Protected areas
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LegendThe protected areas map was compiled from the World Database on Protected Areas (WDPA) (IUCN and UNEP-WCMC, 2016). However, the WDPA database is not complete and some protected areas are not listed or are missing spatial data. Other sources were consulted in order to present an accurate and up-to-date protected areas map. Protected areas under the “Proposed” status were not included unless other sources stated they had been formally designated. Hunting zones were not included because they do not offer the level of protection inherent in other categories of protected areas.


Legend explanation

Biological diversity, or biodiversity, can be defined as the full array of life in a region, including species richness, ecosystem complexity, and genetic variation. Biodiversity may be the greatest natural resource, as it is a source of food, fuel, medicines, clothing, building materials, clean water, tourism and many other benefits (Norse and others, 1986). Biodiversity possesses marked economic value that in many areas enables conservation to serve as a competitive form of land use (Stock, 2012).

Biodiversity’s importance in West Africa is well established. The various ecosystems, ranging from dry savanna to tropical forest, provide habitats to more than 2,000 amphibian, bird and mammal species (IUCN, 2015). The region’s tropical forest, in the Upper Guinean countries, is the main locus for biodiversity. These lowland forests of West Africa are home to 320 mammal species (which represents more than a quarter of Africa's mammals), 9,000 vascular plant species, and 785 bird species (Conservation International, 2008). The Upper Guinean forest is renowned for its primate diversity, with nearly 30 distinct species, and has been identified as some of Africa's most critical primate conservation area. The West African forest ecosystem is also home for two of Africa's great apes, including remaining scattered populations of the endangered western chimpanzees and a small population of western lowland gorillas on the Nigeria-Cameroon border. The West African countries are also home to a population of over 7,500 African elephants, although many groups reside in northern savannah habitats outside the forest ecosystems (Mallon and others, 2015). The Upper Guinean forest ecosystem of West Africa, however, is one of the most critically fragmented regions on the planet. Logging, mining, hunting and human population growth are placing extreme stress on the forests threatening species such as the Jentinka's duiker or the pygmy hippopotamus (Conservation International, 2008). Indeed, only 69,424 sq km, or 10 percent of its original dense forest cover remains. Much of this remaining forest is exploited for timber and does not represent intact habitat. Moreover, hunting and indiscriminate trapping are prevalent throughout the forest zone and accelerating harvest rates put increasing pressure on populations of primates and forest antelopes in particular. Similarly, hunting whether for meat, trophies or sport, has resulted in a catastrophic decline of large mammals across the Sahel and Sahara zones in the north of the region (Durant and others, 2014; Mallon and others, 2015). The reduced prey base adversely impacts carnivore numbers, such as the African lion, across the region.


In West Africa today, most of the endangered species and highly biodiverse habitats are confined to protected areas. A total of 1,936 nationally protected areas have been identified in the region, currently covering around 9.6 percent of West Africa (see Protected Areas map above). Approximately 90 percent of these protected areas are small and dominated by forest reserves. In addition, 53 protected areas have international designations, including 17 Biosphere Reserves. Protected areas vary widely in size, from less than 1 sq km to 97,300 sq km. However, large protected areas, including clusters of sites, are critical to supporting viable populations of larger species or to ensure fully-functioning, dynamic ecosystems (Mallon and others, 2015). More extensive areas or buffer zones provide connectivity between habitats, safeguard dispersal corridors between core populations and natural migration routes, and enhance resilience to the effects of climate change (Mengue-Medou, 2002). Since international borders rarely coincide with ecosystem boundaries, transboundary sites and landscapes are of great importance. These better preserve ecosystem function, show the value of managing biodiversity conservation at a sub-regional in spite of institutional difficulties, engage local communities, and may lead to harmonization of legislation. For instance, Diawling National Park in Mauritania and Djoudj Bird Reserve in Senegal lie on opposite sides of the Senegal River Delta but the joint site is recognized as an International Biosphere Reserve. Similarly, the W-Arly-Pendjari complex (Benin, Burkina Faso and Niger) is a transboundary Biosphere Reserve which covers roughly 32,250 sq km, and protects a highly biodiverse savanna ecosystem.

Distribution of the African elephant (Loxodonta Africana)

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Data sources:(Blanc, 2008; Mallon and others, 2015)
The original range of the African elephant covered all countries in West Africa, but it is now extinct in at least Gambia and Mauritania, where the last population in the Assaba Mountains disappeared in the 1980s (Mallon and others, 2015). The recent population estimate of African elephants in West Africa is about 7,500. The largest elephant population can be found in the transboundary W-Arly-Pendjari complex in Benin, Burkina Faso, and Niger. The Gourma elephant population in Mali is the most northerly in the world.

Distribution of the African lion (Panthera leo)

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(Data sources: Riggio, 2011, 2013; Henschel and others, 2015; Mallon and others, 2015).
Historical data indicate that lions were formerly distributed throughout West Africa, with the exception of coastal rainforests and the interior of the Sahara desert. Recent survey confirm lions’ presence in only six countries of the region, which means that lions have lost almost 99 percent of their former range habitat in West Africa (Henschel and others, 2015). Less than 500 lions remain in West Africa, of which less than 250 are considered “mature individuals”. Around 85 percent of them occur in the W-Arly-Pendjari (WAP) complex of protected areas, shared between Burkina Faso, Niger and Benin (Henschel and others 2015). A large continuous area of distribution remains in south-eastern Chad around Zakouma National Park. A small relict population survives in Niokolo-koba National park in south-eastern Senegal, as well as in Yankari and Kainji Lake national parks in Nigeria.

Distribution of the western chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes verus)

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(Data sources: Brncic and others, 2010; Humle and others, 2008; Mallon and others, 2015; Kormos, 2003).
Formerly distributed in nine countries of West Africa, from Senegal to Nigeria, recent surveys estimate the Western chimpanzee population at 18,960–59,290 individuals. About two-thirds of the remaining representatives of this subspecies are thought to occur in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. Senegal is thought to have only a few hundred individuals remaining in the southeast of the country. However, they are likely extinct in Benin, Burkina Faso, Gambia and Togo (Humle and others, 2008). Western chimpanzees occur in many prominent protected areas, such as Outamba-Kilimi and Gola Rainforest national parks (Sierra Leone), Haut Niger National Park and Nimba Reserve (Guinea), Sapo National Park (Liberia), Taï National Park (Côte d’Ivoire).


See The W-Arly-Pendjari Transboundary Biosphere Reserve