It’s not easy to get a glimpse of the critically endangered Saharan cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus hecki), the rarest of the six cheetah subspecies. Only about 200 to 250 of these nocturnal cats are thought to survive in remote pockets of Algeria, Niger, Togo, Mali, Benin and Burkina Faso, making them the rarest—and at the same time the most widely distributed—large predator on the planet.

But now a team of scientists working in Algeria has managed to capture not just an image of a single Saharan cheetah, but more than two dozen. In the process, the team has gathered the first real scientific information about these big cats.

“This is the first time we have been able to collect scientific data on the rare Saharan cheetah, as in the past we have had to rely on anecdotes and guesswork,” lead author Farid Belbachir from Laboratoire d'Ecologie et Environnement, Université de Béjaïa, Algeria, said in a prepared statement. “We hope that this important carnivore does not follow the path to extinction like other Algerian desert species such as the addax antelope and dama gazelle.”

The research team—which included scientists from the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Zoological Society of London and other institutions—spent several months in Algeria in 2008 and 2010. There, they set up hundreds of camera traps which together operated a total of 5,229 days. During that time the cameras recorded a grand total of 32 photos of seven different cheetahs, each of which could be identified by its size and unique markings. Saharan cheetahs have paler, shorter fur than their savannah cousins, as well as smaller heads and thinner bodies.

All but two of the photos were captured after sunset and in the twilight hours before sunrise, which supported previous assumptions that the cats operate nocturnally.

The photos also revealed clues about the animals’ territory. The same cheetahs were photographed by different cameras up to 44.9 kilometers away from each other, indicating that the cats use an incredibly broad stretch of habitat. Although some images captured more than one cheetah at a time, they mostly live far away from each other. The researchers estimate that they live at lower densities than any other African carnivore.

The Saharan desert is not exactly rich with food or water for big cats, so they need wide ranges in order to hunt. This also explains their nocturnal behavior: it would be too hot to hunt and travel over such large distances during the day.

The researchers used the photographs to estimate that the cheetahs in Algeria have a home range of 1,583 square kilometers. Keeping them safe from humans would require even more space, between 9,000 and 19,000 square kilometers, depending on how much of a buffer zone could be created. The Sahara Conservation Fund posited several years ago that the cheetahs could be at risk if they started preying on livestock or other domesticated animals, which could result in the retaliatory use of poison to wipe them out. Night hunting with spotlights already threatens the other wildlife in the region and is responsible for the eradication of the two ungulate species, the addax antelope and dama gazelle, which Belbachir mentioned.

All of this has an end-point. The researchers wrote that using the Saharan cheetah as a “flagship species” could provide incentive to conserve their entire ecosystem.

Their research was published this week in the journal PLOS ONE.

Photos: Farid Belbachir/ZSL/OPNA