The Sahara desert has been advancing steadily across the Islamic Republic of Mauritania for more than 50 years, leaving its ecosystems and iconic species, such as the bearded barbary sheep and pale gold addax, increasingly vulnerable to threats.
A new Global Environment Facility-supported project will work to preserve Mauritanian biodiversity and habitats by creating an extensive new protected area in the district of Adrar, an area famed as a crossroads for medieval traders bearing salt and dates across the desert.
Adrar is known for its serene desert landscapes and the historic UNESCO-listed fortified towns of Chinguetti and Oudane. These settlements grew up in the 11th and 12th centuries as rest stops for trading caravans making their way across the Sahara and, over time, became important seats of Islamic scholarship and culture. Chinguetti’s ancient libraries still house some of the world’s most important Arabic-language books.
The region is also home to incredible biodiversity. This project, managed by the UN Environment Programme, will support the creation of a new 200,000-hectare protected area in the region: a corridor of conservation that will link the El Ghallâouîya Key Biodiversity Area with the Guelb Er Richat Nature Reserve to the southwest.
Mohamed Yahya Ould Lafdal, the Mauritanian government’s Technical Adviser for Cooperation and Partnership and GEF Operational Focal Point, said the creation of the new protected area was a dynamic shift that would help address the unique challenges faced by inhabitants of this terrain.
“This development is enormously significant not only for conserving Mauritania’s biodiversity with a substantial increase in the coverage of national terrestrial protected areas, but importantly for our indigenous nomadic communities who face relentless food and nutrition crises caused by climate change and low agricultural productivity,” he said.
“This project also represents an additional achievement in the environmental governance and ecological restoration of the northern hyper drylands of Mauritania and is expected to boost several indicators that have been set up in the context of the UN Convention on Biodiversity."
Over the past 30 years, the GEF’s donor governments have approved $6 billion and leveraged more than $40 billion for biodiversity protection, with the goal of ensuring diverse ecosystems can thrive alongside healthy human societies. This funding has made possible 2,000 biodiversity initiatives in 159 countries plus additional related work to protect landscapes, forests, oceans, and increase resilience to climate threats.
Mauritania is also participating in the GEF-supported Great Green Wall, which aims to restore degraded landscapes across the Sahel region and North Africa. Lessons from the country’s new protected areas project will inform the anticipated creation of future protected areas or community areas under the Great Green Wall initiative, which is referred to in Mauritania as a Presidency Program. A baseline assessment of Mauritania’s biodiversity in the Great Green Wall zone is underway with GEF and UNEP support.
Mauritania’s Guelb er Richat – or “Eye of the Sahara” – is one of only three nature reserves in the North African country and covers an area of 20,000 square kilometers. This distinctive land mass, with its concentric circles of blue and gold, was once mistakenly thought to be the impact crater of a meteorite but is now believed to be the remains of an eroded magma dome. It holds significant cultural, geological, and environmental importance both nationally and globally.
The reserve is also a haven for animals. Since it is difficult to access, it is relatively undamaged by human activity, and offers both permanent water sources and natural protection against the wind. Originally established to safeguard the mouflon, a type of bighorn sheep, its protections have benefited several other IUCN Red List species, such as the addax and dama gazelle – both of which are critically endangered – and the vulnerable dorcas gazelle.
El Ghallâouîya, situated at the other end of the proposed new protected area, is a permanent water source relied upon both by nomadic herders and large numbers of birds and animals, many of them vulnerable, that need water to thrive.
“The fantastic leadership demonstrated by the Mauritanian government in working with UNEP and the GEF to develop these arid and sadly neglected areas will have huge benefits for people and the environment,” said Adamou Bouhari, Task Manager for the project.
“In an iconic landscape featuring some of the world’s most vulnerable and endangered species, such as the dorcas gazelle and the addax, there are compelling opportunities for sustainable development,” Bouhari said. “The GEF-funded project will support the development of alternate income generating activities like eco-tourism, climate-resilient infrastructure for farmers, sustainable land management techniques, and many more initiatives designed to benefit both people and nature.”
With Mauritania’s largest concentration of oases, Adrar is an important centre for agriculture, supplying vegetables and dates to the capital, Nouakchott.
Mauritania’s arid zones have up until now been chronically short of both private sector investment and development funding. The GEF-supported, UNEP-implemented initiative is designed to open the door to follow-on initiatives in provinces with wide benefits for the economy and environment.
A key aim of the initiative will be to guarantee sufficient funding to support conservation efforts in the new protected area. To this end, teams will work to set up sustainable financing mechanisms and to broker private sector deals to promote investment and help fulfil the region’s potential as an eco- and scientific tourism destination.
To ensure the new preserve and the biodiversity within its borders are properly supervised and maintained, the UNEP project team will support the establishment of a regional supervising authority and a biodiversity monitoring system.
A focus on promoting gender equality will run through the entire project. All stakeholder groups during consultations will be gender-balanced and teams will make a point of involving women and young people in project activities, including training.
It will conclude with the crafting of a plan to raise awareness of the benefits of sustainable land management through radio programs, toolkits, and mechanisms to encourage lesson-sharing and the replication of successful initiatives elsewhere.