Aïr and Ténéré Natural Reserves (08º00'E -10º57'E and 17º14'N - 20º30'N) is a World Heritage Site that is the largest protected area in Africa, covering over 7.7 million hectares (ha). It includes the volcanic massif of the Aïr Mountains, a Sahelian island isolated in climate, flora and fauna in the surrounding Saharan desert of Ténéré. It contains an outstanding variety of landscapes, plant species and wild animals. One-sixth of the reserve is a sanctuary for addax. The site was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1991.
Threats to the Site
The region suffered from military and civil disturbance in the 1990s: six members of the Reserve staff were held hostage in 1992. In compliance with the request from Niger's Permanent Delegation to UNESCO, the World Heritage Committee inscribed the site on the List of World Heritage in Danger in 1992.
A peace agreement with rebels was signed in April 1995 and the impact of rebel activities on the integrity of the site has been found to be less severe than expected. An IUCN/WWF project has since helped to re-establish a management regime. Missions to the site in 1998 and 2001 found that the numbers of most wildlife species were recovering and the flora to be mostly intact except in some valleys over-used by the local people. Some species continue to be seriously threatened by poaching and the international trade in live animals and animal by-products and ostriches are now almost extinct on site. However, the State Party has submitted an emergency program for rehabilitation of the site and it may be considered for removal from the List of World Heritage in Danger.
The reserve is in the south-central Sahara and north-central Niger, approximately 160 kilometers (km) north east of Agadez, between 08º00'E -10º57'E and 17º14'N - 20º30'N. Two fifths of the reserve lies in the northeastern half of the Aïr Mountains, the rest is in the western half of the desert of the Ténéré du Tafassasset. The Sanctuaire des Addax lies in the Ténéré at the foot of the mountains, north of the center of the reserve and covering a sixth of its area.
Date and History of Establishment
- 1981: The area came under the administration of foresters of the Service Faune
- 1988: Established by Decrees Nos.88-019/PCMS/MAG/E (Reserve) and 88-020/PCMS/MAG/E (Sanctuary)
- 1997: Designated a Biosphere Reserve in the UNESCO Man & Biosphere Programme
- 7,735,370 ha, perimeter 1,218 km (world’s third largest reserve).
- Addax Sanctuary: 1,280,500 ha. The Biosphere Reserve.
Republic of Niger (arrondissements of Arlit and Tchighazerene). Administered by the Direction de la Faune, Pêche et Pisciculture (DFPP) and the Ministère de l’Hydraulique et de l’Environnement (MH/E).
The reserve comprises two geomorphic units: the Aïr mountains, nine roughly circular rugged massifs rising above a rocky plateau, and the sand dunes and plain of the Ténéré to its east.
The bedrock is an ancient, heavily eroded Cambrian metamorphic plateau dramatically punctuated by a chain of isolated flat-topped mountains. Those in the reserve are, from north to south: Adrar Bous, Fadei, Greboun, Tamgak (1988 meters (m)), Chirriet, Taghmert, Agueraguer, Takaloukouzet, and Goundai. These are granite intrusions except for the largely conglomerate Takaloukouzet massif. Tertiary and Quaternary volcanic features include the extinct caldera of Arakao and one of the largest ring-dike systems in the world. Other features are the marble Blue Mountains at Izouzaoene in the Sanctuary, and white marble hills in the lower Zagado valley. The massifs and plateaux are deeply dissected by ancient canyons and seasonal wadis. Soils are sparse, mainly coarse sands, although in wadis and inundation zones there are often thick water-borne clay and silt deposits.
The eastern three-fifths of the reserve is in the Ténéré desert, one of the largest sand seas in the Sahara, which completely covers the underlying bedrock plate. Several sand dune fields (erg) occur: the Ergs du Bréard, Brusset and Capot-Rey. The ergs piled against the massifs by the prevailing north-easterly winds are some of the highest sand dunes in the Sahara, reaching ~300 m at Arakao and Temet. South of the ergs are extensive flat plains (reg) of coarse sand, gravel and stones. There are also fields of small mobile rif and barkhan dunes.
Except for a few rivulets and pools (guelta) in the massifs, there is no permanent water though the mountains are essential to recharging the groundwater supply of northern Niger. Wadis flow for a few hours after heavy rain. Seven drain east from the massifs into the sands of the Ténéré. Several end in temporary inundation pans which can be thickly vegetated and are important to the ecology of the desert margin. Three main wadis drain to the south and five to the west, ending in the plains of Talek and Tamesna. In the distant past these wadis reached the River Niger.
The reserve has a hot arid continental desert climate and lies just beyond the 100 millimeters (mm) average annual isohyet. It is strongly influenced by the annual movements of the inter-tropical convergence zone: the resulting dessicating prevailing winds are north-easterly. Three seasons are distinguishable: a relatively cold season, September to February, a hot season, March to June, and a humid season, June to September. The average annual temperature ranges between 15 degrees Celsius (ºC) and 35ºC, the mean being 28ºC. The mean range in January is 10º-29ºC and in June is 25º-44ºC. Extremes of -1ºC and 52ºC have been recorded at Iférouane. The rainfall, resulting from the Guinean monsoon, is always scattered and unpredictable, declining towards the north and east. It falls mainly in July and August and is higher in the Aïr Mountains due to orographic cooling. There it averages 75 mm a year, with 52 mm recorded at Iférouane. In the Ténéré it averages 20 mm a year, but there are frequent years when little or no rain falls; the drier east may receive only a few millimeters once every 20 years. Annual evaporation is 3-4,000 mm.
The Aïr Mountains are the first green land seen by birds flying south from the Mediterranean. They are a Sahelian floristic enclave within the Sahara which also contains relict Sudanese and Mediterranean species. Although rainfall is low, the bare rock surfaces of the massifs and plateaux concentrate run-off into wadis and temporary pans, which are relatively well wooded oases, even having gallery woodland with understorey. Sahelian species grow in the wetter parts of the mountains. The principal trees are Balanites aegyptiaca, Salvadora persica, Ziziphus mauritiana, Boscia senegalensis, Acacia laeta and A.albida. Grasses identified are Panicum laetum, Eragrostis pilosa, Cenchrus biflorus, Dactyloctenium aegyptium, Pennisetum violaceum, Cymbopogon schoenanthus and Chrysopogon aucheri. In the drier Sahel-Saharan transition zone, the tree species include Maerua crassifolia and Leptadenia pyrotechnica with the herbs Panicum turgidum, Lasiurus hirsutus and Aerva javanica. However, overbrowsing, overgrazing and tree-felling means that few young trees are coming up and there are local patches of erosion.
The relict Sudanese and Mediterranean species grow above 1,000 m in sheltered more humid localities in the massifs. Sudanese species include the trees Acacia nilotica, Grewia tenax, Grewia villosa, Cordia sinensis, Tamarix gallica and several species of Ficus. Damp areas have Phragmites australis,Typha latifolia and Scirpus holoschoenus. Mediterranean species include the nationally threatened wild olive Olea laperrini (V) found above 1,500m on rocky slopes in the Greboun and Tamgak massifs, Rhus tripartita, and Salvia aegyptiaca. The reserve harbors wild relatives of several important crop species: wild olive, millet Pennisetum glaucum and sorghum Sorghum aethiopicum, which have been the subject of genetic studies by the French Institute for Scientific Research and Cooperative Development and the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources.
Saharan species include the trees Acacia tortilis raddiana on sandy substrates, A.ehrenbergiana on stony and clay soils and a few stands of Hyphaene thebaica in rocky wadis. Elsewhere in the inter-montane areas, the vegetation is sparse, mainly Fagonia bruguieri, Zygophyllum simplex, Cornulaca monocantha, Citrullus colocynthis, Tephrosia and Indigofera spp. and the grasses Stipagrostis pungens and S. plumosa. The green fleshy annual herb Schouwia thebaica grows on silty-sandy soils after floods and is an important part of the diet of both wildlife and domestic stock at the end of the cold season. On the sands of the Ténéré, there is almost no vegetation except for a few ephemeral annuals growing in response to scattered showers, mainly Tribulus longipetalus, Cyperus conglomeratus and Stipagrostis acutiflora.
Over 350 species have been recorded by Newby, Dulieu & Lebrun (1982), Monson (1985) and by MH/E et al. (1996) which lists 289 species from 191 genera and 63 families. Most of this vegetation is drought-adapted but slow to recover from prolonged stress such as the long droughts of the 1970s and 1980s, and many of the trees are heavily over-utilized. However, tree-cutting has been curtailed and the relatively unspoilt flora of the reserve is more or less intact in most areas apart from a few valleys that have been over-used by local people.
Because of their diversity and inaccessibility the Aïr harbor viable populations of several species threatened internationally. 40 species of mammal, 165 birds some 18 reptiles and 1 amphibian have been recorded. A list with habitat preferences is given in MN/E et al. This is the only mountain system in the world outside Antarctica without fish. The invertebrate fauna is not yet inventoried. Both Saharan and relict Sahelian species occur, the Sahelian species having been isolated from populations further south for thousands of years. Several of the Saharan species can survive without drinking, but many of the other animals can be found between the Tamgak and Takaloukouzet massifs where there are watered valleys. IUCN field missions with support from NGOs in 2001 supported by the World Heritage Fund confirmed the relative abundance and diversity of wildlife; protected site and key species were recovering from recent disturbance by conflict and droughts. However, some are still at serious risk: addax are rare and the ostrich may be almost extinct locally due to poaching for the wild animal trade. Nine of the country's species are on the IUCN Red List for Niger.
The Aïr harbors important populations of several threatened Saharan ungulates. Magin estimated that there were in the reserve approximately 12,000 dorcas gazelle Gazella dorcas (V), 170 dama gazelle Gazella dama (E), and 3,500 Barbary sheep, (aoudad) Ammotragus lervia, some 70% of the Barbary sheep population of Niger. Numbers of dorcas gazelle and aoudad may have increased since the creation of the reserve, but dama gazelle is declining due to continued military poaching and tourist disturbance. The numbers of Addax Addax nasomaculatus have declined steadily since 1979. At one time the population was only 15. However a 1997 IUCN field mission found a population of more than 100 in the southeastern part of the Ténéré. Slender-horned gazelle Gazella leptoceros (E) has been recorded once. No scimitar-horned oryx Oryx dammah (E) has been seen since 1983: the species may now be extinct in Niger.
Most larger Sahelian carnivores like lion Panthera leo and African wild dog Lycaon pictus (V), were exterminated earlier this century by hunting and poisoning, but about 15-20 cheetah Acinonyx jubatus (V) and a few striped hyaena Hyaena hyaena persist, preying on feral donkeys. Smaller carnivore populations are healthy. They include Asiatic or golden jackal Canis aureus, fennec fox Fennecus zerda (K), Rüppells sand fox Vulpes rüppelli (K), caracal Felis caracal and sand cat Felis margarita (K). Zorilla (striped polecat) Ictonyx striatus [lybica] is recorded. Other Sahelian mammal species include an isolated and presumably highly inbred population of around 70 olive baboons Papio anubis, in the Tamgak massif, and an estimated 500 Patas monkeys Erythrocebus patas in the central massifs and plateaux. Both are of subspecies endemic to the Aïr. In rocky areas there are colonies of rock hyrax Procavia capensis and there are stable unthreatened populations of smaller mammals: burrowing rodents, insectivores and bats. Porcupines Hystrix cristata and hedgehogs Atelenix alboventris are serious pests in the cropland.
The resident avifauna are Saharan, Saharo-Sahelian and Saharo-montane species: sand grouse Pteroclididae, doves Columbidae, barbets Capidonidae, larks Alaudidae, buntings Emberizidae, weavers Ploceidae, ravens and crows Corvidae are conspicuous. African red-billed hornbill Tockus erythrorhyncus is recorded. There are substantial numbers of Nubian bustard, Neotis nuba, and eagle owl Bubo bubo. The last large population of the west African race of the ostrich, Struthio camelus camelus, living west of the Takaloukouzet massif, and estimated in 1990 at 800-2,000 was almost extinct in 2001. The reserve hosts some 85 species of palaearctic passage and overwintering migrants, particularly herons Ardeidae, birds of prey Accipitridae and Falconidae, waders Charadriidae, thrushes Turdidae and warblers Sylviidae. During the wet season there is an influx of local Afro-tropical migrants from the south. The herpetofauna includes black-necked spitting cobra Naja nigricollis, African puff adder Bitis arietans, west African sand boa Eryx muelleri, sand viper Cerastes cerastes, desert monitor lizard Varanus griseus and various species of gecko.
The Aïr has been settled for at least 30,000 years: prehistoric palaeolithic and neolithic sites abound. Later semi-nomadic agriculturists from the south were displaced by the first Berbers, ancestors of the present Twareg inhabitants. Most archaeological sites are sited along former rivers and lake margins in wooded savanna on the edge of the Ténéré, which probably last held water 4,000 years ago. The sites are rich in arrow-heads, axe-heads, mortars and grindstones. There are notable sites at Iwelene, Areschima, and Adrar Bous and rock-engravings at Arakao, Agamgam, Anakom, Tagueit, and Afis: petroglyphs of elephant and giraffe, addax, oryx, gazelles and ostrich, and phrases of Tifinagh, the written form of the Tamasheq language of the Twareg.
Pre-islamic tombs are common along the edge of the Ténéré (as at Tafidet). The oldest houses are probably C11th to C14th, built during the last wave of Twareg invasion, but most were abandoned during the last 200 years and there are ruined villages at Tin Telloust, Assodé and Ekpouloulef. The Aïr was colonized by the French from 1898, but not subjugated until the defeat of Kaoussan's rising in the1920s. Fortifications from that period survive. The colonization disturbed the balance of the traditional Twareg social structure and pattern land use. However, owing to this cultural richness the site may be designated a WH Mixed site.
Local Human Population
The Twareg (Imajaghen) of the Aïr once dominated one of the most important trans-Saharan trade routes and were undoubtedly hurt by the opening of coastal routes. The Aïr was also a part of a triangle of trade: livestock and garden produce were taken by camel caravan across the Ténéré to the oases of Bilma, traded for salt and dates, which were then taken to the south of Niger and exchanged for millet, the basis of the diet of the Twareg of the Aïr. This trade has declined due to drought and competition from vehicles, and the economy's survival now depends on being as widely based as possible.
The current population of Twareg within the reserve is about 5,000 of which some 1,000 are both cultivators and herders; the sedentary population at Iférouane and Tin Telloust, is about 1,500. The nomads are transhumant pastoralists, raising many thousands of goats and camels with a few sheep, donkeys and cattle who still live in balance with their harsh environment despite the stresses caused by social change. But their numbers fluctuate greatly according to the pasture available: in drought years many migrate to nearby mining towns and villages to obtain famine relief, returning when conditions improve where their livestock competes with the wild animals for fodder. The settled population which consists mainly of the descendants of former slaves (Iklan) of the nomadic aristocracy and artisans (Imaden), farm nearly 100 small irrigated gardens in the major wadis where the water table is high enough, raising wheat, fruit, vegetables and dates. Civil conflict, since resolved, which followed destructive droughts in the 1970s and 1980s disrupted the area during the early 1990's.
Visitors and Visitor Facilities
In 1988, some 2,000-3,000 mostly French tourists visited the reserve, and after a lull in the 1990s numbers are steadily increasing. Access is usually by vehicle, although there are airstrips suitable for light aircraft. One national standard unmetalled road passes through the reserve from Agadez through Iférouane to the Algerian border. All tracks within the reserve are unsurfaced and most follow the major wadis. Nearly all visitors travel in the security of convoys of 4WD vehicles organized by travel agencies based in Agadez and Arlit, camping in the bush. There are two small rest houses in the reserve, both locally run, at Iférouane. In 1990 a visitor center with museum was built at Iférouane as an IUCN/WWF project. A village cooperative has been formed for camel and donkey trekking, to increase the tourist revenue reaching the local population.
Scientific Research and Facilities
Owing to its topographic and biological diversity, the Aïr has been of interest to scientists since the first visit by Barth in 1850. His technical notes, published in 1857-8, were augmented, among others, by Foureau (1902), Buchanan (1921) and Rodd (1926). Current scientific studies date from a joint WWF/ZSL mission to the Aïr in 1979, leading to an IUCN/WWF project initiated in 1982. Most of its researches are internal project documents, available from IUCN, Niamey, Niger, but research on dorcas and dama gazelle has been published. Research in the first phase of the project (1988-1990) focused on wildlife and domestic stock censuses, vegetation dynamics, ostrich breeding biology, and the ecology of aoudad and baboon. A bibliography of project documents and pre-project research is given in Newby (1989 and 1991). The Ministry of Water Resources & Environment (MH/E) with WWF and IUCN published in French a record of recent research covering both human and environmental factors with an exhaustive bibliography (1996). The reserve headquarters at Iférouane house a small (poorly-equipped) laboratory, a small museum, a herbarium of the common plants in the reserve, and a library. All scientific projects must be arranged in cooperation with the authorities, who provide accommodation for visiting scientists.
The reserve possesses a range of landscapes with dramatic granite intrusions and live dunes, and vegetation and wildlife unsurpassed in the region, the massifs being unique biological islands in the heart of the Sahara of Sahelian wildlife. Internationally important populations of five species of threatened fauna survive: dorcas and dama gazelle, addax, aoudad, and ostrich. Comparable areas include Tassili N'Ajjer National Park in Algeria, the Tibesti-Ennedi region and Ouadi Rimé-Ouadi Achim Reserve in Chad. Tassili N'Ajjer, further north, is more purely Saharan and has a lower level of biodiversity and in Chad suffering from civil conflict for over twenty years little wildlife is believed to remain. Owing to the remoteness of the Aïr and Ténéré Reserve, and low recent intensity of settlement, signs of the interaction of ecological processes with man over millennia is revealed in a spectacular environment with rock art and many archaeological sites of great value, not yet seriously damaged by vandalism or collectors. It is beginning to need more protection and in 2000, the World Heritage Committee approved US$15,000 to support its nomination as a cultural site as well.
Since 1981 the area has been administered by foresters of the government's Service Faune. A reserve rather than a national park was mandated to allow people to continue living on their land. It was created and has been run since 1988 with the help of an IUCN/WWF project initiated in 1982. The 1988 legislation recapitulates existing national laws which prohibit hunting of wild animals and exploitation of certain tree species, all commercial collection of firewood, abusive cutting or pruning of any tree or bush for fodder, artifacts or fuel, and organized motor sports (the Paris-Dakar Rally used to pass through the area). The legislation defined 16% of the center of the reserve as a sanctuary to protect the small population of addax from tourist and other disturbance. Access to it is now banned without express permission from the Minister in charge of wildlife. This has not greatly affected the local Twareg, who rarely entered the area since there is very little pasture there and it does not lie across any of their traditional caravan routes.
Training has been an important objective of the IUCN/WWF project. By 1990, locals had been trained as masons, construction workers, tree nurserymen, first aid helpers, midwives, mechanics, guides, and drivers. A large number of unskilled short-term laborers had been employed to build dry-stone barrages and to plant trees. Several Nigerien foresters had been sent abroad on study scholarships funded by the project. The nomads are told about the authorities' intentions and changes in reserve legislation during periodic visits from forester patrols and from four camel-mounted extension workers who visit areas inaccessible by vehicle. To integrate the people into the reserve's management, a network of 47 headmen and clan chief representatives was appointed to report infractions of the law in their areas. A reunion of these men and the reserve authorities is held once a year when discussions are two-way and last three to four days.
A subsidiary IUCN project funds a magazine called Alam (Tamasheq for camel) which highlights conservation issues and environmental problems. This is distributed free to school children in the departments of Agadez and Tahoua and in the reserve. IUCN Niger is now also working on a conservation project based on co-operation between local stakeholders and institutions. This aims to increase the economic value of the reserves to the local people by developing decentralized and sustainable ecotourism, agriculture and animal husbandry. Some specific projects are: tree planting, methods of construction without wood, better market farming and plant nurseries, producers' cooperatives, check dams, maintaining wells and more efficient wood-burning ovens.
A peace accord with the Twareg was signed in 1995: there were no longer serious security problems in the area, but some wildlife populations had declined. Realising its benefits, the local people restarted the development project after the civil unrest had declined. Peace encouraged a plan for rehabilitating the reserves for submission to prospective donors such as the Global Environment Facility (GEF), Band Aid and the Swiss and Danish governments. The plan included restoring sites used as rebel bases, improved surveillance, rapid evaluation of the impacts of disturbances on wildlife, establishing a committee for development and management of the reserves and training for reserve staff, police and customs officers about threats to wildlife. By 2001 a WHF funded Rapid Wildlife Assessment Report concluded that the main large mammal populations had recovered but were not yet assured and ostriches were locally extinct. However, addax were rare and reliable survey techniques were needed, as was also a wildlife census including the participation of local people. Reintroduction of the ostrich from Chad and the breeding of ostriches and large mammals for reintroduction was to be encouraged and had local support. The Fonds Francais de l'Environment Mondiale with the Direction Nationale de la Faune had initiated a 5-year support program for equipment and reintroductions and for monitoring, in cooperation with IUCN, GEF and UNDP.
In 1992, the site was placed on the list of World Heritage in Danger as a result of conflict between the government and the Twareg. The Twareg traditionally hunted gazelle, aoudad, addax and occasionally ostrich, using snare traps and dog packs, but as wildlife has declined so has hunting. The decline was caused by uncontrolled illegal hunting with firearms and motor vehicles by military and mining personnel both foreign and Nigerien. Tourists also frequently chased addax and gazelles until they died of heat exhaustion. Harassment has decreased, due to improved surveillance and greater environmental awareness amongst Europeans, but unpunished poaching of gazelle and ostrich by the Nigerien military continues. Successive droughts have also caused competition for grazing land with livestock.
Other main management problems have been livestock predation by golden jackals and cheetah which the locals countered by indiscriminate poisoning; and destruction of trees for fodder, fuel and wood-working which has been reduced by replacing local wooden artifacts by imported ones. Both problems were solved in consultation with the local representatives at the annual reunions. The local tourist agencies initially opposed a reserve as a restriction on their independence, but they have gradually realized that the reserve protects the landscape and wildlife that tourists come to see. But pillaging archaeological sites for souvenirs can only be overcome with the cooperation of the tourists and agencies themselves, since it is too difficult to police the sites. However, by 2001, management of the reserve was seen to have deteriorated and UNESCO supplies were not reaching it from the capital.
In 1988 the IUCN/WWF-funded project Conservation et Gestion des Ressources Naturelles dans l'Aïr et le Ténéré which helped to administer the reserve employed 34 staff as follows: 5 government foresters, 2 salaried expatriate advisers, 4 expatriate volunteer advisers, 5 drivers, 2 guides, 4 extension agents, 2 midwives, 2 apprentice mechanics, 4 tree nurserymen, 1 secretary-radio operator, 1 driver-aide and 1 night watchman. In 2001 there were 41 staff, 7 working in the DFPP, 47 local auxiliary guardians, 11 vehicles and radio facilities.
In 1987-88 WWF/IUCN contributed 2,728,000 SFr (550,000,000 Fr.CFA* or US$1,750,000) for Project 9607/1624. Much of this funding was provided by the Swiss government which from 2003 will use the monies for rural development and the alleviation of poverty. The Nigerien government contributed 40,000,000 Fr.cfa (US$130,000) but the breakdown of the budget for these years is not known. In 1999 the WH Fund granted US$75,000 in emergency assistance. In 2000 the WHF granted US$15,000 to support nomination for cultural heritage status and in 2001 granted US$25,000 towards ostrich reintroduction. The budget for the next three years except for salaries was 70,000,000 Fr.cfa (US$78,000 per year).
* Franc du Communauté Financiere Africaine
IUCN Management Category
- IV Managed Nature Reserve. Biosphere Reserve.
- Ia Strict Nature Reserve.
- Natural World Heritage Site, inscribed in 1991. Natural Criteria ii, iii, iv.
- Listed as World Heritage in Danger in 1992 because of the destruction of wildlife and order caused by civil conflict.
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