The Critically Endangered addax (Addax nasomaculatus) is a true desert-adapted antelope – the only one of its genus (species group) – with all the evolutionary potential that implies for adapting to climate change in our changing world. Once found in large numbers across vast tracts of the Sahara, illegal over-exploitation and persecution led to a rapid decline in numbers over the past half-century. Since 2007, when there were estimated to be only 200-300 animals remaining, there has been a sharp fall in direct observations, tracks and local reports. This recent drop coincides with the start of oil exploration and production and an increase in numbers of people transiting through addax habitat. With these pressures exacerbated by regional security concerns, there are thought to be fewer than 100 animals – and perhaps less than half that figure - surviving in the wild today. There is also a large global captive population of addax, which has become a source for reintroduction in Morocco and Chad since 2019.
The addax zone in the Tin Toumma desert now lies outside the protected area.
By the early 2000s, the only remaining, viable addax population was found in the Tin Toumma desert of eastern Niger, which in 2012 was incorporated into the Termit and Tin Toumma National Nature Reserve (TTNNR), with some of these addax crossing the border into Chad. However, in June 2019, the Niger Government reclassified the boundaries of TTNNR, resulting in about 50,000 square kilometres in the eastern part of the reserve being excluded from the reserve to remove overlap with oil concession blocks. To replace the declassified area, the Government extended the reserve to the west. As an unintended consequence, the addax habitat in the Tin Toumma desert now lies outside the protected area, along with much of the Termit Massif and its population of another Critically Endangered antelope, the dama gazelle (Nanger dama).
Photo: Philippe Chardonnet
In January 2020, an IUCN mission visited Niger at the invitation of the government for a consultation on saving the addax, and the future of the Termit and Tin Toumma National Nature Reserve. The authorities warmly welcomed the team, which comprised representatives of the IUCN West and Central Africa Programme and the IUCN SSC Antelope Specialist Group, supported by an IUCN Save Our Species Rapid Action Grant awarded to Marwell Wildlife. The IUCN experts proposed a series of recommendations to support the conservation of the addax and the dama gazelle.
How to save a highly mobile population of antelope, when even finding the animals is like searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack?
Herein lies the key challenge: how to save a highly mobile population of antelope faced with threats that require both strong political will and societal contributions to address, when even finding the animals is like searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack? Further, is the cost of overcoming these challenges worth the effort, when the species could be reintroduced from captive stock into more controlled environments?
Photo: Noé / Abdoulaye Harouna
As practitioners will testify, reintroductions of large animals from captivity to remote locations are expensive, technically and logistically challenging exercises that are not without risk. It is also the case that the global captive source populations of addax are genetically impoverished compared to those still found in the wild in Niger. Moreover, the genetic diversity of these remaining wild addax, together with their uninterrupted adaptations to and knowledge of their environment, makes them a uniquely precious population. Therefore, while reintroductions have an important role in addax conservation, it is nevertheless essential to protect the remaining wild animals.
The crucial challenge for the wild addax is to eliminate poaching and excessive disturbance across the desert region where the last population survives. This includes enhancing anti-poaching capacity in the reserve and extending targeted protective measures across the whole addax zone from the eastern boundary of the reserve up to the frontier with Chad, potentially aided by satellite tracking animals across their migratory pathways. In addition, it may be possible to protect a small group of breeding addax in Niger under captive or semi-captive conditions, with appropriate care given to preparing the animals for reintroduction. None of these interventions are easy in the remote and harsh desert environment, but the time has come to act if there is hope of avoiding this otherwise inevitable extinction.
All solutions require leadership and guidance from the state and local communities, including transboundary cooperation between Niger and Chad, and the coordinated support of the private sector, NGOs and donor agencies. In a landscape that generates significant income from oil extraction, the role of the oil sector is essential where their operational areas overlap with addax range. In this scenario, there is no inherent incompatibility between oil extraction and species conservation – addax just need protecting from shooting and disturbance, which is entirely compatible with corporate policies and legal responsibilities for safeguarding the environment. Amongst the NGO community, key actors include Noé Conservation, which manages TTNNR on behalf of the Niger Government, and the Sahara Conservation Fund, which gathered much of the key ecological information needed for the designation of the reserve in 2012 and has a preeminent track record in wildlife surveys and monitoring in Niger and across the region.
In the face of extreme adversity, saving the wild addax has the potential to highlight a model collaboration between government agencies, big business, local communities and NGOs.
Saving the remaining wild addax in Niger is the most pressing step in the roadmap for the conservation of this species. Meanwhile, reintroduction initiatives underway in Morocco and Chad, and the management of addax between populations released into three protected areas in Tunisia, present the opportunity to reintegrate the species into these arid ecosystems and regain more of its historical range. As these countries recognise, the plight of the addax is symptomatic of pressures on precious desert ecosystems that have been internationally overlooked and undervalued.
Photo: Brent Huffman / Ultimate Ungulate
In the face of extreme adversity, saving the wild addax has the potential to highlight a model collaboration between government agencies, big business, local communities and NGOs. The loss of the remaining wild population of this unique animal may otherwise unfold as a tragedy not just for the region, but for the whole planet.
The representation of the SSC Antelope Specialist Group on the IUCN mission to Niger, and subsequent Report and Recommendations, were co-funded by the European Union through IUCN Save Our Species. The content of this blog does not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.