Wildlife in West Africa & Cape Verde

Out of Africa The rocky volcanic promontories of isolated Cape Verde, the seas around them, and the skies above, teem with life, while the lush green tropical archipelago of the Bissagos Islands is a treasure trove of biodiversity.

4 mins read


From volcanic outcrops to tropical islands

350 miles off the coast of West Africa, Cape Verde sits at the confluence of different environmental influences. These 15 islands, of which only nine are inhabited, are tropical in latitude but they’re also affected by the arid winds of the Sahara Desert. At the same time, they’re cooled by the temperate tides and currents of the mid-Atlantic. These factors have allowed some distinctive biodiversity to evolve on the archipelago and in the surrounding seas.

The Bissagos Islands, just off the coast of Guinea-Bissau, are comprised of over 88 islands and islets, scattered in the delta of the Rio Geba and the Rio Grande de Buba. They may have much in common with the tropical mainland to their east, but the saltwater habitat and relative lack of human interference have created a unique biosphere where the jungle meets the sea.

Marine paradise

The waters around Cape Verde teem with a globally significant level of biodiversity due to both their location and geological history. Formed by volcanic activity, giant coral mountains rise up from the seabed and these provide rare oceanic habitats at a wide range of depths. Hundreds of different types of fish have been catalogued in these waters, along with at least 17 species of cetacean.

Eyes on the sky

Cape Verde is undoubtedly a bird-watchers paradise. As we cruise the waters of the archipelago, you’ll be able to spot many of the fascinating species of seabirds that are either temporary visitors migrating to distant climes, such as sandpipers and spoonbills, or those which live there year-round, such as the Madeiran Storm Petrel, known locally as the jaba-jaba.

Saltwater seclusion

In 1996 the Bissagos Islands were declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and as you cruise around them, you’ll see why. A relative lack of human development and a wide range of diverse ecosystems, such as mangroves swamps and coastal savanna, have created a fragile but rich habitat just off the coast of West Africa.

The islands are home to many species of sea turtle, in particular the endangered green sea turtle, as well as crocodiles and a plethora of stingrays and sharks, including grey reefs and hammerheads. Also present are dolphins, West African manatees, and of course the famed but rare saltwater hippos.

Animal magnetism

The loggerhead turtle may have been using the Earth’s magnetic field to navigate far longer than human sailors. After spending most of her adult life alone and at sea, the female loggerhead will only return to land to lay eggs. Although it’s still a theory, marine biologists believe they may use magnetite, an iron compound in their brains, to navigate the Earth’s magnetic field and return to the exact beach where they hatched many years earlier.

Slap happy

A humpback whale ‘breaching’ is one of nature’s most awe-inspiring sights. Cape Verde is one of only a few known breeding grounds in the North Atlantic for this endangered species. It’s not uncommon to witness their incredible acrobatic displays as they launch their huge bodies above the water and slap the surface with their fins or tail flukes. While it’s unclear if the purpose of breaching is communication, navigation, parasite control or just fun, that doesn’t lessen its impact.

Sink or swim

Although we may think of hippos as aquatic creatures, their huge bulk and dense bones mean they are not skilled deep-water swimmers. This usually confines them to shallow freshwater river systems, however, the Bissagos hippos have overcome this and have made the saltwater lagoons and intertidal swamps of the islands their home. They spend the whole day wading in this marine environment, enjoying the benefits of saltwater without risk of drowning.

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