The dama gazelle – an icon of wild grace and swiftness – faces a precarious future in its arid range along the southern reaches of the Sahara Desert. If it plunges into the black hole of extinction, it will become a symbol of the environmental cost of climate change, human encroachment, military and civil conflict and, perhaps most of all, overhunting.
The dama – the largest of some 19 species of gazelles found across Africa and Asia – belongs to the animals known as even-toed “ungulates,” or the hoofed animals that have an even number of functional toes on each foot.
- Size and Weight: Measures about three to three and one-half feet tall at the shoulder, weighs about 160 pounds.
- Body: Slender body with thin legs and neck, short tail.
- Head: Antelope-like head; large, Mule Deer-like ears; relatively short, heavily ridged, backward slanting, somewhat S-shaped horns.
- Colors: White head; chestnut brown neck, shoulders and back; white belly, legs, rump and tail; white throat patch; chestnut brown stripe on front of forelegs. Chestnut brown colors far more dominant on the populations of the western parts of the range than on those of the eastern parts. Colors vary with age and season.
Range and Diet
The Dama Gazelle ranges across north-central Africa, from the southern Sahara Desert southward over the Sahel Belt into savannahs. It moves into the Sahara during the rainy season, from summer into fall, when the region typically receives a few inches of precipitation. It migrates southward through the Sahel Belt – a sprawling, generally flat desert-to-grasslands transition zone – as the dry season takes hold. It spends the dry season in African savannahs, or grasslands with scattered stands of shrubs and trees. It migrates back northward with the return of the rainy season.
A grazer and a browser of the daylight hours, the Dama feeds on the grasses, the succulents, and the acacia and other trees and shrubs, often standing on its hind legs to reach the higher foliage. Well adapted to its dry habitat, it takes much of the moisture it requires from the tissues of the plants it eats.
Behavior and Life Cycle
As late as the first half of the 20th century, the Dama Gazelle – once the most numerous and widely distributed of the Saharan gazelles – migrated, north and south, in herds of hundreds. Reaching its seasonal ranges, it typically ran with a herd of ten to fifteen other Damas, including a dominant (and usually older and stronger) adult male and several adult females with young.
The male reaches sexual maturity at about one and one half to two years of age, and the female, at nine to twelve months of age.
During the breeding season, from fall into early winter, the male becomes territorial, asserting his dominance over several females. He signals his claim, not only with the typical dung and urine, but also with secretions from glands beneath his eyes. The female calves, delivering a single offspring (or, rarely, twin offspring) from six to six and a half months after breeding, often just as grazing and browsing begins to improve with the season. She sequesters her newborn for a few days, until it finds its legs and can follow her even in flight. She nurses her fawn for perhaps six months, until it can forage on its own.
Often, a Dama Gazelle lives for 10 to 12 years in the wild and for several years longer in captivity.
Across its range, the Dama Gazelle has served as natural meals for lions, cheetahs, leopards, hyenas, the African wild hunting dogs and other predators, but its wild population has dwindled most significantly and most alarmingly at the hands of man. “The best available information,” said authority Michael Kreger, Fish and Wildlife Service, in the Federal Register, “indicates that the causes of the decline of these antelopes [the Dama as well as two other species] are  habitat loss through desertification, permanent human settlement, and competition with domestic livestock and  regional military activity and uncontrolled killing.”
Within only a few decades, the wild population of Damas has shrunk from thousands to no more than several hundred. Its usable range has contracted steadily as climate change has induced the severe drought and desertification, allowing the Sahara to expand southward. Its remaining usable range has been degraded through permanent settlement by once-nomadic peoples who operate new irrigated farms and pasture large domestic livestock herds. It has lost the protection of governmental conservation infrastructures in the wake of military and civil conflict and warfare.
Most tragically, it – along with other species – have fallen to wanton killing, much as the bison of the United States’ Great Plains came to the brink of extinction before the repeating rifles of hunters and mindless killers of the 19th century. In the case of the Dama Gazelle (and other species), “...military and government officials have inflicted the most devastating losses with access to off-road vehicles and high-caliber weaponry...” said Kreger. “In 2001, an antelope survey team observed many signs of antelope killing in Chad including abandoned carcasses, vehicle tracks, spent cartridges, and eyewitness reports.” In some instances, the animals’ horns became good luck charms for sale in local marketplaces.
Early in the 21st century, the Dama Gazelle has been placed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources’ list of critically endangered species of the world. It is now likely completely extinct in much of its original range. A very few may survive along the border between Morocco and Mauritania and in the southern part of Algeria. A limited number still exist in Mali, Niger and Chad. Several hundred have been raised in captivity in various parts of the world and may someday produce seed stock for reintroduction into their original range.
“In all areas surveyed,” said the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, the Dama Gazelle’s “numbers have been very low and the size of observed gazelle groups very small [typically one to five individuals]… Subpopulations probably number around 20 individuals in all cases, are separated by hundreds of kilometers, and the current wild population is certainly less than 500 individuals.”
- The Dama Gazelle extends its feeding envelope by standing on its back legs to browse and shrub and tree foliage up to six feet above ground level.
- The Dama Gazelle, always highly alert, alerts its comrades to the presence of a predator by “pronking,” or springing up into the air with all four legs stiffened.
- The female Dama Gazelle, like other female desert gazelles, secrets a newly born fawn, which “lies still, hidden in crevices, behind bushes and small trees and remains in hiding most of the time” to protect it from predators, according to Åsa Strandberg, The Gazelle in Ancient Egyptian Art Image and Meaning. The young leaves the hiding place only when the mother calls, either for suckling or when the herd moves to new grazing areas.
- The desert gazelle (including the Dama and four other species) appears as
a recurrent theme in the art of ancient Egypt, where its image appeared on rock
surfaces, temple and tomb walls, wooden panels, wands, ceramics over a period
of at least four millennia. In at least some instances, the gazelle may have,
said Strandberg, served as a “representative for the desert mountains as the
setting for death and rebirth.”
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