area contains 150 of the world's 200 remaining addaxes. There is also talk in Chad about restoring their Saharan ecosystems. I am really impressed with the enthusiasm and motivation in these countries.

How can local knowledge and technical capacity be improved?

There is a thirst for more training, for more knowledge. There are capable and motivated people in the Saharan region and they deserve more support: more training, more funding, more interaction, more movement between different parts of Africa to develop new approaches and increase country to country learning.

These are stunningly beautiful places. Ahaggar National Park in Algeria is an amazing landscape so there is potential to build up and develop alternative livelihoods from tourism, for example, if the region can be better secured so that tourists are happy to go back there. That's already happening in Morocco, Tunisia and Namibia. That could also be something that other desert countries could think of increasing further, like Mongolia. These are vast areas, some of these areas are unstable, so there needs to be an improved security in some places, but there is a lot of potential.

Are you optimistic about the future of desert conservation efforts?

I'm waiting. I want to see what comes out of Rio+20. If there is change towards better support for desert biodiversity, then I may become optimistic. We're on our last chance in the Sahara. We're down to handfuls of these species so there needs to be action and it needs to happen soon, before we lose these ecosystems and their wildlife forever.


  1. Durant, S. M. et al. Science 336, 1379-1380 (2012)