Niger Wildlife: In search of the addax

Playboy hunters with helicopters and Kalashnikovs are driving the Sahel's fragile population of wild animals to extinction. Stanley Johnson travelled to Niger to witness the devastation

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Tesker is the last village of any size in eastern Niger - that vast arid land-locked country in the heart of Africa - before the Sahel turns into the Sahara. With our small convoy of vehicles we had stopped at the local gendarmerie to pay our respects and to fill up with water. We also had a chance to pin down some of the facts about the recent massacre of Niger's wildlife.

Rumours of the massacre of had been flying around for weeks. They had reached Niger's capital, Niamey, 600 miles to the west, before filtering out into the wider world. There were various versions of the story but the gist of it was that Seif Al Islam, a son of Libya's President Gaddafi, had - it was claimed - recently flown into the Niger desert on a hunting expedition. The plane had landed at a desert airstrip. There had been a helicopter, too, and around 70 4x4 vehicles. They had brought in bowsers with fuel and water and the party was, of course, armed to the teeth with Kalashnikovs.

Sometimes they hunted by day, setting their falcons on the great bustards who still roamed the plains or blazing away with their guns. Sometimes, they went out at night, using the headlights of their vehicles to immobilise the wildlife - desert antelopes or Barbary sheep from the Termit Massif.

What was worse, so the rumours went, this high-level Libyan visitation wasn't just a one-off. The Libyans had been seen in the area several times in recent months. They had even, it seemed, built a hunting lodge in the middle of the desert, a permanent structure whose presence indicated that they would return again and again as long as there was wildlife left to kill.

So as the gendarmes checked our passports and wrote down the details in a fly-blown ledger, we asked some gently probing questions.

Had any of them actually seen the Libyan hunting parties in operation? No, it didn't seem that they had, though they had definitely observed the massive convoys of vehicles passing through the village. Had they actually seen the Gaddafi hunting lodge? No, but they saw no reason why we should not go and look for it.

Piero Ravá, a 58-year-old Italian who has been leading expeditions into the desert for the past 30 years and was in charge of our trip, was up for it.

"Vous voulez voir la maison du Gaddafi? On y va!"

Ravá is an energetic, ebullient fellow. He is not a man to be ground down by adversity. Two or three years back he was driving his Range Rover through the Niger desert when the vehicle was blown up by a landmine, a relic of an earlier internecine conflict. His passengers were all killed, but Ravá miraculously survived, though with several broken ribs. Within weeks, he was back behind the steering wheel, leading as always from the front.

So we left Tesker, heading almost due north into the desert. John Newby, director of the Sahara Conservation Fund and a man who has spent a life-time trying to save the fauna of the Sahara, rode in the lead vehicle with Ravá, keeping a close eye on the GPS instrument. With so many years of desert experience between them, Ravá and Newby could probably navigate in the desert even without the GPS data, but they would be the first to admit that the new technology has made life easier.

Between them, Ravá and Newby had a pretty good idea of the route to take. About two hours after leaving Tesker, our convoy breasted a high wide sand-dune to look down into a saucer-shaped valley below.

Half a mile away we saw a most extraordinary sight. A house, complete with doors, windows and sloping shingled roof, had been built in the middle of the desert. Thirty yards from the front door, another pillared and roofed construction provided an outdoor dining-room. Large empty packing cases, some with Libyan addresses stamped on them, were strewn around.

It wasn't so much the size of the place that amazed us. In terms of square footage, the hunting lodge was not specially large. What amazed us was that it was there at all.

Newby scouted around and came back with the desiccated skins of half-a-dozen Dorcas gazelles. Roseline Beudels and Arnaud Greth, both representing the United Nations' Convention for Migratory Species (CMS), cast further afield and discovered a rubbish pit where other Dorcas gazelle relics - skulls and skin - had been thrown. There were also body parts from several bustards.

We had lunch in the Gaddafi gazebo. By then, two Toubou had arrived on horseback. They were obviously paid to guard the villa and they kept a watchful eye on us. They needn't have bothered. We were not in a boisterous mood.

"Basically," said Newby, munching gloomily on a bean salad which Ravá's loyal team of Tuaregs had manufactured seemingly out of nowhere, "the wildlife of the desert is in free-fall and the root cause is hunting. Uncontrolled illegal unregulated hunting. With the 4x4s you can go virtually anywhere in the desert. You've got fuel tanks which hold 200 litres or more. You bring your own water, so that's not a limiting factor. In fact, the only limiting factor is how much wildlife can a man shoot before his holiday is up."

Just a few years back, we would have seen hundreds if not thousands of gazelle in this area west of the Termit massif and north of Tesker. That day, we glimpsed only a handful. And it was clear that those which still survived lived in mortal terror. The moment they saw our vehicle, even half a mile away, they galloped off in a panic showing us a clean pair of heels.

If the spiralling excesses of hunting and the attendant massacres of Sahelo-Saharan wildlife shocked most of the members of our party, they also served to confirm the determination of the CMS team to do something about it.

I should explain that the CMS mission to the eastern deserts of Niger had been planned well before the rumours of the Libyan massacres arrived in Europe. When I first met Roseline Beudels in Paris in September 2006, she told me why the CMS had decided to make Niger one of its priority targets.

Environmentalists over the past decade or so have, she explained, tended to concentrate on what they term "biodiversity hotspots", such as tropical rain-forests with their extraordinary concentrations of fauna and flora. But the mandate of the CMS was to look after endangered migratory species wherever they were to be found, not just in the biological hotspots. And desert biodiversity, although less abundant in terms of number of species, is unique and most remarkable in terms of adaptation to extreme conditions.

Beudels told me about the CMS's project to prevent the Sahelo-Saharan antelopes from sliding into extinction. Six species altogether were covered by the CMS strategy: the scimitar-horned oryx, the addax, the slender-horned gazelle, Cuvier's gazelle, the Dama gazelle and the Dorcas gazelle. The status of all these species, which had once been widespread throughout Saharan Africa, was now threatened or vulnerable. The scimitar-horned oryx had disappeared from the wild. The CMS was closely involved in a project to reintroduce the addax in the wild in Tunisia, building on a captive herd which already existed in that country. As far as protecting the addax in situ was concerned, Niger was a key country since it was thought to contain the last viable population of wild addaxes. Between 100 and 200 animals had in recent years been observed in the area around the Termit Massif and in the contiguous great desert erg known as Tin Toumma.

"The CMS," Beudels told me, "is determined to try to help Niger save the last wild addaxes. We want to set up a protected area in around the Termit Massif and in Tin Toumma."

Six weeks later, I joined the CMS team in Niamey, Niger's dusty capital. Niger is one of the world's poorest countries. Each year the United Nations publishes a table called the The Human Development Index. This is a comparative measure of life expectancy, literacy, education and standards of living for countries worldwide. Norway is top of the list. Niger - in 177th place - is at the very bottom, the lowest of the low.

It may at first sight seem perverse, in a country where human beings confront starvation on a daily basis, to talk about f Niger's wildlife, but in reality protecting Niger's unique biological heritage is probably just as important in terms of basic socio-economic development as many of the other projects currently being undertaken.

The evening of my arrival in Niamey, Beudels, Greth and I met Ali Harouna, the Director of Niger's Department for the Protection of Wildlife. Harouna kindly drove out to see us at our hotel, outside the city centre.

While I fended off the mosquitoes, Harouna spoke of the need to involve the local people of the proposals to make Termit-Tin Toumma a protected area were the project to stand any chance of success.

"The process of consultation may take a long time. In the end we will need a Presidential decree." He pointed out that, if you added a Termit-Tin Toumma Protected area to the existing protected areas in Niger, then almost 10 per cent of the country would be covered.

The key thing, of course, was not just to create another "paper park", but to have a system of protection that really worked on the ground.

The CMS team was able to confirm that the EU was likely to donate a substantial grant - more than €1.5m - to the Termit-Tin Toumma project, which was in addition to substantial funds already provided by the French Government's Global Environment Facility.

Harouna recognised that this was very good news. With the Scimitar-horned Oryx already extinct in the wild, saving the last viable population of addaxes would be a tremendous coup for Niger.

The following Monday, in Zinder, a dusty town near the border with Chad which we reached after a 600-mile drive through the Sahel, the CMS team and the Niger Environment Ministry together inaugurated the Atelier de Lancement du Projet Antilopes Sahelo Sahariennes. Tribal chiefs and group leaders had already spent days travelling into town from the outlying areas. Now they had a chance to hear what the CMS proposed and to make their own comments.

For two days I sat at the back, looking over rows of turbanned heads, as one presentation followed another. The Tuaregs, the Toubou, the Hausa - all had their point of view and didn't hesitate to put it across. With prayer breaks as well as meal breaks to be taken, the whole event had a rather stately rhythm to it but, by the end, it looked as though the main objective had been secured.

Of course, the details still had to be sorted out: how big would the protected area be, how would a ban on hunting actually be enforced, how did you square Niger's evident determination to have a world-class protected area in Termit-Tin Toumma with the bizarre fact that some hunting concessions were still being granted, could there be teams of "eco-guards", what benefits would accrue to the local population? All these were important issues, but it seemed that at least the basic principles had been agreed.

I am sure that the fact that relatively large sums of money are going to be available to the project made a difference in the minds of the audience, but I believe there is more to it than that. I remember listening one morning to one of the tribal chiefs and being struck by the passion with which he spoke. He talked about how as a child he had grown up with wildlife. He had been to a nomad school and the gazelles would sometimes wander right up to the open-air class-room in the desert.

"La faune - c'est notre patrimoine!" he exclaimed. The applause from the other tribal leaders gathered there seemed both heartfelt and spontaneous.

After the workshop was over we left Zinder for Tesker and the visit to the "maison du Gaddafi" I have already described. We then spent two days exploring the Termit Massif.

The Termit Massif is a most unusual geographical and biological feature. Extending almost 80 miles north to south and in parts more than eight miles wide, the rocky cliffs seem to rise hundreds of feet almost vertically from the desert floor. Here, if you are lucky, you will see Barbary sheep moving from crag to crag, desert tortoises, desert foxes and Dorcas gazelles. If you are very lucky, you might see a leopard or a Dama gazelle.

Of course, I was hoping desperately to see the rarest item of all, the addax, even if that meant driving on east from Termit into the vast Tin Toumma desert erg. That addaxes had been seen there in the past was not in doubt but the last sightings had been more than a year ago.

On our last evening at the Massif, we pored over the satellite maps. Greth remembered precisely where he had seen addaxes - nine altogether - three years earlier. He placed a finger on the chart. Newby measured off the distance.

"Fifty kilometres more or less due east," Newby said. "Let's go for it!"

Piero Ravá is never one to duck a challenge.

There is nothing he likes more than heading off into the unknown.

Next day our convoy moved on into the heat of the desert. We drove for several hours that day along a transect, our vehicles rising and falling with the sand-dunes. After 50km, we turned 90 degrees south for 10km, before returning on a track parallel to our original one.

Newby read out the coordinates from the GPS. "12 degrees 12 minutes east, 16 degrees 12 minutes north." I'd like to be able to record that at precisely that moment we had our first sighting of a herd of addaxes, munching away on the unforgiving though still somehow nutritious desert grasses. But we had no such luck. The truth is that we were looking for a handful of animals in an area the size of Switzerland and it would have been almost a miracle if we had located them in such a short space of time.

The temperature in the desert dropped to 8C that night and I was grateful for the shelter of my one-man tent. I lay with the flap open looking up at the stars.

Did it matter, I wondered, that we hadn't actually seen an addax? Surely not. It was enough to know that somewhere in that vast desert, they are still there. And if the CMS project for a Termit-Tin Toumma Protected Area comes to fruition, as I have every reason to hope it will, there is a chance that the world's last remaining population of wild addax will not only survive but prosper well into the future.

This will be good for the addax. And it will be a triumph for Niger as well.

The Convention on Migratory Species, www.cms.int; the Sahelo-Saharan Antelopes project, www.naturalsciences.be; the Sahara Conservation Fund, www.saharaconservation.org; and the indomitable desert explorer, Piero Ravá, can be found at www.spazidavventura.com

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