Spotting wildlife in Niger's Aïr & Ténéré Natural Reserves

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Sure, you can come to Africa and spot the Big Five, but here's a reserve hosting other beasties  who came to visit and just never left.

The Aïr and Ténéré Natural Reserves of northern Niger protect a fabulously desolate landscape of rugged mountains and immense sand seas considered the finest in the Sahara. At 77,300 sq km, this is the largest – and some might say most spectacular – protected area in all of Africa, and the scale of this place is stunning.

Heading northeast from your base camp in Agadez you cross the Aïr Mountains (pronounced 'eye-ear'), nine granite massifs the size of Switzerland, and travel 500km to reach the vast and stunning dune systems of the Ténéré Desert. It goes without saying that this scorching hot, completely arid region is the stuff of serious expeditions. Almost overlooked amid this enormous landscape is an unanticipated diversity of wildlife that ekes out a living here.

Although many large animals have been killed by poachers and Tuareg nomads who have roamed this desolate place in small numbers for centuries, the region's sheer inaccessibility has allowed many animals to survive. This includes oddly out-of-place populations of hyenas, cheetahs, baboons and ostriches, remnants of a time when this part of the Sahara was lush and fertile.

More typical of arid rock and sand habitats are fennec foxes, sand cats, Addax antelope and Dorcas gazelles. The elegant scimitar-horned oryx, a true desert specialist, was last seen here in 1983 and may be extinct, but no one knows for sure. Birds are surprisingly abundant, in part because this is the first patch of green they see as they migrate south from the Mediterranean. Many of the 165 bird species are resident breeders in pockets of woodland that grow in slightly wetter mountain canyons and wadis.

If you want to see what happens when it rains here, your best bet is to visit in July or August when an average of 75mm of rain falls on the upper slopes of the Aïr Mountains. This is a gully-washer compared to desert regions further east in the reserve that average a mere 20mm a year, with some areas receiving a few millimetres once every 20 years. Anyone who ventures into the Aïr Mountains and Ténéré Desert is advised to travel in a caravan of 4WD vehicles or camels with local guides from Agadez or Arlit.

This is an excerpt from Lonely Planet's A Year of Watching Wildlife. If you love wildlife, you'll love sharing with our Wild Things group. Join up!