The site lies in the Tafilelt 30 km south-east of Erfoud. It consists of the highest sand-dune in Morocco, Erg Chebbi, and a seasonal lake variously known as Lac de Merzouga, Dayet Srij or Tamezguidat. The dune rises to 922 m, over 200 m higher than the surrounding plain and the level of the lake (699 m), creating a spectacular desert landscape that attracts thousands of tourists each year. The rain-fed lake normally contains water from November to May, but in exceptionally wet years persists until August. Average annual rainfall is 200 mm per year. The vegetation cover is therefore sparse and, except for a lawn of Cyperus spp. around the lake, consists of scattered clumps of Acacia and Tamarix spp. with some perennial and annual grasses.
See Box and Table 2 for key species. This temporary lake is the most important water-body in the Tafilelt, and attracts thousands of migrating waterbirds. Up to 3,500 Marmaronetta angustirostris have been recorded historically (1973), but more recent records are all in the range of 300–400. There is an unconfirmed report of 2,000 Tadorna ferruginea in November 1996 (600 confirmed at another date in the same year). The lake frequently harbours flamingos (e.g. 400 in 1996), which are a major tourist attraction. The avifauna is very rich and diverse, with c.130 recorded species. Of the 14 species of the Sahara–Sindian biome that have been recorded, 13 breed; of the 15 such species in Morocco, only Hirundo obsoleta has never been recorded here (Table 2). Also present are three species of the Mediterranean North Africa biome (see Table 2), of which two—Ramphocoris clotbey and Eremophila bilopha—occur at few other Moroccan IBAs. The area harbours a declining population of Chlamydotis undulata, and is probably the last Moroccan site for Ardeotis arabs (observed infrequently between 1987 and 1993).
Non-bird biodiversity: Among the c.20 mammal species identified from the site are the rare Felis margarita and Gazella dorcas (LR/nt).
Pressure/threats to key biodiversity
The site is Morocco’s foremost ecotourist destination, with walking trips, camel and horse excursions and birdwatching all on offer at the many small tourist hotels that have sprung up around the Erg Chebbi, in addition to four-wheel-drive-vehicle safaris. However, the unregulated nature of the development has led to unsightly construction and waste-disposal problems. Vegetation erosion due to vehicles is occurring on some dunes, but the overall impact on terrestrial bird species is probably negligible at present. More serious is the frequent disturbance of waterbirds at the lake by tourists taken by guides to see the flamingos. Locals also reportedly collect eggs of nesting waterfowl, and hunting has almost driven the local population of Gazella dorcas to extinction. Although currently unprotected, the site has been designated as a priority 2 SIBE (No. H43). Strong conservation measures should be enacted rapidly and enforced in collaboration with the local community: these stand an extremely good chance of becoming self-financing if a levy is extracted from tourists.