Tassili N'Ajjer National Park (23º05'N-26º50'N) is a World Heritage Site located on a plateau of outstanding scenic and geological interest, covered by eroded sandstone forests of rock. The area has one of the largest and best preserved groupings of prehistoric cave art in the world, an immense gallery of neolithic art of international importance. More than 15,000 drawings and engravings record the climatic changes, the animal migrations and the evolution of human life on the edge of the Sahara from 8000 to circa 1500 years ago. It is also a floristic and faunal island of Sahelian life in the middle of the desert, and harbors a relict Mediterranean cypress, one of the rarest trees in the world.
Threats to the Site
Natural erosion of the art and increased vandalism owing to improved access, along with uncollected tourist litter are beginning to degrade the quality of the site.
In the central Sahara in far southeastern Algeria between 23º05'N-26º50'N and 5º20'E-12º00'E. The northern boundary runs east 440 kilometers (km) from Amguid on the Tamanrasset road via Illizi to the Libyan border. The east and south sides adjoin the Libyan and Nigerien borders for 600km. The southern boundary runs northwest 700km from the Nigerien border to Amguid, bulging in to exclude the sands of Erg d'Admer.
Date and History of Establishment
- 1972: Decree No.72-168 designated the Tamrit plateau east of Djanet (300,000 hectare [ha]) a national park;
- 1979: Further areas designated Historical Monuments and Sites;
- 1986: Decree No. 83-458 extended the Park from the 1972 area to 7,200,000ha, all to be subject to national park nature conservation legislation;
- 1986: The Tassili Plateau designated a Biosphere Reserve in the Man and the Biosphere Program;
- 1987: 450,000 sq.km area of the nearby Ahaggar Mountains declared a national park;
- 2001: Oued Iherir valley designated a Ramsar Convention site (6,500ha).
8,000,000ha (Biosphere Reserve 7,200,000ha).
State property in the Wilaya of Illizi (Djanet, administrative capital). The local nomadic tribes have rights of pasture. Settled tribesmen are the main landowners in the oases. Administered by the Office du Parc National du Tassili (OPNT) and the Direction Du Patrimoine Culturel, Ministere de la Culture.
Tassili n'Ajjer means plateau of chasms. The Park comprises two geomorphic units: sandstone plateau and mountainous volcanic ridge. The plateau (tassili) is part of an ancient sandstone layer surrounding the Precambrian granite massif of the Ahaggar. This extends northeast down to a lower plateau edged by a 600m escarpment which runs for 700 kilometers in a gentle arc west-northwest - east-southeast. The plateau is between 80 and 300 kilometers wide, of extremely broken terrain towards the north, its north-facing cliffs cut by several deep gorges and steep-sided watered valleys running northward into sands. The red to black-weathered sandstone has been deeply eroded into forests of 20-30m pillars like ancient ruins (Dubief, 1959,1963; Fabre, 1978) and rises to the southwest-facing escarpment above the shifting dunes of the Erg d'Admer and Erg Tihodaine. The Park's southwestern boundary runs along the foot of this escarpment.
The ridge of relatively recent volcanic rock, the Adrar massif, rises 30-50 km behind the scarp to 2158m in Mt.Akao and is crossed at a few aqbas (passes) only. It is part of a central African continental divide between northward and southward flowing watersheds. The area was most recently formed in a wet climate 10,000 years ago when the ergs were lakes fed by rivers from the mountains: There are springs and 300 permanent gueltas (pools) on the plateau, and in the north-flowing Oued Imirhou 20km of water sometimes runs for six months. Another semi-permanent river is on a tributary, Oued Iherir, where secreted travertine forms natural dams and pools which cascade from one level to another. Near Amguid on the western edge there is a huge crater.
The plateau is hyperarid, very exposed and barren, but there are sheltered more humid microclimates where relict Mediterranean fauna and flora survive. The annual rainfall is scant and variable, with a mean of 25 millimeters (mm), locally occasionally 150mm. The plateau’s summer temperature range is between 20º-30ºC and the winter range is between 31º-1ºC; snow is recorded on the peaks. The annual mean is 20.3ºC at 1,100m but in summer Djanet at this elevation at the foot of the southern escarpment has experienced 50°C.
The Adrar mountains and Tassili N'Ajjer plateau, owing to their elevation and the humidity of deep shaded valleys, possess relict Mediterranean as well as Sudano-Deccan and Saharo-Sindien vegetation. The most notable Mediterranean species are the endemic Saharan cypress Cupressus dupreziana (E) (tarout), the only conifer of the central Sahara, first known to science in 1924, along with occasional Saharan olive Olea europea laperrinei and myrtle Myrtus nivellei, also Teucrium sp. Lavandula antineae. There are only some 153 tarout left in the world, about a 100 of them scattered in the 'Valley of the Cypresses' between Tamrit and Jabbaren northeast of Djanet. They grow between 1000-1800m and are extremely drought-resistant; all are old, some perhaps over 2000 years old and all have been mutilated for fodder and wood. The olives and myrtles with Nerium oleander which is common, grow at the bottom of wadis or beside gueltas.
The humid valleys and guelta banks have Sudanian riverine vegetation: Tamarix gallica, and some Ficus sycomorus, Acacia nilotica, Salvadora persica and Hyphaene thebaica. Other river-bed species include Trianthema pentandra, a valuable fodder plant, Silene kilianii, Lupinus pilosus and Convolvulus fatmensis. Riparian species include Typha capensis which is common, Juncus buffonius, Scirpus holoschoenus, Phragmites australis and Adiantum sp. Submerged vegetation includes Ceratophyllum demersum, Myriophyllum spicatum, Potamogeton hoggariensis, Chara and Ekebergia sp. In the unpolluted fresh water of the Iherir valley, aquatic mosses secrete travertine, creating dams, waterfalls and pools. There are many other Sudanese species such as Maerua, Ferula, Salvadora and Calotropis.
Rocky and sand plants include Mesembryanthemum gaussenii (E), Pseuderucaria clavata and Acacia scorpioides. Endemic Saharan species found on the massif include the pondweed Potamogeton hoggariensis (E), Silene hoggariensis, Lupinus tassilicus and Senecio hoggariensis. The Tassili is important for 28 plants rare in Algeria, among the most threatened being Cupressus dupreziana (E) and Phagnalon garamantum (I). Other rarities are Olea laperrinei, Ficus ingens, Boerhaavia viscosa, Calligonum sp., Trianthema pentandra, Spergularia fontenellei, Bergia suffruticosa, Hypericum psilophytum, Convolvulus fatmensis, Anticharis glandulosa and Utricularia exoleta.
The fauna contains both Mediterranean and Saharan Palaearctic species, relicts of a more humid climate: fish, brine shrimp and once even a dwarf crocodile Crocodylus niloticus, far from the nearest population in Egypt. The last was killed in the Imirhou wadi in the 1940s. Remarkably, four species of fish are found in the lower pools near Iherir: Tilapia zillii being the commonest, with Barbus biscarensis, B.ablabes and the air-breathing mudfish Clarias anguillaris. The herpetofauna includes monitor lizard, Varanus griseus, and the frogs Bufo viridis, Ptychadina occipitalis and P.mascariensis. There is a diverse invertebrate fauna, with relict Afrotropical and Palaearctic species including large numbers of spiders and insects; dragonflies include Orthetrum ransonneti and O.sabina.
The 23 or so larger mammals are more typical of arid climates. These include ruffled mouflon or Barbary sheep Ammotragus lervia (I), once thought extinct in the area, caracal Felis caracal, cheetah Acinonyx jubatus (V) and dorcas gazelle Gazella dorcas (V), reed cat Felis chaus and sand cat F.margarita. Locally threatened species include Saharan gundi mouse Ctenodactylus vali and rock hyrax Procavia capensis. Roan antelope Hippotragus equinus, addax Addax nasomaculatus (E) and scimitar oryx Oryx dammah (E) have disappeared from the region, the latter very recently. This species has been seen near In-Amenas further north.
The entire region is important for resting migratory Palaearctic birds. Species recorded in the area include golden eagle Aquila chrysaetos, long-legged buzzard Buteo rufinus, bittern Botaurus stellaris, little bittern Ixobrychus minutus, night heron Nycticorax nycticorax, squacco heron Ardeola ralloides, purple heron A. purpurea, white stork Ciconia ciconia, glossy ibis Plegadis falcinellis, short-toed eagle Circaetus gallicus, lesser kestrel Falco naumanni, hobby F.subbuteo, quail Coturnix coturnix, corncrake Crex crex spotted crake Porzana porzana, and stone curlew Burhinus oedicnemus. Breeding bird species include Palaearctic marsh birds such as coot Fulica atra and moorhen Gallinula chloropus, as well as a relict sub-species of Barbary partridge Alectoris barbara duprezii.
The plateau has some 15,000 well-preserved neolithic rock engravings and cave paintings of great variety and vitality, an immense gallery of prehistoric art of international importance.The area has been continuously inhabited since the last wet period about 8000 years ago despite desertification, already evident by 1500 BC. Radio-carbon dating has placed most cave paintings and archaeological remains between 6000 and 2000 BC, some perhaps from 7500 BC. It has been suggested that the engravings may have been made by a Berber culture from the north, the paintings by a negroid people who have moved south.
There is a sequence of styles which became increasingly abstract as the climate became drier. Following Lhote and Campbell & Coulson this ranged from an early naturalistic Bubaline style (featuring buffalos) of incised engravings only, early C9th to C5th, to the Bovidian (cattle-herders') style of paintings of round-headed people, both huge and tiny, C6th to mid C2nd, to the Caballine (horse-riders') style from ~1500 BC, with smaller more stylised figures and mouflon hunting scenes, to the Camelian (camel-riders') style, from about 700 BC, a schematic art showing present-day animals, with inscriptions in Tifinagh, the alphabet still used by the Twareg.
According to Kerzabi the most notable sites are the following. The National Park east and north-east of Djanet has frescos of several different periods, especially at Sefar, Tamrit and Tin Tazarift, amongst forests of weathered stone, and to its south are petroglyphs and rich archaeological remains. Some of the most beautiful Saharan neolithic engravings are also near Djanet. In the northern canyon of the Oued Djerat, paralleling O. Imerhou, are 30 kilometers of rock engravings of man and animals, some full size, (hippopotamus, buffalo, elephant, rhinoceros and giraffe). Iherir oasis has large carvings of giraffe, many relics and interesting architecture; to its east and west the plateaux of Tasrirt and Tadjilahine have scores of painted rock shelters. The plateau of Dider south of Iherir has not only petroglyphs of Saharan fauna (giraffe ostrich and gazelle) but also tumuli and frescoed shelters, and to its east the plateau of Ighassan has paintings and rich archaeological sites. On the plateau of Fadnoun southeast of Illizi are hundreds of stone monuments. The region of Tarat in the northeast is extremely rich in archaeological sites with neolithic sculptures, pottery, grinding implements and enclosures as well as lower and middle Paleolithic material. To the west, Adrar, Tasedjbest, Ifedaniouen and Aras are all rich in rock art, not all yet known to scholars, and there are palaeolithic sites at Erg (formerly lake) Tihodaine.
Local Human Population
The plateau itself is very sparsely inhabited by the nomadic Kel Ajjer Twareg, the total population being at most 1,000, many, after droughts, having settled in Illizi on the northern border, Zaouoatallaz and Djanet. Stock raising and agriculture are confined to the settlements; grazing is generally on the wadi floors. Wheat, root and fruit crops are grown in a few northern valleys such as Oued Iherir where more than 1000 people live. Most of the area is peopled by the Da’ira, totalling some 10,000. Djanet oasis at the foot of the ridge in the southeast has a population of some 5,000. The traditional economic basis of local Twareg society has suffered much change in the last 30 years and it has become increasingly dependent on tourism, especially at Djanet.
Visitors and Visitor Facilities
The number of tourist numbers (and vandalism) grew until the 1990s, and an international airport was built near Djanet to cater for this growth. Package tours are now returning and with them the need for protective surveillance. Crossing the massif is generally only practicable for four-wheel drive vehicles, and requires permission from the Tassili National Park office (OPNT) in Djanet, which prepares itineraries, and supervises and guides tourists within the area of the nearby Park and elsewhere. Tourist festivals and shows now occur at Illizi and Djanet.
Scientific Research and Facilities
An experimental center has been set up at the archaeological site of Timenzouzine (Tassili of Djanet) where a meteorological station operated from 1979-86. In January 1987, a UNESCO consultant, Dr. B. Bosquet, worked with National Park authorities to examine the need for conservation management in the National Park and make draft recommendations. Cypresses on the plateau have already been catalogued and numbered and since 1987 a Czechoslovakian project with WWF/IUCN assistance has set out to re-introduce tarout cypress to the Tassili plateau. A research station is planned. At present, most facilities are located in the surrounding villages. Ongoing studies include the dendrochronology of tarout cypress, natural resource inventories and conservation of the rock art.
The Tassili N’Ajjer has one of the world’s great collections of prehistoric art, outstanding for its long record of Neolithic rock art and artifacts but it has not escaped vandalism. The national park was first established to protect this internationally important cultural heritage which documents the climatic and social changes over 8000 years or more. It was then realised that the area was also internationally important for its geology, fauna and flora. These include geological formations of notable interest as scenery and as the record of a fossil hydrographic system from fluvial to hyperarid conditions; and wildlife which includes 28 plant species rare in Algeria; one, the rare endemic cypress Cupressus dupreziana, being one of twelve critically endangered plants chosen by the Species Survival Commission of the IUCN to highlight serious threats to species around the world. There are over five endangered mammal species. The entire mountain region is also important for resting migratory Palaearctic birds. In 1987 a large area of the nearby Ahaggar Mountains was also declared a national park.
There is a management plan for the Tassili National Park near Djanet, where wardens and guides manage visitor movements. Other wardens have been recruited in nearly every area of the park. Patrolling so vast an area is made easier by the difficulty to strangers of crossing the very broken terrain so only the few passes and main track junctions need to be watched. A management plan for both the natural and cultural aspects of the national park is being studied.
The impacts of tourism pose problems, particularly of litter and of the threat to archaeological remains, which are attractive to collectors, and to the rock engravings and paintings which have been damaged by erosion, collectors and vandals though not yet as drastically as in Morocco. Nevertheless it has been estimated that at least two million archaeological artifacts have been removed from the Ahaggar/Ajjer region, the more accessible Ahaggar being the more affected. Some plant species such as the cypress, incapable of reproducing in their natural surroundings owing to the changing climatic conditions, will eventually become extinct unless conservation measures succeed. Pollution is affecting the moss-formed travertine in the guelta of Azarif near Iherir.
There are 44 members of staff, including the Director, 3 researchers and 39 wardens and guides. The National Park office (ONPT) has a Director and Research Officer as well as wardens stationed at Djanet, Illizi, Zaouoatallaz and Iherir. The wardens are trained to act as wildlife guides and to ensure that the rock art and other archaeological sites are protected and that there is no hunting, collection of plants or damage to the trees.
The OPNT is financially independent. Its budget covers staff salaries and maintenance of a small fleet of vehicles. Resources earmarked for conservation are extremely limited and are used for documentation, essential equipment and the living expenses of experts on projects. The tarout cypress project (# II 3781 of 1987) is funded by WWF and IUCN.
IUCN Management Category
- II National Park. Biosphere Reserve. Ramsar site.
- Natural & Cultural World Heritage Site inscribed in 1982. Natural Criteria ii, iii / Cultural Criteria i, iii.
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