With its oversized ears and soft brown eyes, the world’s smallest canid is also probably the cutest. But being adorable has turned out to be lethal for the Fennec Fox in Tunisia, where both locals and tourists are loving the species to death.
Life is rough for desert dwellers in North Africa, where the sun beats down on the sand year round, and water and food are scarce. But the Fennec Fox has developed numerous traits over the years that have allowed its populations to flourish throughout the Sahara and on towards Sinai.
Relatively little is known about the nocturnal Fennec’s biology, except that its disproportionately large ears not only allow it to root out food, but also help to regulate body temperature. It also burrows itself in the sand – either to escape from predators or to hide from the Saharan sun.
While the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists Vulpes zerda as of least concern on their red list of threatened species, photographer Bruno D’Amicis discovered a disturbing trend that threatens the species during the two years he spent photographing the animal in Tunisia with support from National Geographic.
He found that nomadic people frequently capture the fox both as pets and to make a few dinar off tourists. D’Amicis won first prize for a single photograph in the Nature category of the 2014 World Press photography competition for an image of a captive Fennec he discovered that was kept as a pet for a small child.
The image depicts a petrified animal chained to a wheel rim in a sheep pen that appears to be absolutely petrified. Thanks to his efforts, the owners eventually freed the animal, but it is unlikely to have survived.
In the comment section of a blog post that National Geographic published about his work, D’Amicis laments the Fennec’s plight but urges readers to think about the problem’s roots.
“The story of this unlucky fox is unfortunately just one among many that suffer from the same conditions, and so many other species are facing a similar situation!” he wrote. “One could surely release all of them, a few perhaps will survive, but the main problem will remain: what should be really done is addressing the primary cause.”
The primary cause, according to him, is lack of education and financial security. In 2009, Maureen McKamey, then a Drake University student, relayed a similar story that suggests that D’Amicis may be right.
She tells the story of a nomadic woman who appeared from behind a dune dragging a small Fennec attached to a chain. The old woman asked Maureen and her team if they would like to photograph the fox for a single dinar. Of course the tourists were mortified, and debated buying the Fennec so that they could release it back into the wild, but the guide cautioned against it, since that is exactly what the old woman was hoping would happen.
D’Amicis says that he refused to pay to photograph the captive fox he photographed and urges other travelers to the region to do the same.
Long aware of the problem, the Tunisian government aired a television program that appealed to the population’s sympathy for the small desert creature. The star was Labib the Fennec Fox. Sadly, they eventually declared the program a failure.