Lesson 3: African Biodiversity and Conservation

African Biodiversity

The African continent is filled with an amazingly diverse collection of plant and animal life. The continent is home to more than 50,000 known plant species, 1,000 mammal species, and 1,500 bird species. Traditionally, African societies depended on many of these indigenous species for survival and developed strategies to protect and conserve them for the benefit of their own and future generations. In some cultures, areas that were particularly rich in biodiversity were often designated as sacred groves and protected areas.

Eastern Africa has the highest numbers of endemic species of mammals (55%), birds (63%), reptiles (49%) and amphibians (40%), whereas species endemism is relatively low in Northern Africa. Madagascar is the most endemic-rich country in Africa, and the sixth in the world for higher vertebrates (mammals, birds and amphibians), with more than 300 endemic species, and the third-most plant-rich country in Africa after the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Tanzania. One of the six most significant concentrations of plants in the world is the Cape Floristic Region in South Africa.

Savannahs, the richest grasslands in the world, are the most extensive ecosystem in Africa. They support many indigenous plants and animals as well as the world's largest concentration of large mammals such as elephants, buffalo, rhinoceros, giraffes, lions, leopards, cheetah, zebras, hippopotami, kudus, waterbucks and oryx.

This large and diverse biological heritage is at risk in all regions of Africa (see Threatened Animal Species for a good illustration of this). Some species have already been reported as extinct, including four antelope species in Lesotho and Swaziland, the blue wildebeest in Malawi, the tssessebe in Mozambique, the endemic bluebuck from the south-western Cape in South Africa and the kob in Tanzania. Many other species are now under threat of extinction. In Mauritania, an estimated 23 per cent of the mammals are now at risk. In Western and Central Africa, the endangered species include timber plants, medicinal species, and mammal species such as the chimpanzee, the Senegal hartebeest, elephants and one of the three manatee species. In Eritrea, 22 plant species are reportedly threatened with extinction.

African wetlands also have a rich biological diversity, with many endemic and rare plant species as well as wildlife such as migratory birds. Wetlands are found in most African countries, the largest including the Okavango Delta, the Sudd in the Upper Nile, the Lake Victoria and Chad basins, and the flood plains and deltas of the Congo, Niger and Zambezi rivers. Despite being among the most biologically-productive ecosystems in Africa, wetlands are often regarded locally either as wasteland, habitats for pests and threats to public health or as potential areas for agriculture. As a result many wetlands are being lost. During the past two decades, for example, Niger lost more than 80% of its freshwater wetlands. Coastal wetlands in Egypt and Tunisia and freshwater wetlands in the Sudan are also under increasing threat. Freshwater ecosystems found in lakes, rivers and wetlands may be the most endangered ecosystems of all. They have already lost a greater proportion of their species and habitats than terrestrial or marine ecosystems, and are in danger of further losses from dams, pollution, overfishing and other threats.

There are some areas with protection established. The first national parks in Africa were created in the first half of the 20th century, including the Kruger National Park in South Africa in 1928 and the Toubkal Nature Reserve in Morocco in 1944. The 3,000 or so protected areas in Africa total nearly 240 million hectares (see Size and Number of Protected Areas). Unfortunately, neither the size nor number of protected areas is likely to increase in the future because of increasingly intense competition for land to meet the needs of expanding populations, cities, agriculture and industry.