Gueltas: The Future of Conservation Biology



Small guelta providing refuge for a large camel population

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Deserts are essentially barren wastelands filled with nothing but sand and cacti, right? We should definitely be focusing on preserving all the exotic rare species in the rain forest, right? Actually, ground breaking research suggests that tiny pockets of water in hostile Saharan regions termed gueltas are actually sources of extreme biodiversity and rich flora and fuana. Currently, gueltas are responsible for providing refuge for many endangered species yet ignored by conservation efforts. Using the ecosystems of Mauritania as a model, researcher Candida Gomez Vale states, “identification of the local hotspots of biodiversity is important for revaluating global conservation priorities.”

In Mauritania, researchers determined that 78% of all vertebrates are permanent residents of gueltas. Since gueltas only occupy 0.00004% of the physical area, I think we would all agree that gueltas are every bit as dense in species richness as tropical rainforests. However, they are much less well known and understood. In harsh desert regions, gueltas provide a crucial source of water and refuge to endangered wildlife especially in the face of increasingly drastic climate change and global warming.

The presence of permanent, clean water is essential to sustaining a rich variety of flora and fuana and even temporary droughts and temperature fluctuations are extremely detrimental. Human activity, in particular, has resulted in a depletion and contamination in water resources that has threatened the biodiversity of the Mauritanian wildlife. In Mauritania, herdsman have depleted a lot of the guelta water for crops and herds. In addition, a lot of the water that remains is contaminated by herd fecal matter due lack of safety regulations from the government. Currently, 64% of total gueltas are unprotected and organized preservation policies are virtually nonexistent.

Faced with the continued abuse of its gueltas, Mauritania is in dire need of strong conservation policies. In a world with limited resources, the first step should be “to rank priorities for conservation and design a reserve network that would enhance both the protection of biodiversity and a sustainable development” (Vale et al., 2015). Essentially, they want to make sure that such preservation efforts are cost-effective while considerate of expanding growth in societal needs.

With any new policy, it is important to educate the public regarding the benefits and consequences in a positive light. The inhabitants of the region should understand the benefits of preservation including revenue generated from tourism, sustainable resource use, and increased public health. More specifically, conduction channels could be implemented to feed cattle away from gueltas in order to reduce water contamination from feces and wastes. In order to generate revenue for the struggling economy, the community could organize ecotourist opportunities which would attract travelers with promises of rare and exciting wildlife. Thus, the goal of conservation efforts in Mauritania should be to conserve the species-rich ecosystem of gueltas while being considerate of the economic and cultural needs of the locals.

Some may be wary of such grandiose goals for the conservation of gueltas in Mauritania. How do we know it will be worth it to save the gueltas? What if these conservation efforts don’t work or don’t generate any revenue for the locals? Admittedly, there are definitely many more legal issues such as establishing boundaries, attaining funding for conservation, and regulation policies that need to be established in order to begin the expansion of conservation in gueltas.

However, these tiny overlooked pockets of water in the middle of the desert have proven to have tremendous impact on Mauritanian biodiversity and cultural practices of the locals. Given such evidence, researchers have proposed a foundation for future conservation policies that would benefit the local community in addition to ecosystem. While these plans are not a magical guarantee of success, they are based on concrete research and conservation policies that have been proven to be successful. The successful conservation of gueltas in Mauritania could be a stepping stone to improved global conservation policies that can be applied to regions around the world.



  1. Vale, C., Pimm, S., Brito, J. (2015). Overlooked Mountain Rock Pools in Deserts Are      Critical Local Hotspots of Biodiversity. PLoS ONE, 10(2): e0118367. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0118367


Image | This entry was posted in Conservation Biology Posts, Conservation Editorials 2015. Bookmark the permalink.

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