Wetlands are not shown on the map (except the five world heritage wetland sites) as they tend to be too small to show at this scale. Nevertheless, Africa has many important wetlands, including major river estuaries and deltas along its coasts, and some quite extensive freshwater wetlands in areas of impeded drainage inland. The most iconic of these inland wetlands is undoubtedly Botswana's Okavango Delta. Four of the five sites currently listed as world heritage sites are coastal estuarine sites that are particularly important for migratory birds. Three of these are in north-west Africa where they serve as over-wintering sites for Palaearctic migrants. The Banc D'Arguin National Park in Mauritania supports massive numbers of north Atlantic waders - as many as 2.3 million birds at any one time, making it the largest concentration of birds in the world. A little further south, in the estuary of the Senegal River, the Djoudj National Bird Sanctuary provides sanctuary to about 500,000 over-wintering waterfowl and waders, including 200,000 garganey, 100,000 pintail and 120,000 ruff. Meanwhile Ichkeul National Park is part of an estuarine wetland system on the Mediterranean coast of Tunisia, where 250,000 ducks, geese and coots used to over-winter. Numbers were drastically reduced - to about a tenth of that number - as a result of dam construction and water abstraction upstream - but a slow process of recovery is now underway. The other wetland site is on the extreme south-eastern coast of Africa - the Isimangaliso St Lucia wetland park - and is one of the largest estuarine systems in Africa, the southernmost extent of coral reefs and an outstanding complex of marine, coastal and terrestrial habitats. Follow the links to learn more about these amazing places!
Slideshow of the main features of Africa's world heritage wetlands
Iconic Species: Birds are the major attraction at three of the existing sites, not because of the diversity of species or their conservation status, but because of their sheer numbers. Imagine 800,000 Dunlin (small brown waders to most of us!) swirling over the mudflats at Banc D'Arguin!
Missing Links: The existing suite of wetland sites must be regarded as just the beginning of a process to identify and recognise Africa's most outstanding wetlands. Three of the existing sites owe their place on the prestigious world heritage list to their role as over-wintering sites for Palaearctic migrant birds, with two of them lying outside the tropics. Efforts are needed to identify sites that are more representative of wetlands in tropical Africa - particularly inland wetlands such as those in the Lake Chad basin (Chad), areas of the Sudd (South Sudan) and the upper Niger basin. Zambia and Uganda both have extensive systems of shallow lakes and swamps, while Tanzania's Malagarasi wetland and the flooded forests in the heart of the Congo Basin all deserve examination as possible future nominations. A review and comparative analysis of African wetlands with world heritage potential is overdue. For further information on the potential for world heritage status of the Sudd and Upper Nile Floodplains, click here.
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