Interesting facts about the African Manatee


The African manatee (Trichechus senegalensis) is a large aquatic mammal that occurs in West and Central Africa, it is the least studied large mammal in Africa. We thought you might like to learn more about this secretive sea cow.

African manatees occur in 21 countries in Africa

The African manatee occurs in West and Central Africa. Their range is from Mauritania to Angola, including the inland countries of Mali, Niger and Chad.

The different types of sea cows or sirenians

African manatee

Photo: Lucy Keith-Diagne

African manatees’ closest relative is the West Indian manatee (Trichechus manatus) from Venezuela, Guyana, French Guiana and northern Brazil.

The West Indian manatee is split into two distinct subspecies – the Florida manatee (Trichechus manatus latirostris) and the Antillean manatee (Trichechus manatus manatus).

Amazonian Manatee (Trichechus inunguis) is a freshwater species and is the smallest member of the manatee family.

Another sirenian is the dugong. A dugong (Dugong dugon) is a marine mammal that feeds on seagrass beds in the Indian and Pacific Ocean.

How to identify an African manatee

The African manatee has more protuberant eyes than the other species, making them look more bug-eyed.

All manatees have paddle-like tails, whereas the dugong has a whale-like fluke tail. Dugongs also have large broad white-rhino-like snouts suitable to grazing on seagrass. The muzzle of dugongs and manatees differ slightly. Manatees are bigger than dugongs.

Freshwater is vital 

All manatees need to drink fresh water to survive. African manatees living in saline water rely on freshwater springs and rivers for drinking water.

African manatee mating

Photo: Lucy Keith-Diagne

Ideal African manatee habitat

Unlike the dugongs, manatees do not strictly use marine habitats. They are able to survive in salt water, rivers, wetlands, floodplains and lagoons.

African manatees occur in a wide variety of habitats from rivers in the Sahel, to Central African rainforests, to coasts and around islands in the Atlantic Ocean.

Tocc Tocc Lake Senegal

Photo: Lucy Keith-Diagne

Seasonal migrations of African manatees

It never gets cold in the African manatees’ tropical and subtropical range, so they don’t need to migrate to warm waters like the Florida manatee.

Instead, African manatees migrate between wet and dry season habitats. In the rainy season, African manatees migrate up rivers and into flooded forests or floodplains as the water rises.

Threats to African manatees

The biggest threat to African manatee populations is illegal hunting and accidental bycatch in fishing nets. Dams and habitat destruction also threaten this iconic species. Dams trap manatees in their structures and isolate them from other manatee populations.

Diet of the African manatee 

The African manatee is the only sirenian or sea cow species that is not a strict herbivore. African manatees eat fish and mollusks, clams and mussels in addition to plants.

African manatee diet

Photo: Lucy Keith-Diagne

Two peas in a pod – hippos and manatees

It turns out sea cows and the hippo (in Afrikaans, the word for a hippo is seekoei, directly translated to sea cow) live together harmoniously. Observations in several African countries have revealed that  African manatees  often  co-exist harmoniously with hippo pods among the waterlilies.

African manatees are mostly found in small groups or alone.

African manatee mating

Photo: Lucy Keith-Diagne

The least studied African mammal

There are only an estimated 20 people working with the African manatee species in 21 countries. To learn more about this species visit: African Aquatic Conservation Fund.

Written by Georgina Lockwood and Lucy Keith-Diagne


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