Home Country Guides: Books, links and trip reports whale and dolphin watchingFocus on Australia Mammal watching: Some tipsWorldwide Mammal Info: Books and links with a global coverage Mammal Watching Blog: Read and Subscribeme and my mammal watching
In September 2008 I travelled to Tunisia for work and took a short side trip to look for mammals. Tunisia is the most liberal of the North African countries I have visited - or perhaps I mean the most tolerant. In any case, it was good to see a mixture of young women wearing the veil hanging out with others in jeans and tee shirts. It is also the most developed. Most people speak French and quite a few speak English, it is cheap and the food is good. And even though it was Ramadan it wasn’t so hard to find food in the day time. Tunisia also has some nice national parks, protecting a diversity of habitats from pine forest, through to savannah and desert. And there are some good mammals. Several species have been reintroduced but are living wild and rather hard to see elsewhere.
I arranged my trip through Becasse Ecotours, which were the only company I could find who seemed to know anything about Tunisian wildlife. I’m glad that I did. The managing director, Tarek Nefzi, accompanied me. Tarek has spent his entire career as an ecologist, and was very knowledgeable and well connected, as well as hard working and good company. He is also Tunisia’s answer to David Attenborough, and makes his own TV nature programme. His celebrity status also unlocked a few doors (or, rather, gates to bat caves and no entry roads). It seems quite complicated to visit the parks, and Tarek had to produce a ream of permits for each place. But they all let us in, and we were – as a consequence – able to go wherever we wanted, stay late and spotlight.
Unfortunately accommodation options are quite limited in the south of Tunisia and we spent 2 nights at Gafsa. The hotel was comfortable, but it was a 90 minute drive from both Chaambi and Bouhedma park so it wasn’t ideal. If I went back I would try to arrange to camp, or find some less salubrious accommodation much closer to each park. Tarek is already on the case and is hoping to open accommodation in Bouhedma when the government bureaucracy finally gets around to thinking about it.
Chaambi National Park
Chaambi is about 3 hours south of Tunis. The park protects Jebel Chaambi – Tunisia’s highest mountain – which is largely covered with pine forest. It is a pretty place and we were the only people there. The two species I wanted to see here were Barbary Sheep or Aoudad (reintroduced in the 1980s) and Cuvier’s Gazelle. We started looking for the sheep at 4pm and by 4.30 we’d found a group of 9 which we watched for half an hour picking their way up a forested slope. They are impressive animals. But they were the only sheep we saw over the next 5 hours – perhaps because we went on to turn our attention to looking for the gazelles.
Cuvier’s Gazelles proved much more difficult to find, and much more difficult than Tarek expected. He had seen them many times in the past, though hadn’t visited the park for a year. I got a split second glimpse of the arse-end of one disappearing into the trees from the edge of a clearing. But that was it. The gazelles like forest clearings, and we visited several good-looking spots where Tarek had seen them in the past, as well as circumnavigating the mountain on a rugged 4WD track. But no gazelles. No mammals in fact.
I stuck the spotlight on for 40 minutes at 8.30 and we saw several Cape Hares both inside and outside the park but nothing else. Striped Hyena is possible here, as are Porcupines, but the forest is quite dense and so it isn’t ideal for spotlighting.
Bouhedma National Park
Bouhedma is probably Tunisia’s premier national park and protects the last vestiges of the Tunisian savannah that once formed a belt across the top of the Sahara. A number of mammals have been successfully reintroduced here since the 1980s and they are easy to see.
We arrived at 9am and quickly saw the first of many Scimitar-horned Oryx.
Soon after we saw Dorcas Gazelles, a species that had managed to survive in the area until the park was established.
Addax and Dama Gazelles were also reintroduced to Bouhedma and were quite easy to find, albeit in smaller numbers. We saw only a solitary Addax and a small group of Damas.
All nice species to see, and I guess difficult to see elsewhere.
At 10am we had several short views of a Ruppell’s Fox, a species I had seen only once before while spotlighting in Ethiopia. Cape Hares were also common.
In the late afternoon we focussed our efforts on trying to see Gundis, guinea pigesque rodents that hang out on rocky slopes and cliffs. They are common and easy to see in Bouhedma. Or so I was told. But not that day. We spent over 3 hours checking out likely looking sites – areas where Tarek had seen Gundis often and even filmed a 20 minute TV programme about them. Nothing. I guess they might be easier to see in the mornings when they sunbathe on the rocks. We did see a Golden Jackal. During an hour’s spotlighting we picked up another Ruppell’s Fox, several Golden Jackals (one of which approached very close when I squeaked it in), lots of Dorcas Gazelles and Oryxes and my first Lesser Egyptian Jerboa.
Although Bouhedma is relatively small, the animals are living wild and breeding successfully, so – using my own lax code of mammal listing ethics - the reintroduced species are tickable. But maybe others would disagree? Perhaps it was just the easiness of seeing them that troubled me. Anyway, I reckon it is well worth a visit.
If you are heading from Gafsa to the Sahara and you haven’t seen a Gundi then stop at Mides Gorge, a popular tourist spot that was deserted when I stopped there. Although it was 11am, it was still quite cool, and we flushed a Gundi that didn’t hang around for long
Jbil National Park
Jbil is a fairly remote park, about 4-5 hours south of Gafsa, the last 2-3 of which are along a pretty rugged track. I wouldn’t do it without a 4wd. The whole park covers 150,000 hectares of the Sahara, about 45,000 of which are fenced. They don’t receive many visitors. We were the first people to stay there in a while, and I was apparently the first person ever to come especially for mammals. This caused some excitement so a ute load of us went out spotlighting.
They reintroduced a herd of Addax about a year ago, most of which were hanging around the park hq waiting for food at dusk. We arrived at dusk and after the guards shared their dinner with us we went out for a couple of eventful hours spotlighting. There is an impressive rodent biomass in the park: we must have seen 20 Lesser Egyptian Gerbils (some more of which I caught in Elliott traps overnight) as well as 10 or more Lesser Egyptian Jerboas, one of which we caught by hand – though it took 4 rangers about 10 minutes to finally grab the thing. I wish I had had a video camera.
We also saw a couple of Red Foxes, very different looking to the European flavour, a massive Eagle Owl and – best of all – a Fennec Fox. This was the species I wanted to see here, but Tarek had only ever seen two during many visits so I was not hopeful. We had good views of the animal running away for a couple of minutes. But just as we were within flashgun range, we got the ute stuck on a dune. The rest of the night was spent half-heartedly looking for Libyan Polecats (a long shot) and hedgehogs, stopping only to remove a camel that had crossed the fence. This was another amusing performance: camels, it seems, don’t like to be told where to go.
In the morning we took a drive out to the edge of the reserve and finally found a beautiful Rhim Gazelle. One of a small group introduced to the park several years ago that are breeding and most certainly living wild.
El Haouaria Bat Cave
My final stop was at the El Haoauria Bat Cave, about an hour from Tunis at the end of the Cape Bon peninsula. The reserve is usually locked as is the cave, but Tarek arranged for the rangers to meet us. Access to the fairly small cave was pretty easy. And inside there were a hundred or so Mahgrebian Mouse-eared Bats (a recent split from Lesser Mouse-eared Bats) , and a few Rhinoplophus – I saw Mehley’s Horseshoe Bats, but Blasius’s and Greater Horseshoes have also been recorded here, as have Bentwing Bats (Miniopterus Schreibersii).
Stuff I missed
Other People's trip reports
Tunisia and Algeria 2009: Hugh Buck, 10 days & 17 species including a possible Fennec Fox.