Uncertain status of the Sahara sand cat is emblematic of the many unknowns following double disasters
TOUBKAL NATIONAL PARK, Morocco; EL KOUF NATIONAL PARK, Libya––Little as yet can be reported about the plight of animals in either Morocco or Libya after the catastrophic earthquake that hit central Morocco on September 9, 2023 and the flooding caused by Storm Daniel that inundated eastern Libya on September 11, 2023.
But there are several certainties:
- Among all the many animal charities purporting to be raising funds in response to the Moroccan and Libyan disasters, only the American Fondouk subsidiary of the Massachusetts SPCA and the Society for Protecting Animals Abroad (SPANA) actually have an established boots-on-the-ground presence in Morocco.
- No other animal charities are likely to be allowed into Morocco by the Moroccan government, which has refused most offers of outside humanitarian aid for any purpose.
No outside animal charities are in Libya, and none appear to have much chance of being allowed to go to Libya, much of which was a low-intensity civil war zone before it was a disaster area.
- Both Morocco and Libya remain highly dependent on working animals in agriculture and transport. Both will be even more dependent upon working animals in the near future, following extensive losses of paved roads, bridges, and other vehicular infrastructure.
- Both Morocco and Libya experienced extensive damage to the crown jewels of their national park systems and biodiversity hotspots.
Biological assessments must wait
Biological assessments of the effects of the September 9, 2023 earthquake on Toubkal National Park, Morocco, and of the September 11, 2023 flooding El Kouf National Park in Libya cannot reasonably be expected for months, and perhaps not for years.
Both national parks, however, harbored many seldom-seen endangered animals. Some of those animals may have lost many of the last members of their species. Others may benefit from a temporary absence of humans caused by the destruction of nearby villages and visitor accommodations.
Either way, reckoning the losses and gains for wildlife will have to wait until after all the human dead are discovered and buried, and critical infrastructure is restored well enough to permit a resumption of biological field research.
As many as 24,000 human dead
Morocco suffered at least 2,946 human deaths from the earthquake, measuring 6.8 on the Richter scale.
The single city of Derna, Libya, lost as many as 11,300 of about 100,000 pre-flood residents, Libyan Red Crescent secretary general Marie el-Drese acknowledged on September 14, 2023, with another 10,100 people reported missing.
Storm Daniel also reportedly killed about 170 people in the Libyan towns of Bayda, Susa, Um Razaz and Marj, and 84 Egyptians, most of whom lived in one village near the Libyan border.
Toubkal National Park
Toubkal National Park, 20 miles from the earthquake epicenter high in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, surrounds Mount Toubkal, at 13,671 feet the tallest mountain in Africa outside of Uganda, Rwanda, and the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
Toubkal National Park before the earthquake was known to be home to more than a hundred species of birds, reptiles, and mammals, among them Barbary mountain sheep, Barbary macaque, crested porcupine, mongoose, the Atlas viper and thorny-eyed gecko, bearded vultures, and four different kinds of eagle: the royal golden eagle, Bonelli’s eagle, booted eagle, and the short-toed eagle.
A border collie named Colin
The only post-earthquake report about animals in the Atlas Mountains that ANIMALS 24-7 has discovered so far was a few paragraphs from Tom Bateman of the BBC about a border collie named Colin, deployed from the United Kingdom to help search for survivors in the remote village of Douzrou.
“Colin is an experienced dog. He was in Turkey earlier this year,” Neil Woodmansey of the UK International Search and Rescue Team told Bateman.
Explained Bateman, “He is referring to February’s devastating earthquake in northern Syria and southern Turkey, which killed nearly 60,000 people.”
“Awaiting word on the numbers”
“Our American Fondouk team is awaiting word on the number of animals that may be critically injured and needing medical attention following the devastating earthquake near Marrakech,” Massachusetts SPCA director of development Raffaella Torchia told ANIMALS 24-7.
“The Fondouk’s executive director, Ahmed Khairoun, DVM, and several staff members will actively assist in the care of surviving animals impacted by the earthquake,” Torchia added.
Khairoun, who responded directly to an ANIMALS 24-7 inquiry earlier, “has been in contact with the local authorities and the staff of the Fondouk is ready to provide whatever assistance they can,” Torchia finished.
American Fondouk, meaning “American stable,” has operated in Fez, Morocco since 1927, initially funded by Amy Bend Bishop, an American visitor who sought help for the working animals of Morocco from then-Massachusetts SPCA president Francis Rowley.
“SPANA is on the ground”
SPANA, the other outside animal charity with an enduring presence in Morocco, was founded in 1923 by British visitors Kate and Nina Hosali.
Emailed SPANA communications officer Telsha Arora from the SPANA international headquarters in London, United Kingdom, “SPANA is on the ground assessing the need for working animals on whom so many people are dependent. SPANA teams will be providing critical support ensuring help is provided to injured and abandoned working animals, providing emergency veterinary care, food and water. SPANA looks after all working animals, including camels in Morocco,” Arora specified.
Added SPANA chief executive Linda Edwards, “The relief effort will also see the dependency on working animals, as the invisible heroes delivering life-saving aid to communities who have been cut off, with roads destroyed or blocked with debris. Working donkeys and mules will be their rescue partner, and SPANA will be there to safeguard their welfare.”
SPANA has a dedicated donation link for the Moroccan animal relief effort at www.spana.org/appeals/morocco.
Many animals in Libya, but little info
“Re Libya,” Arora said, “we don’t currently work there, so we wouldn’t be able to provide information about the current situation.”
The domesticated animal population of Libya, according to the United Nations Food & Agricultural Organization, includes 7.4 million sheep, 2.6 million goats, 200,000 cattle, 62,500 camels, 46,000 horses, and more than 27,000 donkeys.
About 10% to 15% are likely have been within the region devastated by Storm Daniel.
“So little infrastructure to help animals even under normal conditions”
“We are fine,” emailed longtime animal advocate and ANIMALS 24-7 reader Debbie Hirst, director of the American Chamber of Commerce in Tripoli, Libya.
“The flooding occurred on the other side of the country,” Hirst explained, “so we are not affected, but there are a lot of people suffering greatly. When this happened I started thinking about whether there was anything I could do to help the animals, but there is just so little infrastructure in place to help the animals even under normal conditions, I wouldn’t even know where to begin.
“There is a small blessing that there isn’t a large culture of keeping animals as pets here,” Hirst said, “so that reduces the amount of dogs and cats. In terms of livestock, I would expect that the locals are working hard to try and rescue whatever animals can be rescued, because of the commercial impact to them.
“There isn’t a lot of vet care in general, so I have no idea what resources are available now,” Hirst finished. “In any case, I’m sure the animals are suffering, as they do in all situations, even when there isn’t a disaster.”
Flood began in the Great Sand Sea
Torrential rains driven inland from the Mediterranean Sea by Storm Daniel reportedly began falling over the normally dry Great Sand Sea south and upstream of Derna, Libya, circa September 8, 2023.
The region is drained by the Wadi Derna river, normally more of a creek, which flows through the middle of Derna.
Seasonal flooding has inundated parts of Derna at least five times since 1942, most recently in 2011, but has been controlled, mostly, by a series of dams.
The disaster “started with a bang at 3 a.m. Monday as the residents of Derna were sleeping,” reported CNN. “One dam burst, then a second, sending a huge wave of water gushing down through the mountains towards the coastal Libyan city, killing thousands as entire neighborhoods were swept into the sea.
“The two dams that burst on Monday were built around half a century ago, between 1973 and 1977, by a Yugoslav construction company,” CNN added.
Derna deputy mayor Ahmed Madroud told Al Jazeera that the dams had not been maintained since 2002.
Engineers at Sebha University in Sabha, Libya, warned earlier in 2023 that catastrophic flooding could result if the dams broke.
That was not all.
“If there would have been a normal operating meteorological service, they could have issued the warnings,” World Meteorological Organization head Petteri Taalas told media in Geneva, Switzerland.
Threat seen from the north, not the south
“Emergency management authorities would have been able to carry out an evacuation,” Taalas suggested.
But Libya has been under two conflicting governments since 2014.
Despite that, CNN reported, “The National Meteorological Center issued warnings 72 hours before the flooding, notifying all governmental authorities by email and through media.
“Officials in eastern Libya warned the public about the coming storm and on Saturday ordered residents to evacuate areas along the coast, fearing a surge from the sea. But there was no warning about the dams collapsing.”
El Kouf National Park
Many of the 30,000 displaced Derna residents, unable to cross the Wadi Derna, had no choice but to flee west, toward El Kouf National Park, at 86,000 acres the largest and most renowned protected wildlife habitat in Libya, already damaged by the Storm Daniel tidal surge.
Established in 1975, El Kouf includes both inland and coastal marine habitat, including most of the 87 mammals and 338 bird species known to either inhabit or migrate through Libya.
Among the mammals are the striped hyena, both the Arabian and Egyptian wolf, wild boars, African wildcats, golden jackals, spotted genets, crested porcupines, and foxes.
Among the birds are golden eagle, Egyptian vultures, storks, ducks, flamingos, and quail.
Loggerhead turtles nest on the beaches of El Kouf and elsewhere along the Libyan coast. Offshore species include Mediterranean monk seals, bottlenose dolphins, and short-beaked dolphins.
Sahara sand cat
Perhaps the most endangered and certainly most enigmatic animal who might have been affected by both the Moroccan earthquake and the Libyan flooding may be the Sahara sand cat, a close relative of both the African wildcat and the familiar domestic cat.
But Sahara sand cats are seldom seen in Morocco and are not actually known to exist in Libya, even though their presence might be inferred from rare sightings both to the east, in Egypt, and to the west.
Contacted for ANIMALS 24-7 by Louise Holton of Alley Cat Rescue in Mount Rainier, Maryland, Alexander Sliwa, Ph.D., director of the Cologne Zoo in Germany, responded promptly by email “as the lead assessor for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Redlist Assessment for the sand cat in 2016.
“No confirmed records”
“There are no confirmed records for Sahara sand cats from Libya,” Sliwa said, “although I have recently requested through a friend from Tunisia information from people who have recorded a video of a sand cat from apparently Libya.
“However, I have not had a reply from them yet,” Sliwa continued. “There are sometimes videos from North Africa (e.g. Morocco and Algeria), but the location and validity of records have to be verified, as a video could have been recorded in a neighboring country and the location not clearly defined. So in short, I have nothing to confirm that there were sand cats close to the dams that apparently burst.”
Very likely the post-flooding clean-up will not shed further light on the matter, as few people would know a drowned Sahara sand cat from the remains of any other cat.