Deserts - shown in yellow on the map - cover almost 40% of the African continent. The Sahara stretches across from the Atlantic seaboard in the west to the Red Sea, creating a natural barrier between tropical Africa and the Mediterranean. This is a land of golden dunes, extraordinary rock sculptures and forbidding mountain fortresses, with some of the most inspiring landscapes on the continent. It is also a land of great fragility, in which ancient rock art and abandoned settlements consumed by sand tell of a bye-gone era of greater plenty. Yet, despite the lessons of history the advancing sands push southwards under the strain of humankind, and the last vestiges of life in the interior struggle for survival, against the odds. Three vast swathes of this wilderness are designated as world heritage sites - the Air and Tenere Natural Reserves in northern Niger, the Tassili N'Ajjer National Park in southern Algeria and the Ennedi Massif in eastern Chad. The Sahara desert occupies an area that used to be much wetter than it is today and there are vast subterranean aquifers in some areas where water that fell as rain thousands of years ago is stored. The Lakes of Ounianga in Chad are a remarkable series of freshwater lakes in the middle of the desert where this 'fossil' water percolates through to the surface. Follow the links to learn more about these amazing places!
Two further areas of the African continent are characterised by desert enviroments - the western side of southern Africa has the extensive coastal Namib Desert (part of which is designated within the Namib Sand Sea world heritage site in Namibia), the Kalahari Desert of Botswana and the Karoo Desert across north-eastern South Africa. The Horn of Africa, including much of Somalia, Eritrea and parts of Ethiopia and Kenya is a third area of extreme aridity with unique communities of plants and animals occuring in a diverse complex of smaller deserts (though none of this environment has yet been designated for world heritage listing)
Iconic Species: The deserts support some very special plants and animals, uniquely adapted to life in extremely dry conditions. In the Sahara there are about 1600 species of plant, 30% of them found only in the Sahara and neighbouring parts of the Arabian peninsula. Sadly, with the advent of modern motorised transport and firearms, the larger mammals of the Sahara have been relentlessly hunted in recent years and species like the addax, scimitar-horned oryx and barbary sheep have been exterminated from most areas, including the world heritage sites.
The Namib-Kalahari-Karoo deserts of southern Africa, although much smaller, support a much more varied flora with 50% of the 3500 species found nowhere else. The extraordinary Welwitchia plant - with leaves looking like giant tattered ribbons lying in the sand - survives here.
Slideshow of African Deserts
Missing Links: The addition of three desert areas to the world heritage list in recent years (namely the Namib Sand Sea, Lakes of Ounianga and Ennedi Massif) has gone a long way to ensure a more complete representation of 'the best' desert environments on the world heritage list. The iconic Welwitchia plants and associated lichen fields deserve inclusion on the world heritage list, perhaps as an extension to the Namib Sand Sea site. In addition, the Danakil Depression is a remarkable area in the Horn of Africa with a diverse and spectacular variety of geothermal features and desert environments which deserves consideration as a possible additional world heritage site.
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