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21. Nature in Algeria during 1940-1950

JAN. 26, 2021


Ryan and Pete journey across the Algerian landscape wondering at the wildlife and gasping at the geography. From marine mammals to desert dwellers, there is much to discover about nature in Algeria during the nineteen-forties.

Join Ryan and Pete and they journey from the coast to the desert in this weeks episode.

Part of North Africa’s Mahgreb region, this area is also known as ‘the Barbary Coast’, after the Berber ethnic group of the region.

The tenth-largest country in the world, it’s the largest by area in the African and Arab world. More than 44 million people live, mostly residing in the north, by the sea. Because that’s where the water is, since you asked.

Colonised by the French, the country achieved independence in 1962, and now officially called ‘the People's Democratic Republic of Algeria’.

Everything starts out pretty lush and green for Algeria, although that was 10,000 BC. Unfortunately for water-lovers in the area, in 3,500 BC the Earth tilted, changing orbit. This causes the Sahara to become a desert and breaks contact between the coastal communities and sub-Saharan Africa, because who wants to walk through a thousand miles of desert?

After various groups rule the land over the centuries, from 1500 Algeria becomes an autonomous province of the Ottoman Empire.

Then, fast forward 300 years, and the Ottoman’s are suffering from the French not paying their debts. The Ottoman ruler (Husayn) confronts the French Consul - and hits him with a fly swat.

What a significant swat.

The French Minister of War suggests a war would be good use of the veterans of the Napoleonic wars who are hanging around wondering where the next war is. Answer – Algeria.

From 1848 Algeria becomes a colony of France, bringing commercial development and modernisation, but mostly for the French colonisers.

So much so, that by 1870 one-third of the native population is estimated to be dead from disease and starvation. And there are other ways to die for France too! In 1914 World War One breaks out and 200,000 Algerians go fight for France. Rinse and repeat for World War Two.

After the war though, as we have seen elsewhere, colonisation falls rapidly out of fashion. Resistance and protest increases until, in 1945, after shootings at a peaceful demonstration when an uprising ensues. It’s fairly one-sided. 84 European settlers and up to 45k muslims are massacred as a result.

This does nothing to dissuade nationalist sentiment though and from 1954 a full-on war of independence is fought, lasting until 1962, when Algeria finally wins it’s sovereignty.
But we’re here to talk about Nature.

The mountains split the area where Algeria is today into four distinct regions:
- In the North, The Tell Atlas (Atlas Tellien)
- In the middle, The High Plateau (Hauts Plateaux)
- In the South, The Sahara Atlas (Atlas Saharien) and the Northern Sahara Desert

The Tell Atlas

Northern edge of Algeria is 1,008 miles of Mediterranean coastline. This thriving ecosystem is home to 16,848 marine species, including Dolphins, Orca, Turtles, Tuna, Octopus and sharks. Don’t worry about the sharks though, there’s only been one recorded shark attack in Algeria, and that was in 1844.

The Turquoise Coast has rocky coves and sandy beaches with cypress, cork oaks and olive trees, with mineral-rich red soil inland.

To the east of this area are healthy forests and abundant vegetation as well as the literal fruits of colonisation: vineyards, orchards, citrus groves, and market gardens.

Further west, the forests disappear, and plants grow only with irrigation, and probably some irritation too.

Overall, this entire area is known as ‘the Tell’ and is where 90% of the population live. This is despite the fault line that runs through the area, occasionally causing severe earthquakes, destroying towns.

Further south and we enter the Tell Atlas mountain range. One of the foremost mountains on the range is (and number 7 on the Tripadvisor list of places to visit in Algeria) Pic des Sanges (Monkey Mountain) which overlooks the coastline city port of Béjaïa.

Guess what you find in monkey mountain? Correct. It’s home to the only native monkey in Algeria – the Barbary Macaque. Besides humans, these Macaques are the only free-living primates in Europe.

They live in troops of up to 100 individuals. They have a queen, or a lead female – and she determines the hierarchy of the troop. Girl monkeys will mate with the majority of the males in the troop. Consequently, because the males don’t know whose child is whose – they collectively rear all of the young, spending lots of time grooming and playing. Clever monkeys.

Sadly, we’re losing monkeys fast. In the 1940s the population was approx. 100,000, but now just 12-21,000 remain. Meanwhile Macaques are sold as pets in Morocco and Algeria, and exported to Europe to be used as pets. We know it sounds cute, but don’t get a pet monkey. Just get a flippin’ dog eh?

The High Plateau

The nice warm weather staying on the other side of the range means we’re now in a place of extreme temperatures, i.e. super hot summers and super cold winters, and little rain.

When it does rain, large sabkhahs form (shallow salt lakes) which makes farming almost impossible here. Almost. There are some better-watered areas where grazing of sheep and goats is had, and some limited farming is possible.

To the East of the Plateau near the Aures Mountains (shared with Tunisia) is Belezma National Park. This is home to the Atlas cedar tree, a 40m high evergreen, used in essential oils, sadly now on the Threatened Species list due to climate change.

This is also sadly the site of one of the last sightings of the Barbary Lion, a now-extinct Lion that survived in small groups until the early 1960s.

As food became scare in the mountains lions moved down from the food-scarce mountains and preyed on livestock, causing a bounty to be paid for shooting them.

Stuffed lions have been measured head-to-tail up to 3m (9ft), but some hunters claim larger than that with some weighing up to 300 kg (700lb).

As well as lost-lions, this area is also known for the sirocco - a dusty wind which blows up from the south often at gale force, so let’s move on.

The Sahara

The Saharan Atlas Mountains with the Tell Atlas Mountains creates a double-barrier preventing the Mediterranean climate from going any further

This gives this area an annual rainfall well below 100mm (4in). That is not a lot of water, so we find ourselves in a stony desert, in a region called the M’Zab.

Although it is mostly arid with old dry riverbeds, the M’Zab is lucky enough to have most of the Sahara’s largest oases. Five towns have been built on these since the 11th Century, drawing their water from 4,000 wells. The creaking pulleys of these wells are said to sing the “song of M’Zab”.

Against the odds, there are miles of palm groves growing dates which are a key survival food for the area. The word date comes from the Greek word Daktylos (meaning ‘finger’) and one tree can harvest 180kg of dates. These are 68% sugar and very nutritious (containing vitamin A, B & D). Mixed with camel milk (adding fat and vitamin C) – this gives you a pretty decent meal.

In all, 15 dates per day gives all minerals and vitamins an adult body needs. Which is handy.

South of the M’Zab, and we’re into classic desert territory - vast sand dune deserts - called Ergs. This is the Sahara desert as seen in the movies. And it’s huge. The Sahara alone is approximately the same size as the United States

Obviously, the entire region is largely barren, and so it is uninhabited apart from wandering nomads and their camel trains who travel between the few tiny oases.

These oases attract migrating birds, who stop to drink from the water. However, in some oases the water is saltier than the sea, so the birds die. This in turn attracts swarms of flies – and they themselves are eaten by the birds as a juicy source of water. It’s the cycle of life.

If you’re really unlucky, you might also come across a West African crocodile, also known as the desert crocodile . These guys grow as large as 4 m (10-13 ft) long and have adapted to life in the desert by staying in caves or burrows. They stay dormant (like hibernation) during the dry periods and when it rains they gather at oases, preying on whatever they can get, including people.

It’s a hostile landscape, ever changing, yet the nomadic Tourags who have lived on the Sahara for 2000 years. They navigate the winds during the day, and by the stars at night – an old saying is: “Only a fool trusts his eyes in a landscape that never stops changing.”

They also say that even one date can keep you alive for 9 days:
You eat a date skin on each of the first three days
The next three days you eat the meat of the date
Then you suck one date stone each day until day nine
Then, you get rescued, or die – roll the dice and good luck.

That’s Nature for you, she’s a cruel mistress.

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