Reserve Naturelle Nationale De L’aïr Et Du Ténéré

On the edge of the Sahara in dry mountainous northern Niger, this spectacular—largest protected area in Africa—enormous 29,850-square-mile (77,300-km2) World Heritage Site covers over six percent of the country.

This wilderness oasis said to have the Sahara’s most beautiful dunes is a last stronghold of semi-desert Sahelian and Saharan wildlife. Here species of special concern such as scimitarhorned oryx adjust to the desert’s extreme temperatures, from 122°F (50°C) in summer to below zero in winter. Handsome addax antelopes conserve water by thermoregulating their bodies and survive on sparse growth that comes after rare, meager rains. Both oryx and addax have been under heavy pressure by poachers.

Long-legged Nubian bustards a yard (m) tall cover ground walking as readily as flying, plucking insects from tall grasses as do Sudan golden sparrows—males with sulphur-yellow heads—in company with a few ostriches, pied cuckoos, sooty, melodious black scrub-robins, spotted and crowned sandgrouse, and noisy, long-tailed, vividly blue Abyssinian rollers. Jackals, hyenas, and cheetahs are here too, adjusting to all habitats and preying on grazers, especially young gazelles.

The starkly beautiful Aïr (pronounced eye-ear) Mountains—a jagged massif of dark volcanic rock the size of Switzerland—are home to slender-horned gazelles and Dorcas gazelles, along with reclusive Barbary sheep with massive horns and long, furry neck-ruffs and pantaloons.

Greatest problems—as in “W”—are overgrazing and overbrowsing of acacias by nomadic livestock, also poaching and international trade in live animals and their by-products. Tuareg people have invaded the area periodically for the past 2,000 years and still tend camels and goats in small irrigated gardens. Rebel insurgents were a serious threat but not since a 1995 peace agreement.

Agadez and Arlit both have lodging and guides—a good idea since it’s easy to get lost here. Mountains start immediately north-northeast of Agadez and the amazing sand desert some 300 miles (500 km) beyond that. Toward Tazolé is a fascinating area 90 miles (150 km) long strewn with fossilized dinosaurs—reminders that the whole Sahara was once fertile and green. There are a number of places with rock paintings of giraffes and other species.

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