Fewer addaxes live in the wild than there are words in this sentence. A lot fewer.
After surveying nearly 2,000 miles of Niger’s Sahara Desert and Sahelian grasslands by air and more than 400 miles by foot earlier in March, researchers turned up just three of the critically endangered antelope.
Three. That means addaxes are as rare as dragons in HBO’s Game of Thrones.
If you’ve never heard of the addax, then you’re running out of time to get acquainted. This desert antelope is mostly white, with a toupee of dark fur crowning its head. But it’s the addax’s long, twisted horns you’d remember, and that’s part of the problem. Since the mid-1800s, the addax has become popular quarry for hunters and poachers who prefer wall decorations to biodiversity.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), poaching has increased as Niger’s neighbors descend into chaos. Armed militias equipped with 4x4 vehicles pour out of Libya to the north, and insurgencies in Mali and Nigeria present still more threat of governmental instability and poaching to the west and south. Making matters worse, Niger’s military has set up shop right in the middle of addax habitat to protect the country’s oil-drilling operations. The IUCN reports that those same soldiers have developed a taste for addax meat.
The fact that there may now be just a handful of addaxes remaining hurts all the more because we have already done quite a bit to try to save them. Hunting or harassing addaxes is illegal under Niger law, and the species falls under the protection of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals because herds of the animals would once go back and forth between Niger and Chad. Even the addax’s homeland—a harsh, hellish landscape that varies between true desert, hardscrabble grassland, and craggish mountainsides—is protected, at least in writing.
The remaining addaxes live within the Termit Massif Total Reserve, the largest single protected block of land in all of Africa. Its borders encompass 39,000 square miles of southeastern Niger and provide sanctuary for more than 150 species of birds and 30 species of mammals. Some animals, like the barbary sheep, the African spurred tortoise, and the addax, have few other refuges left on earth. But having a wildlife reserve the size of Kentucky means little if the government can’t enforce its own laws—laws that will mean even less when climate change starts redrawing ecological boundaries on the map.
According to a paper published in Current Biology on May 9, changes in temperature and precipitation will slowly shift the antelope’s already tiny home range to the north and west of the reserve by 2080. Obviously, three animals wouldn't be enough to sustain a population in the wild for that long, but the implications are concerning nonetheless.
Quite simply: We’ve spent a lot of time and money establishing parks and preserves, designed in part according to the home ranges of endangered species. But what happens when a changing climate shifts those ranges outside of the lines we created to protect them?
This is likely to be a widespread issue affecting many kinds of animals, says Jakob Bro-Jørgensen, an evolutionary ecologist at the University of Liverpool and coauthor of the study. And habitat specialists, those species with narrow or very precise ranges, are especially in trouble.
To illustrate this, Bro-Jørgensen took a look at all of the world’s antelope species, 30 percent of which are already considered threatened by the IUCN. He entered each species’s current distribution into ecological models, along with data on how climate is expected to affect the region, to see whether their ranges would expand or shrink over the next 60 years or so. The results were not encouraging.
Of the 72 species of antelope native to Africa, 59 are likely to experience a net loss of habitat. For 19 of those species, changes in climate will cut their home ranges by half or more.
Put another way, Bro-Jørgensen says if we could somehow push the pause button on everything else threatening antelopes (poaching, development, all of it), climate would still send 10 African antelope species into a more severe conservation category. For instance, the Abbott’s duiker would go from endangered to critically endangered, as would the Nile lechwe and the mountain nyala.
This is why Bro-Jørgensen would like to see climate change incorporated into the IUCN Red List assessment process. How many other species might gain protections today if we took a more realistic look at what will become of their habitats tomorrow?
onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.