Africa, the world’s second-largest and second-most populous continent, is wonderfully rich in biodiversity. Thanks to its equally rich natural landscapes and biomes, ranging from arid deserts and savannahs to tropical rainforests and ice-capped mountains, Africa supports about a quarter of the planet’s animal and plant species. But delayed industrialisation and development, human activities such as deforestation – 4 million hectares of African forests are cut down annually, almost double the speed than the global average deforestation rate – and prolonged conflicts have had a devastating impact on wildlife on the continent. All these are being fuelled further by climate change. These are just some of the most endangered species in Africa that are in dire need of protection and conservation, before it’s too late.
10 Most Endangered Species in Africa
1. Black Rhino
Otherwise known as the hook-lipped rhino, the black rhino is one of two species of rhinoceros native to Africa (the other being the white rhino). Due to rampant poaching to meet a global demand for rhinoceros horn, wildlife trading and trophy hunting, black rhino populations have been decimated and has driven a subspecies, the Western black rhino (Diceros bicornis longipes), to extinction in 2011. Today, there are just over 5,600 individuals left of the critically endangered animal and are limited to just four countries: South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Kenya. As a keystone species, meaning that they hold a significant role within an ecosystem, there have been major efforts to protect and recover population numbers, including greater habitat protection and monitoring systems, as well as harsher fines and sentences for rhino poachers.
2. African Elephant
In the 1970s, Africa was home to 1.3 million elephants. Today, that number has plummeted down to less than 30,000 in the wild. Much like rhinos, elephants have been heavily targeted and poached throughout history due to the ivory trade; ivory tusks were treated as a valuable commodity and a status symbol. As a result, around 90% of African elephants have been wiped out in the past century. Though much of the world has since banned elephant ivory trading, most notably China, illegal poaching and trading still persist. But with significant conservation efforts, countries like Kenya have been experiencing a baby boom in elephants, more than doubling the population in 30 years. But other major threats to the species remain: human-wildlife conflict fuelled by human population growth and urban expansion, and climate change-induced droughts.
There are two species of gorillas, the Eastern gorilla and the Western gorilla, both of which are native to Africa and listed as Critically Endangered on the International Union for Conservation of NatureRed List. A combination of factors have pushed the animal to such a dire situation, including poaching, habitat loss from logging and agricultural development, human conflict, and diseases. In fact, one of the two subspecies of the Western gorilla, the Cross River gorilla that lives in the Cameroon-Nigeria border region, saw its population plummet to about 200-300 adults. Population recovery efforts can be also slow and difficult due to their low reproductive rate, with females only giving birth every four to six years – females also only breed three or four times in her lifetime.
4. Saharan Cheetah
This endangered cat (but not a ‘Big Cat’) has been pushed to the brink of extinction due to significant habitat loss, forcing the animal to be limited to 10% of its historical range. Its remaining small populations can now only be found in Algeria and Niger, and isolated pockets across the Sahara and Sahel from Mali in the west to the Central African Republic in the east. Additionally, hunting by a growing local population in the region and reduced prey such as sheep and gazelle from the agricultural explosion have also contributed to Saharan cheetah’s population decline to fewer than 250 individuals.
Photo credit: EO Photographer Josh Robertson
5. African Wild Dog
Also known as the African painted dog or the African hunting dog, this critically endangered species in Africa is also the second most endangered carnivore in the continent. As wild dogs are highly social animals, gathering and travelling packs, they’re incredibly sensitive to habitat changes and fragmentation, which have been significantly reduced over the past few decades. Illegally poaching and wildlife trading is rife across African countries, and many African dogs were caught as bycatch in snares targeted for other animals like antelopes. Despite their impressive speeds – they reach speeds of more than 44 miles per hour – the species has not been able to run away from other threats like human conflicts over livestock, infectious diseases like rabies and distemper, and competition with larger predators like lions due to shrinking habitats. The largest populations are mostly in southern Africa – where there are less than 550 individuals in the wild – and the southern part of East Africa including Tanzania and northern Mozambique. Though snare hunting has been made illegal on nationally proclaimed wildlife reserves in South Africa, far more conservation efforts are needed to protect this rare mammal.
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6. African Penguin
There’s a common misconception that penguins are native only to the Arctic when in fact, there’s a well-known nesting penguin species that breeds in Africa, or more specifically, Namibia and South Africa. Unfortunately, the population of the African penguin is dwindling fast as a result of habitat loss and destruction, overfishing to meet global commercial demand, oil spills and marine pollution – the bird’s range encompass many global trading and oil transport routes – as well as warming ocean temperatures. The species has lost about 95% of its population since pre-industrial times to about 14,700 pairs, based on 2021 estimates. In addition, guano harvests – accumulated excrement of seabirds and bats is a highly sought-after fertiliser – eliminated their preferred nesting substrate, leaving them exposed to predators, heat stress, flooding and sea-level rise.
7. North African Ostrich
The North African ostrich is the largest bird on Earth. Historically, it was distributed across the entire Sahara desert, spreading across 18 countries. Today, they’re only found in Cameroon, Chad, Central African Republic and Senegal. This flightless bird has been heavily targeted over the past 50 years; their feathers, meat and egg are deemed valuable in the wildlife trading market. Much like most of the animals on this list, the ostrich has suffered from habitat loss from human expansion and desertification – a process by which lands become infertile – causing increased food competition with other livestock and larger animals. Since being identified in the IUCN red list, a number of conservation efforts have been underway to help restore the species, from introducing more ostriches to Senegal and habitat rehabilitation to improving livestock fencing and management.
8. Dama Gazelle
The dama gazelle now lives only about 1% of its historical range, and is found primarily in the countries of Chad and Sudan. Despite its preference for arid territories, desertification and worsening droughts from climate change have caused major habitat loss and fragmentation, as well as reduced vegetation for gazelle to feed from – thus increased competition with human and livestock. Prolonged wars in the region have also exacerbated all these aforementioned factors. Today, fewer than 400 individuals are left in the wild.
9. Egyptian Tortoise
Another Saharan Desert native and the smallest species of tortoises – no longer than 10cm in length at maturity, the Egyptian tortoise is all but extinct from its original habitat due to the loss of habitat from agriculture and expansion of tourism, and most notably, from illegal pet trading. According to the IUCN Red List, the total Egyptian tortoise population is estimated to be around 7,470, but as they are not legally protected in Libya – where the species is mostly found – they are highly vulnerable to further population decline. Despite ongoing captive breeding programmes efforts to reintroduce Egyptian tortoises to the wild, they have mostly been slow and relatively unsuccessful.
10. Sahara Aphanius
This tiny freshwater pupfish, measuring only less than two inches long, can be found nowhere else in the world except for the Sahara Desert in the Oued Saoura river basin near Mazzer, Algeria. Agricultural development, which has caused significant groundwater contamination and excessive water withdrawal, and increasingly frequent and prolonged droughts, have severely impacted the aquatic vegetation that the species depend upon. This includes zooplankton and algae. The freshwater fish remains to be listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List.
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