African Manatee: Freshwater Species of the Week

Today, delegates to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in Bangkok agreed to list the African manatee (Trichechus senegalensis) on Appendix I on an interim basis, boosting its protections. A final decision on the species’ status is expected by the time the conference wraps up on March 14, according to Humane Society International.

The African manatee, also known as the West African manatee, can be found along the coasts and in rivers in 21 countries in West Africa, from Senegal south to Angola.

An aquatic, mostly herbivorous mammal, the African manatee is closely related to the West Indian manatee (Trichechus manatus).

African manatees are being considered for additional legal protection. Photo: OpenCage, Wikimedia Commons

But the African manatee has long been targeted by poachers for its meat, oil, skin, and bones, which are fashioned into walking sticks and other objects. Development, dams, and pollution have also decreased and degraded the manatee’s habitat. Enforcement of protections has been spotty across its range, and fewer than 10,000 individuals are thought to remain.

freshwater species of the week“Trade is a growing threat to this species, which is also facing a range of other growing human pressures, including habitat loss resulting from climate change,” Mark Peter Simmonds, a senior associate with Humane Society International, said in a statement.

“A ban on international trade is an important part of protecting this species and ensuring its long-term survival. Humane Society International and The Humane Society of the United States urge CITES parties to uphold the decision for the remainder of the meeting,” said Simmonds.

If a species is listed on CITES’ Appendix I, international trade of its parts and products is effectively banned. The African manatee had previously been listed in Appendix II, which allows for some trade. But Benin, Senegal, and Sierra Leone jointly submitted a proposal to move the species to Appendix !.

The two other extant species of manatee, the West Indian and the Amazon, are already listed on Appendix I.

African manatees primarily dine on plants that hang over water, such as mangroves. Microorganisms in their long digestive tracts help them process the vegetable matter. They will also eat occasional mollusks and fish.

Manatees are gray, although they often have algae growing on them. African manatees can measure up to 14.6 feet long (4.5 meters), and they weigh about 790 pounds (360 kilograms). Like other manatees they tend to be extremely slow moving.


Brian Clark Howard covers the environment for National Geographic. He previously served as an editor for and E/The Environmental Magazine, and has written for Popular Science,,,, Yahoo!, MSN, and elsewhere. He is the co-author of six books, including Geothermal HVACGreen LightingBuild Your Own Small Wind Power System, and Rock Your Ugly Christmas Sweater.