See the Stunning—and Elusive—Saharan Cheetah

Scientists have scored new photos of this elusive and endangered feline and new insights on how to save it from extinction.

(Photo: Farid Belbachir/ZSL/OPNA)

Jan 29, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Emily J. Gertz is an associate editor for environment and wildlife at TakePart.

One of the best chances for saving the world’s deserts and their vanishing wildlife may lie with the critically endangered Saharan cheetah.

The big cat is so elusive that it has rarely even been photographed—until now.

Using camera traps with infrared shutter triggers, an international team of scientists has captured rare close-ups of this mysterious and beautiful predator—and in the process have gained unprecedented scientific information that could help save it from extinction, according to a new study. With fewer than 250 left in the wild, the Saharan cheetah is listed as critically endangered, one step down from extinction, on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List of threatened species.

(Photo: Farid Belbachir/ZSL/OPNA)

Scientists hope the new photographs of Saharan cheetahs will attract the attention of wildlife fans—and funders—and increase the support for conserving imperiled desert ecosystems.

“This research provides us with important new insights into the world of this remarkable desert-dwelling large cat,” Sarah Durant of the Wildlife Conservation Society and a study coauthor, said in a statement. “I hope that it…also reminds the world of the value of studying and protecting desert species and their environments, which are often overlooked by researchers and conservation programs.”

The photographs are an achievement because the harsh environment—a rocky, mountainous desert akin to the American Southwest—forces cheetahs to range far afield to find enough prey. Meanwhile, North Africa’s political instability makes doing science there dangerous, even in the Ahaggar Cultural Park of south-central Algeria, where these camera traps were placed.

Based on when and how often individual cheetahs made their appearances in two different camera traps, the researchers calculated that the species hunts mostly at night. The big cat needs to range about 1,000 square miles of territory to find enough chow—mainly desert antelopes like the Dorcas gazelle and the addax, which is also critically endangered.

Compare that with the African lion, which typically needs between 30 and 60 square miles of territory per one to two individuals.

These data points may sound basic, but even this much about the Saharan cheetah’s habits was uncertain before the study, which was published this week in the journal PLOS One.

“In the past we have had to rely on anecdotes and guesswork,” Farid Belbachir of the Laboratoire d'Ecologie et Environnement, Université de Béjaïa, Algeria, and the study’s lead author, said in a statement.