Sahara: The Forgotten Ecosystem
BBC Wildlife|March 2021
Journeying into the fickle and ever changing Saharan landscape reveals the hidden lives of the desert’s most-endangered species.
Ugo Mellone
People often ask why I’d want to photograph wildlife in the Sahara. Well, I have always felt drawn towards vast open spaces, but I also enjoy tackling difficult subjects neglected by other photographers, and telling their stories. As ecosystems, deserts are hugely underrated – yet they are equally deserving of the attention lavished on tropical rainforests and coral reefs.

Incredibly, the Sahara occupies almost one-third of the African continent and is hugely biodiverse, yet it remains largely overlooked, even by the world’s most prominent conservation organisations. Sadly, this immense, beautiful desert-scape has become a paradigm of the ongoing mass extinction that our planet is currently experiencing: its large mammals have either disappeared from more than 90 per cent of their ranges, or have gone extinct in the wild.

Spanning 11 countries and battered by widespread political instability, the Sahara does not lend itself to conservation action, nor documentary by photojournalists. I started working in this desert back in 2008, and have returned most years since, spending between one and six weeks camping out in the sandy wilderness – either with a companion or alone.

For safety and ease of logistics, I have always based myself in an area of Atlantic Sahara between Morocco and the Western Sahara. Fractured by mountains, cliffs and rocky plateaus, this region has become the last refuge for a number of endangered species. Poaching is the primary reason for the collapse of large mammals in the Sahara, a problem that has accelerated in recent decades with the advent of modern shotguns and off-road vehicles.

Species that are better adapted to rugged, inaccessible terrain are more likely to survive than those that prefer the open desert – for example, in the Atlantic Sahara, Cuvier’s gazelles are restricted to the most remote areas, yet are still present in healthy numbers. Mhorr gazelles, on the other hand, once a common sight on the sandy plains, have completely vanished.

Think of the Sahara, and you’ll probably imagine endless burnt-orange, windswept dunes interrupted by the occasional crop of palm trees. Yet the Saharan landscape is far more diverse than that, with expanses of sand – the so-called erg – occupying just a quarter of this great desert. The remainder is comprised of stony plains (hammada), mountains (djebel) and dry riverbeds (oued), some of which are dotted with clusters of acacia trees, reminiscent of a savannah.

Initial introductions

I clearly remember my first experience of this captivating landscape. At first, I felt very lost, and would climb dune after dune as if under some sort of spell. I had my first encounters with animals that are perfectly adapted to life without water, including birds such as the desert warbler and hoopoe lark. But my Holy Grail of desert species has always been – and still is – the fennec fox. Often referred to as the ‘blonde dwarf’, it is the quintessential Saharan mammal, with distinctive large ears that allow it to better dissipate heat and hunt effectively at night, and a slyness that pervades Tuareg proverbs of old.

My first encounter with the fennec fox was one of those gifts the desert sometimes gives you. It was 2010, and the friend I was travelling with by chance discovered a den in an area where rocks merged with dune. I spent the afternoon hidden, staking it out from my hiding place in the bushes, and, at sunset, a fox emerged. He allowed me to take a few photos before heading off to hunt.

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