In September 2019 the NGO African Parks sent an expedition into the Sahel–Sahara region of north-eastern Chad to conduct the first ornithological census of the Ennedi Natural and Cultural Reserve. A 10-day, 1150-kilometer adventure into the heart of a long-forgotten sandstone citadel in the middle of the desert, the survey would result in the first bird list for this Eden: 189 species. With a mere 13 per cent of the area studied, the exploration of the Ennedi Massif is only just beginning…
From the sandy vastness of the Sahara Desert in Chad rises the Ennedi Massif, a mineral masterpiece that covers 40 000 square kilometers and is a natural open-air museum with hundreds of rock paintings as exhibits. Classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the massif is critical for groups of semi-nomads in search of water and pasture. To others, though, it has revealed only a tiny part of its magic. Barely a handful of scholars have ventured there in recent decades, but that seems likely to change – in 2018 the Ennedi Natural and Cultural Reserve was created and is now managed jointly by African Parks and the government of the Republic of Chad.
Inevitably, the Sahara conjures images of immense, sterile, burning expanses, vast sand fields that are hostile to all forms of life. However, Fada, the starting point for our expedition, is a green oasis, reminding us that below the desert’s surface lies a large reserve of fresh water. Colorfully dressed women sell handfuls of dates in the market and Rose-ringed Parakeets chatter as they cross the small central square, where blacksmiths keep their coal braziers alive with bellows sewn out of goatskin. As the muezzin calls locals to prayer, Adoum Ali, the expedition’s driver, pulls tight the last ropes securing the tarpaulin that covers our stores and luggage. On top of a small arch, binoculars in hand, Carles Durà from the Catalan Institute of Ornithology and Robert Thomson from the FitzPatrick Institute at the University of Cape Town observe the first Trumpeter Finches of our journey. It’s time for Adoum Ali to start the engine and head out onto the dust-blown track.
The well-known Guelta d’Archeï is our first destination. Water flows all year into these small mountain pools that, protected by 80-meter-high cliffs, host a relict population of West African crocodiles – a throwback to the time, only 6000 years ago, when the Sahara was green. As we enter the Vuelta, House Buntings flush and fly up over the high mountain slopes. Speckled Pigeons flee hunting Lanner Falcons, the flapping of their wings echoing around the rock faces and breaking the sacred silence. Sunlight seeps through the canyon, gliding over the cliffs and casting sparkles across the water.
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