The Last Three Addaxes in the Wild Have a Strong Potential to Survive Climate Change. But First, They Must Overcome Extinction.
“They (addax) managed to survive in very remote areas where there’s nothing.”
~Thomas Rabeil, Sahara Conservation Fund
There are three confirmed addaxes left in the wild, seen in a 2016 aerial survey by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Other sightings were reported but uncertain, in Western Chad, the Mali-Mauritania border, southern Algeria, and Libya. In sum, there may be 50 – 100 addaxes in isolated pockets in the desert. Other sources say there may be 500 in the wild. But we can only be sure of three.
The Sahara Conservation Fund (SCF) has focused on the addax and its habitat, the Sahel-Sahara since the organization was formed one decade ago. In 2007, fifteen fresh addax tracks were seen in central Mauritania, but no follow-up study was done. The SCF sighted 28 fresh addax tracks at another time.
The IUCN ranks the addax, the only antelope genus whose natural habitat year-round is the desert, as Critically Endangered. Its adaptation to the desert, and adaptation to different climates and circumstances globally as rescues, presents the possibility that it may endure climate change if it first overcomes extinction. As of 2020, some claim that the addax is already extinct in the wild.
Addaxes in captivity
Globally, there are about 2,000 addaxes in zoos, private ranches, breeding centers, and nature parks in the US, Europe, Japan, Africa, Australia, and Morocco. They are adapting well, displaying normal desert behavior like forming herds and breeding in captivity.
The downside is a lack of genetic diversity, causing inbreeding, resulting in calves with abnormalities or miscarriages. Mating must occur with two animals that have no common ancestor in the past six generations. This can be done if a captive addax mates with one living in the wild. It will more likely increase the wild addaxes population.
The Addax’s backstory
The addax has black twirly horns one meter in length, that curve upwards between 2 ½ to 3 times, then extend outwards. There are stories of domesticated addaxes kept by ancient Egyptians.
In captivity, addaxes’ feelings are seen in their eyes. They soften when happy, especially when with their calves. Young calves playfully run at 11 days old. One man said he’d never been poked by an addax, but it’s a wild animal nonetheless, and caution is utmost.
In captivity, the addaxes huddle together in groups. Their personality is remote, but their habitat, biology, behavior, and intermingling with humans tell a fascinating story.
Addax in the desert
The addax is the ambassador of the desert, and their history is entwined with it. Theirs is also a story of humanity. Addaxes were victimized in World Wars I and II, and a civil war in Libya which borders the Sahel.
With the fall of Col. Muamar Quadaffi, the former dictator of Libya, refugees crossed addax territory to go to Niger. Included were poachers, drug, and gun dealers. They ate addax meat, made shoes from its hide, and trophies from its head and horns. Sometimes humans killed them for sport.
When they were many
It was different from the 1800s to the 1900s. Addaxes roamed the semi-arid Sahel and the hot and dry Sahara deserts. The Sahel crosses Africa like a belt from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea, bordering the Sahara’s southern rim, then encircling the Niger River Valley. In the 1800s, they were often chased by men riding camels or horses, wielding guns. Other predators were African lions, hyenas, and golden jackals.
After the rainy season, addaxes came out in herds of 5 t0 20. On the way, they merged with other addax herds numbering up to 100s. They headed for ground vegetation fresh from the rains when it was most nutritious.
They roamed through bordering countries like Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Sudan, Tunisia, and Western Sahara. Today, their habitat has been reduced to only Niger and Chad. Addaxes eat grass, leguminous herbs, melons, tubers, parts of trees, shrubs, leaves, wood, bark, stems, and flowers.
The addax’s adaptation to the desert is why scientists think they can potentially endure climate change. The addax can go all year without water, getting moisture from ground vegetation. Their feces is very dry and their urine is highly concentrated. Their bodies make full use of every bit of water from vegetation.
Their horns help regulate their body temperature. The addax cools down without sweating. Their hoofs keep the addax above the sand. There are parts of the desert where, if a human took a step, they would fall into the sand up to their knees. The addax’s big, spongy hooves function like snowshoes. They splay their legs outwardly when walking, to avoid bumping into its other foot, distributing their weight evenly. Their tracks look like one straight line.
In hot summers the addax’s coat is white to reflect heat away and preserve their inner core temperature. Sometimes the addax uses its front hooves to dig a hole on the ground, usually beside a bush, a rock, or the shadow of a sand dune. Its feet secrete a hormone that its young can smell and follow to find its mother when lost.
Their holes protect them from sandstorms but are usually used during the daytime heat. They stay until the weather has cooled, then forage for food.
In the winter, the addax’s hide becomes thick and dark, leading the cold away from its body, and preserving its normal internal body heat.
The addaxes are distance runners, not speedrunners. When running, they won’t stop until they’re totally exhausted. They’re easy prey to humans with vehicles and guns who hunt them for food. Their hide is used to make shoes, and their heads and horns are trophies. Tourists in vehicles chase them until they die from exhaustion. Ranchers killed addaxes so they won’t eat grass intended for their cattle.
The addax has adapted to captivity in zoos, nature parks, and ranches all around the world. Before it can prove its ability to navigate climate change, however, it must first overcome extinction in the wild.
Addax and humans
Humans are blamed for the swift death of most addaxes in the wild after the 1900s. World Wars I (1914 – 1918) and II (1939 – 1945) overlapped with colonization, oil prospecting, and militarisation of the desert. Off-road vehicles carrying humans with guns penetrated the remotest parts of the desert where normally, predators couldn’t tolerate the heat. They killed herds of addaxes.
Four decades of drought, from 1970 to 1991 further damaged the desert habitat. In the 1970s, some 800 addaxes in Chad’s Ouadi Rime-Ouadi Achim Fauna Reserve migrated to the country’s Tibesti mountain range in the rain, seeking coolness from extreme desert drought until the 1980s.
The drought was caused by humans who cut forest trees for construction. They used inappropriate agriculture, polluting the soil and water. Fertile lands turned into deserts.
By 1991, 90% of addaxes in the Niger desert were lost. In 2004, small addax populations in Niger’s mountain mass and dunes in eastern Niger’s Termit and Tin Toumma National Natural Reserve (TTNNR), desert totaled 200. They were the only addaxes that could possibly increase in the wild.
By 2007 direct observation of the addax in the wild was limited, and tracking information and local reports were lacking, indicating that the desert addaxes weren’t thriving. That same year, 550 addax were re-introduced in Morocco and Tunisia into fenced areas, where they have legal protection
How the addax declined so rapidly
Simultaneous misfortunes decimated the addaxes very quickly. For example:
2008. China and Niger closed a $5 billion dollar oil deal which gave massive oil-extraction installation rights to the China National Petroleum Corporation. Their rights included exploring the (TTNNR), which housed 200 addaxes, the largest in the wild.
Noise. Huge trucks, bulldozers, mine construction, and oil mining 24/ 7 continually stressed and frightened the addaxes.
Poaching. The Niger government assigned military units to protect the oil workers, but the military also became poachers.
Oil drilling posed the risk of toxic elements leaking into the earth and drinking water, causing liver damage, cancer, and birth defects among others.
2011. Libya’s Col. Muammar Qaddafi was overthrown. Refugees, drug and gun dealers, and poachers crossed the addax habitat to enter Niger.
Soldiers killed addaxes for food, their hides, as trophies, and for sport.
The land best suited for the addax was taken by ranchers and used for their livestock.
2020. A sharp drop was seen in addax tracks and local reports, simultaneous with oil exploration and increased numbers of people crossing addax habitat.
The ecological value of the addax and its desert habitat
Addaxes are a cornerstone genus in the desert. To understand their value, one must appreciate the desert, which is often mistakenly viewed as a wasteland.
Instead, the desert plays a valuable role to the rest of the world. Bacteria found in the sand of the Kalahari desert were discovered trapping carbon dioxide, the biggest driver of climate change. The deserts won’t save the earth from climate change, but they can help.
Deserts are also rich in minerals such as:
Gypsum. Used for soil conditioning and to make wallboards, cement, etc.
Borates. Used to make laundry detergents, et. al.
Nitrates. Used to treat angina, and to ease symptoms of congestive heart failure, among others.
Potassium. Helps regulate the body’s fluid balance, muscle contractions, and nerve signals. Protects against stroke, etc.
There are more benefits found in the desert. Knowing this, we can better understand the value of the addax, who perform as farmers and gardeners simply by the way they live in their habitat. Addaxes help to maintain a variety of microorganisms, plants, fungi, and animals in the desert. They also help retain the desert’s biodiversity and promote the productivity of desert ecosystems.
Rewilding the addax
It’s expensive to rewild the addax because it requires three stages. First, they are kept in pens. Second, they’re sent to nature parks that resemble aspects of the desert. Third, they are transferred to the wild.
There has been some rewilding. For example:
The United Arab Emirates sent 25 addaxes to Chad in 2020 as a midway point for eventual rewilding. They hope to participate in a global effort to successfully establish 500 addaxes in the wild.
The US and Europe have some 2,000 addaxes in captivity. Another 600 are in zoos in the US, Japan, Africa, and Australia, and 200 live in a nature park in Morocco. Many among them are collaborating to grow the addax population in the wild.
Hundreds more addaxes are in private ranches in Texas, but they are legally hunted in some of them. The irony is, this is how they diminished in the first place.
Of further irony is that this is happening while addaxes in the wild are possibly going extinct.
What can be done
Desert wildlife needs to be managed mindfully. Protecting the addax, captive breeding, and rewilding will give us a way to see how they manage climate change, and improve the health of the desert.
If human desert dwellers see value in protecting the addax to benefit their livelihoods, they will be motivated to protect them. Can it be done? Possibly, so long people can correlate the wellbeing of the addax to their own future benefits.
Government agencies, NGOs, and big businesses must also collaborate with the IUCN SSC Antelope Specialist Group. Saving the addax in the wild takes more than a village. It requires global goodwill, mindfulness, wisdom, vision, and determination.