by Jennifer Dees

I have the neediest, pickiest cats in the world. To them, if the bowl is half-full, it might as well be empty. I figure they’ve got it pretty easy amongst the billions of other pets around the world. That got me thinking about what pets people own in Niger and the relationship they have with other animals.

I discovered pets aren’t common in Niger, but the Azawakh dog has probably played the most significant role in their lives. According to Infodogs, the nomadic Tuareg tribes bred them for hunting, guarding, and companionship. They’re friendly with family, but wary and defensive with strangers. They can happily chase after gazelles up to 40 miles per hour in 100 degree heat. However, they’re rarely seen today because of the drop in game and the government ban on hunting.

Traditional hunting (on foot without the use of modern weapons) isn’t a significant cause of dwindling wildlife. The problem is with droughts and hunting by those with advanced tracking and weapons. Hunting is illegal in Niger, but with cities few and far between, poachers still slip through. It hasn’t always been like this. According to John Newby’s article on “The Role of Protected Areas in Saving the Sahel,” 19th century travelers marveled at the abundance of wildlife. But, then, the country was once covered with forests and grassland and flowing with rivers. The animals were once a reliable resource for nomadic tribes during droughts. Today, few see the value in supporting wildlife. Newby attests that “Just as it is wise to store grain for times of famine, it should be desirable to encourage the growth of healthy wildlife stocks.” And, of course, the extinction of any animal would be a huge ecological loss.

Hundreds of species still roam the desert, from lions to elephants, and from golden jackals to oryx antelope. But in a country that’s 80% desert, and with fewer than five inches of annual rainfall, several mammals are threatened or endangered. The addax antelope is critically endangered, while humans and giraffes complete for land resources. Still, efforts are being made to protect the wildlife. According to the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity, 14.29% of Niger is protected land, including the fourth largest reserve in the world, the Aïr and Ténéré Reserve. In 1991, only about 50 West African giraffes remained on Earth. That number has risen to 400—still low, but slowly growing.

Most Nigeriens today depend on raising livestock rather than hunting wildlife. According to the World Bank, in rural areas, 4 out of 5 households own livestock. It’s the biggest source of income for many households, so losing any of their livestock can be a disaster.  Without water for the livestock to drink, losing them is always a concern.  “Family herds that took decades to form can be decimated in only a few months. As an example, in 2009, following a drought in Niger, herders in the worst-hit areas lost up to 90% of their livestock.” Starting over after something like that must be devastating.

With so many people enduring a lack of resources, it can be easy to overlook the animals that are also affected. With more access to water, people in Niger will have an easier time caring for their livestock and won’t have as much competition with wildlife over the few water sources. I hope that as Niger develops, more people will begin to restore and protect the animals that give the country much of diversity.