We’re in the Western Sahara on the hunt for Sand Cats and other mammals that make the desert their home. After a night in Dakhla, we were ready to resume our search in the Bir Antzarine region. Nico picked us up from our hotel and we headed east on the tarmac road to Bir Anzarine for about 60 km. We left the road and headed into the desert on a dirt track. Since the area was heavily land-mined during the war it was essential to have a good local guide if you head overland. We were in good hands with Nico and Sidi as we headed deep into the desert. “Keep an eye out for foxes”, Nico advised, “although mostly nocturnal they are sometimes seen during the day”. Shortly after Marc spotted a fox next to the track! We followed it and it led (or at least that’s the way it appeared to me) us to a den where there were two more foxes! Now we could see that they were Rüppell’s Foxes. One brave one remained outside the den, even lying down at the entrance to the den.
When we approached it took off across the desert. I wasn’t sure if it was the same one Marc had first spotted or a different individual. We waited by the den and finally one of the two foxes that had gone underground reappeared. We watched for an hour as the kit emerged to yawn, groom, and poop before disappearing again. We weren’t sure if the two kits were trading off or if it was always the same one coming to the surface.
We left the curious kits and resumed our drive to the camping spot. Not long after Sidi spotted a Fennec Fox at its den next to the road. We returned to the site but the fox had disappeared - bummer! Would we ever get to see a Fennec Fox? Suddenly it reappeared and stopped long enough for a good view and photo!
We continued on and arrived at the camp spot at the base of a big dune at 5:00 pm, later than expected due to our encounters with the foxes. Nico, Sidi, and Amina began setting up camp while we explored the area. Nico pointed out a skink at the base of the dune. We went to investigate. It was one of those cool skinks that burrow into the sand. Nico said the common name was “Sand Fish”. Marc got some great photos.
We climbed about 35 feet to the top of the dune with a sweeping view over the desert. Surprisingly we could get cell phone reception from the top.
When we returned to camp, our tent had been set up. Our roomy tent was made of cotton with colorful patterns inside. There was no floor but the guys put mats down. I hope the vipers and scorpions can’t get in.
After dinner, we ventured north into the desert along the line of dunes as the sun began to set. Around 9:30 Nico spotted our first mammal, it was a Fennec Fox! The Fennec is the smallest canid in the world and is name comes from the Berber-Arabic word "fanak" for fox. Fennecs are crepuscular meaning that they are active mainly at dawn and dusk. Their most distinctive feature is their unusually large ears which dissipate the desert heat but are also adapted to hear prey underground. It paused in its nighttime foraging long enough for Marc to get some good photos.
We began to see smaller mammals such as Fat-tailed Gerbils, Lesser Egyptian Jerboas and possibly a new species for the trip, a Pygmy Gerbil. It’s very difficult to differentiate between species of gerbils in the wild.
Nico picked up distant eyeshine. We all saw it, Marc saw it a second time, but we lost it in the bushes. By the way it was moving it could have been a Sand Cat but we’ll never know. We returned to camp around 3am. The daytime sightings of both Rüppell’s and Fennec Fox made up for the lack of a Sand Cat sighting but we were running out of time.
We woke up around 10:30 the following morning and brunch was served around noon. We spent the remainder of the day at camp, writing notes, downloading photos and charging batteries for our lights. We left camp around 7:00 for our second night drive. We were crossing a flat, sandy stretch when Nico shouted: “Stop!”. There was a Fennec peering out of a hole in a den. I saw a second Fennec in a hole in the back of the den mound. We took photos then drove a little closer. The rear fox leaped up and tore off unexpectedly across the desert. Through our binoculars, we could see him sitting about 300m away. We waited for the second fox to reappear but it didn’t.
We continued our drive to the east as the sun set over the desert and the temperature dropped. Amina who had joined us on tonight’s drive spotted a Desert Hedgehog.
Just after midnight, I spotted distant eyeshine. We tried to identify it from this point but it was too far. We drove closer, keeping the animal in the spotlight. We got close enough to see it was a Sand Cat! It froze under a bush and we got out for a close view. The batteries on my spotlight were dying and Marc’s camera batteries were dead! He rushed back to the car to change them and I rushed back to grab my camera so at least we’d have a photo. Amazingly the cat remained frozen and we were able to get great views and photos. Finally, after nearly 45 hours of searching, we had the encounter with a Sand Cat that I had desperately hoped for!
We were up at the usual time of 10:30 the next morning but no one else seemed to be moving. We got out of our tent a little later and found Nico who told us that the clocks had moved back an hour because of Ramadan. We had brunch around 11:30 (new time). We hung out in the mess tent for a while, downloading photos and showing them to Sidi and Amina. Sidi entertained us with the local way of preparing tea. He would pour the hot liquid from a red teapot into a tiny glass from high above without spilling a drop!
We returned to our tent so the others could rest up for tonight, our 7th and final night drive of the trip. We agreed to keep our schedule the same despite the time change. This meant having dinner at 5:00 PM and heading out at 6:00 PM. We decided to check out Fennec Fox den but when we arrived it appeared deserted. Sidi got out to investigate and said there was no sign of recent activity. We were just about to drive off when Nico said: “It’s there!”. A Fennec popped his head out and then emerged in beautiful light just as I had hoped. Marc and Nico got some great photos.
At 11:30 Marc spotted eyeshine and we tracked it in the vehicle. It was a Sand Cat! It hid under a bush affording us a second opportunity for great views and photos. Sand Cats are uniquely adapted for life in the desert and can survive far from water sources. Long hairs protect the soles of their feet from hot desert sand and their sense of hearing is greater than that of a domestic cat allowing them to detect prey.
We left the cat to resume its nocturnal hunting and 20 minutes later Marc spotted more eyeshine. Could it be another Sand Cat? We tracked the animal to a bush where it hid behind. It was an African Wildcat. It sat allowing for good views and photos.
We returned to camp at 1:30 am (2:30 old time) and Marc stayed up to photograph the Milky Way from our tent. What a great ending to our visit to the Western Sahara! We got a great view/photos of a Fennec Fox, another great view of a Sand Cat and an African Wildcat! We turned in for our third and final night in the dunes.
|View of the Milky Way from the Sahara|
The following morning we packed up camp and left around noon for Dakhla making stops at the known Fennec and Rüppell’s Fox dens. We passed the Fennec Fox den but no one was out. When we arrived at the Rüppell’s Fox den, both of the kits popped up! They entertained us with their grooming, pooping, yawning and at times they approached our vehicle very closely.
|Rüppell’s Fox Kits|
As we neared Dakhla we encountered a large herd of domestic camels and sheep grazing in the desert.
We arrived at the Ocean Vagabond, a kitesurfing “camp” in the afternoon. The staff was intrigued about our exploits into the desert to look for wildlife as most tourists come here to kitesurf. On our last day in Dakhla, we had booked a half-day marine mammal watching tour with Sahara Sailing. We were hoping to see critically endangered Atlantic Humpback Dolphins or at least Common Bottlenose Dolphins that live in Dakhla Bay. Sadly, despite Neil’s best efforts, we came up empty handed but we had fun exploring the bay.
|In Dakhla Bay|
The following morning we left Dakhla and flew back to Marrakech where we extended our stay to visit Ousoud Falls the next day to see Barbary Macaques. Now a very popular tourist destination, the falls are the best place to see Barbary Macaques in the wild. We hired a local guide named Nwor to take us around. We told him we were interested in nature, particularly to see the Barbary Macaques. As we headed out first along the El-Abid River that forms the falls, Nwor pointed out the many Sahara Frogs, Mauritanian Toads, Viperine Snakes and Mediterranean Turtles in or along the river. He also pointed out birds, butterflies, damselflies and Garden Locust. I was glad to see him excited about nature.
We arrived at the top of the falls where there were many tourists. The falls plunge 110 m or 330 feet in 3 drops into the El-Abid River gorge. Nwor said the falls were the third tallest in Africa but this is a gross exaggeration.
We explored the nearby olive tree groves for more birds before climbing steeply down into the gorge. Here we met our first group of macaques. Unfortunately, they were being fed by some tourists and the guides were encouraging them to do so! One macaque was sitting on a guy’s shoulders, not cool. These macaques are wild animals and should be treated as such. Feeding them makes them aggressive toward humans and then they become pests. They can also transmit diseases fatal to humans. It would be a tragedy if these endangered monkeys had to be destroyed because of the stupidity of humans. They are found only in Morocco and Algeria and their numbers are decreasing. We spotted a troupe that was away from the tourists and we were able to observe them foraging naturally.
Our trip to Morocco and Western Sahara had come to an end. A big thank you goes to Martina of Dakhla Rovers for working with us to arrange this adventure. Thanks to Nico also of Dakhla Rovers for guiding and enabling us to find so many wondrous desert dwellers! We’ll never forget our close encounters with the endearing Rüppell’s Fox kits, the extraordinary Fennec Fox and of course my favorite the elusive yet amazingly tolerant Sand Cat. Our gratitude also goes to Sidi for driving and for his sharp eyes in spotting animals. Finally, thanks to Amina for preparing delicious meals while we were in the desert.
We hope all is well with everyone.
Peggy and Marc
Morocco/Western Sahara Mammal List: April 27- May 9, 2019
|1||Fat Sand Rat||Psammomys obesus||White Dune near Dakhla|
|2||Maghreb Hare||Lepus mediterraneus||Aousserd Rd. & Bir Anzarine Area|
|3||Fat-tailed Gerbil||Pachyuromys duprasi||Aousserd Rd. & Bir Anzarine Area|
|4||Lesser Egyptian Jerboa||Aousserd Rd. & Bir Anzarine Area|
|5||Lesser Egyptian Gerbil *||Gerbillus gerbillus||Aousserd Rd. & Bir Anzarine Area|
|6||Pygmy Gerbil *||Gerbillus henleyi||Bir Anzarine Area|
|7||Desert Hedgehog||Paraechinus aethiopicus||Aousserd Rd. & Bir Anzarine Area|
|8||Rüppell's Fox||Vulpes rueppellii||Aousserd Rd. & Bir Anzarine Area|
|9||Fennec Fox||Vulpes zerda||Bir Anzarine Area|
|10||African Golden Wolf||Canis anthus||Derraman Massif|
|11||African Wildcat||Aousserd Rd. & Bir Anzarine Area|
|12||Sand Cat||3, 1 Aousserd Rd. & 2 Bir Anzarine Area|
|13||Honey Badger||Aousserd Rd., possibly 1st sighting in 25 years!|
|14||Barbary Macaque||Ousoud Falls, Morocco|
* presumed to be this species
For the 39 bird species seen and photographed by Marc go to his list on iNaturalist:
Western Sahara Bird List with Photos
Our route map: