Skip to Content

West African Manatee: Is This Animal Endangered?

The West African Manatee (Trichechus senegalensis) is a critically endangered species found in the coastal waters of Benin, Nigeria, and Togo. These animals are often killed by fishermen who mistake them for sharks, and they are also threatened by habitat loss and pollution.

  • Status: Vulnerable
  • Known as: West African Manatee, African manatee, sea cow
  • Estimated numbers left in the wild: Less than 15,000.

There are estimated to be only about 2500-3000 West African manatees remaining in the wild, and their numbers continue to decline. The African manatee is one of three manatee species in the genus Trichechus, the least well-known among the three species.

The West African manatee is preyed upon by various animals, including alligators, sharks, and crocodiles.


Anatomy and Appearance

The West African manatee is a large mammal that can grow up to 12 feet in length and weigh 3,000 pounds. These animals are gray or brown, and they have paddle-shaped tails. Their diet consists primarily of aquatic plants, but they will also eat fish, crustaceans, and mollusks.

While the West African manatee may seem like a somewhat graceless animal, it is ideally 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 efficiently. The manatee loses vestigial incisors, and they grow into sharp, adult teeth as the animal matures.

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.

African manatees range between 3 and 4 meters long, and a large specimen can weigh about 500 kilograms. Although they appear to be hairless, these animals have sparse, colorless hairs. 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’ Sirenia family,’ named for the sirens featured in Greek myths and legends.

It is thought that the manatees were mistaken for mermaids by sailors too far from home.


The African manatees live along the west coast of West African regions from Senegal to Angola. It is near Angola, Benin, Cameroon, Chad, the Republic of the Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and The Gambia.

Also in Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Togo. It also lives in the Niger River system, passing through Guinea, Mali, Niger, and Nigeria.

West African Manatee Habitat

West African Manatee

West African manatees are generally found in shallow coastal wetlands, shallow coastal flats, rivers, and estuaries of West Africa. These fascinating animals travel long distances between feeding and breeding grounds. These animals are shy and reclusive and often avoid contact with humans.

They are also assumed to be genetically similar to the more well-known American manatee, both in look and behavior. During June and July, especially when there is flooding, the African manatees migrate upstream.

See Related: Habitat vs Ecosystem vs Biome

West African Manatee Diet and Nutrition

African Manatee Eating Underwater

Manatees are the only aquatic mammals that are entirely herbivorous. Manatees that inhabit rivers feed not only on plants growing in the water but also browse on low-hanging mangrove leaves.

The appetite of these vulnerable species is such that they can eat 8,000 kilograms of plant matter during the year. Manatees use their flippers and the vibrissae on their lips to get food into their mouths. African manatees also sometimes raid rice plantations.

In specific streams, manatee populations in rivers depend heavily and influence to a considerable extent by overhanging bank development, while in estuaries, they are more so.

West African Manatee Mating Habits

The mating habits of the West African manatee are interesting. Unlike many other mammals, these manatees are not monogamous.

They typically mate with several partners during a single breeding season. This helps to ensure that the manatees produce as many offspring as possible.

West African manatees form mating groups consisting of large numbers of animals. There are generally many females and a few males. The female African manatees are fertile only a few days out of the month.

Typically, 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 can 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, primarily 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.

Mating usually occurs in late winter or early spring, when the highest water temperatures. During this time, male manatees will often compete for the attention of female African manatees. The males will use their tails to hit each other and sometimes even bite each other.

Once a female manatee has been won over, the pair will mate.

The actual act of mating only lasts for a few seconds, but the pair will often remain together for several minutes afterward. After mating, the female manatee will typically go off independently to give birth.

As mentioned earlier, West African manatees are not monogamous. This means they will mate with multiple partners during a single breeding season. This is beneficial from an evolutionary standpoint, as it helps to ensure that the manatees produce as many offspring as possible.

See Related: List of Animals that Mate for Life


African manatees are quite shy and reclusive creatures despite their interesting mating habits. They typically avoid contact with humans and only approach people if they feel threatened.

If you do find yourself close to one of these manatees, it is essential to maintain a respectful distance and not disturb them.

African manatees can be quite aggressive when they are around other manatees. They have been known to ram into boats and people and can also be quite territorial.

African manatees are known for being curious animals. They have been known to swim up to boats and even attach themselves to the hulls of boats.

Some people believe this curiosity is a sign of intelligence, while others believe it is simply a manatee’s way of investigating its surroundings. However, it is essential to remember that manatees are wild animals and should not be approached or fed by humans.

Role in the Ecosystems 

The West African manatee is an essential species in the ecosystem due to its role as a grazer. It consumes large amounts of aquatic vegetation from overhanging bank growth and freshwater lakes, which helps to keep waterways clean and healthy.

This, in turn, benefits other marine species and helps maintain the ecosystem’s balance.

The West African manatee is also a key species in the food chain. It is an essential source of food for many predators, such as crocodiles, sharks, and dolphins. This helps to keep these predators healthy and ensures that they do not become a threat to humans.

Additionally, they are a major source of tourism revenue for many countries.

If the west African manatee were to become extinct, it would significantly impact the environment. They are an essential part of the food chain, and their absence would cause a ripple effect that would be felt throughout the ecosystem.

Additionally, they are an important source of tourism revenue for many countries. Without them, many local economies would suffer.

See Related: Are Humans Animals? Things to Know

West African Manatee Facts

Here are some of the West African Manatee facts you need to know.

  • African manatees are the only manatee species found in freshwater and coastal lagoons.
  • They are also the smallest of all manatee species, typically measuring around 9 feet long and weighing about 450 pounds.
  • They are a pale brown or gray and have a characteristic “mustache” of stiff whiskers on their upper lips.
  • African manatees are found in rivers and lakes throughout the western Africa, from Senegal to Angola.
  • They are mostly herbivorous. African manatee eats aquatic plants but can also eat small fish and crustaceans.
  • Manatees are gentle giants known to live in the wild for over 60 years.
  • Although adapted to freshwater habitats, they will occasionally visit brackish (slightly salty) waters.
  • West African manatees are different from other manatees because they are endemic to the region. They are also smaller in size and have a stockier build. Their coloration is also different, with a light brown or gray body and a blackhead.

Conservation Status

The conservation status of the West African manatee is listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. The species is threatened by hunting, habitat destruction, and collisions with boats.



Illegal hunting is the most significant reason for declines in manatee populations, and local peoples shoot the manatee for food or 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.

Factors that contribute to pollution include:

  • Oil spills: An oil spill can seriously contaminate a manatee’s major habitat and cause the animal to suffer from skin burns, eye irritation, and respiratory problems.
  • Heavy metals: Heavy metals such as lead and mercury can accumulate in a manatee’s body and cause serious health problems.
  • Pesticides: Pesticides can pollute a manatee’s habitat and cause the animal to suffer from skin and respiratory problems.
  • Trash: Trash can pollute a manatee’s habitat and cause the animal to suffer from entanglement or ingestion.

Habitat loss

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. African manatees are threatened by fishing and shark nets. The exposed areas of manatee skin get stuck in the mesh and rip, sometimes leaving huge gaping ulcers. Death can occur from loss of blood or infection if untreated.

Climate Change

Pollution affects the African manatee population because it disrupts their habitat and food sources. The manatees are vulnerable to chemical and noise pollution, which can kill them or make it difficult to find food.

The African manatee is a large, herbivorous mammal that lives in coastal areas and freshwater habitats in western and central Africa. These animals are vulnerable to many forms of pollution, severely affecting their population size.

Additionally, ships can run into manatees, injuring or killing them. These factors have contributed to the decline of the African manatee population.


West African manatees hardly ever come under attack by crocodiles or sharks – man is the main threat this aquatic mammal faces.

Conservation Efforts

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 on the importance of the manatees. However, much work still needs to be done to stabilize and hopefully increase the numbers of West African manatees.

See Related: Best Wildlife Conservation Jobs


Save the Manatee Club

Save the Manatee Club logo

Save the Manatee Club focuses on protecting the three species of manatees and their marine habitats through advocacy, public awareness and education, research, rescue, and rehabilitation.


OceanCare logo

OceanCare is a marine conservation charity that was founded in 1985. The organization’s primary concern is the conservation of the West African manatee. OceanCare also strives to protect other aquatic animals and their habitats. The charity has achieved a great deal in its efforts to conserve the manatees.

For example, OceanCare has helped to establish the world’s first protected area for the species. The charity has also worked to raise awareness about the plight of the manatees and their importance to the ecosystem.

African Aquatic Conservation Fund

African Aquatic Conservation Fund logo

The African Aquatic Conservation Fund is a non-profit organization that focuses on conserving Africa’s aquatic species, including the West African manatee.

The fun works with local partners to identify and protect key habitat areas, conduct research on the species’ ecology and biology, and raise awareness about their conservation needs.

World Wildlife Fund

World Wildlife Fund logo

The World Wildlife Fund is working to conserve the West African manatee. This species of manatee is vulnerable, and the WWF is working to protect them from extinction.

One of the main threats to the West African manatee is habitat loss, so the WWF is working to create sanctuaries for them and promote responsible development that does not destroy their natural habitat.

The fund is also working to educate people about the importance of conserving these species and raising awareness about their threats.

Final Thoughts

The West African manatee is a vulnerable species that needs to be protected. If you would like to help with their conservation, consider donating or volunteering for one of the organizations listed above working on this important cause.

You may also want to research more about how these animals live to better understand what we need to do if we hope to save them from extinction.


What is the main threat to the West African manatee population?

The main threat to the West African manatee population is hunting. They are often killed for their meat. Also, the manatees are mistaken for crocodiles and thus killed out of fear. Other threats include habitat loss and entanglement in fishing nets.

What is the biggest challenge in conserving manatees?

The biggest challenge in conserving manatees is preventing them from being hit by boats.

They are slow-moving animals, so they are easy targets for speeding boats. Other challenges include preventing people from hunting them and ensuring their habitats remain healthy.

Why is the West African manatee endangered?

The West African manatee is endangered because it has a small population and faces habitat destruction, pollution, and hunting threats.

How many African manatees are left?

There is an estimate that the global manatee population range from about 13,000 to 15,000.

The western African population of West African Manatees is typically estimated to number less than 2,000 individuals. It is decreasing due to human habitation and fishing activities in the region.

How big are African manatees?

African manatees are around 10ft (3 m) in length. They weigh approximately 1,000 pounds and can reach speeds of 4 mph (6 kph).

Are African Manatees Aggressive?

West African manatees are not aggressive and rarely interact with humans despite their size.

When the occasional human does come into contact with this gentle creature, they are chased out of a river by the animal due to humans hunting them.

In these instances, the manatee is not being aggressive but is instead trying to protect itself from harm.

What is being done to save the African Manatee?

Many organizations are working to save the African manatee. Some include the OceanCare, African Aquatic Conservation Fund, and World Wildlife Fund.

Other Species Profiles

Related Resources