Known as: West African Manatee, African manatee, sea cow
Estimated numbers left in wild: Less than 15,000.
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Description of West African Manatee
While the West African manatee may seem like a somewhat graceless animal, it is perfectly suited to its life in shallow coastal waters and estuaries. The body of the West African manatee is shaped like a torpedo, which allows it to swim easily. There is no discernible neck, and the body tapers down to a paddle-shaped tail that propels the manatee effortlessly through the water.
The flippers have vestigial nails on them.
West African manatees range between 3 and 4 meters in length, and a large specimen can weigh about 500 kilograms. Although they appear to be hairless, these animals actually have sparse, colourless hairs over their body. Vibrissae are dotted over the muzzles. The water temperature must be at least 18 degrees centigrade for manatees to survive.
The West African manatee belongs to the family called the ‘Sirenia’, named for the sirens featured in Greek myths and legends. It is thought that somehow the manatees were mistaken for mermaids by sailors too far from home.
Manatees are the only aquatic mammals that are entirely herbivorous, feeding not only on plants growing in the water, but also browsing on low-hanging mangrove leaves. The appetite of the West African manatee is such that they can actually eat 8,000 kilograms of plant matter during the year. Manatees use not only their flippers, but also the vibrissae on their lips to get food into their mouths. West African manatees also sometimes raid rice plantations.
West African manatees form mating groups which can consist of large numbers of the animals. There are generally many females and a few males. The females are fertile only a few days out of the month. Normally, however, the West African manatee lives in small groups, with the mother/child bond being the strongest. The calf will stay with its mother for up to 2 years. The calf is able to swim from the moment it is born, usually in the shallow water of a lagoon or swamp. Manatees are most active at night and tend to sleep during the day.
In addition to living along the coast and in swamps and estuaries, the West African manatee uses rivers as well, especially when flooding has raised the water level to allow for easier access. They can sometimes be found quite far in the interior in the continental river systems and lakes.
The West African manatee is found along the west coast of Africa from Senegal to Angola. It can be found near Angola, Benin, Cameroon, Chad, the Republic of the Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, The Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo. It lives also in the Niger River system that passes through Guinea, Mali, Niger, and Nigeria.
Conservation of West African Manatee
West African manatees hardly ever come under attack by crocodiles or sharks – man is the main threat this aquatic mammal faces. Illegal hunting is the greatest reason for declines in manatee populations, and local peoples shoot the manatee for food or for their skins. They are sometimes killed when found in rice fields, and some are captured to be sold to zoos. The bones of the manatees are used as pieces in games. Habitat destruction is also adversely affecting the numbers of these animals, especially the destruction of mangrove swamps and damming of rivers. Fishermen’s nets also pose a threat.
Although the West African manatee is officially protected in all countries in which it is found, enforcement of environmental laws is often lax.
NGOs have been instrumental in helping to preserve the manatees by educating local human inhabitants as to the importance of the manatees, although much work still needs to be done to stabilize and hopefully increase numbers of West African manatees.
Save the Manatee Club
Save the Manatee Club focuses their efforts on protecting the three species of manatees and their marine habitats through advocacy, public awareness and education, research, rescue and rehabilitation.