A visual journey across African landscapes

A look at the continent’s eight distinct landscapes

The dunes of the Namibian desert. mariusz kluzniak, Flickr
22 October 2019
22 October 2019

For the latest knowledge on African landscapes, join the Global Landscapes Forum Accra, 29–30 October. Learn more here.

The longest-inhabited continent on Earth and the second largest in the world after Asia, the “mother continent” is made up of 54 countries and home to over a billion people. Bounded by the Indian Ocean, Atlantic Ocean, and the Mediterranean and Red seas, Africa is almost perfectly bisected by the equator. Its diverse landscapes host a quarter of the world’s mammal species and a fifth of its bird species, as well as eight of the planet’s 34 biodiversity hotspots.

But almost a third of African landscapes have been degraded by human exploitation, mainly farming and resource extraction. These activities not only threaten the continent’s rich biodiversity but also increase poverty-related risks among its people, including hunger, poor health and migration. The continent loses 2.8 million hectares of forest each year, and soil and nutrient depletion on its cropland amounts to 3 percent of the continent’s gross domestic product.

Landscape restoration has proven effective at reversing damage, mitigating climate change and combating poverty – and it will be the central theme of two major global events in Ghana in late October 2019. From 26–29 October, leaders of AFR100, a continental initiative led by countries to bring 100 million hectares of African land under restoration by 2030, will meet in Accra to assess progress and projections. In parallel, the Global Landscapes Forum Accra will expand on those conversations for two days, integrating voices from science, youth, policymakers, civil society, the private sector and the arts.

Ahead of these two landmark events for restoring African landscapes, join Landscape News on a pictorial journey through this vast continent and its eight distinct physical regions: the Sahara, the Sahel, the savannah, the Swahili coast, the Ethiopian Highlands, the African Great Lakes, the rainforest and Southern Africa.

The Rainforest

Hazy days in the Congo Basin's rainforest, one of the most prominent African landscapes. Corinne Staley, Flickr
Hazy days in the Congo Basin’s rainforest. Corinne Staley, Flickr

Africa is also home to the world’s second-largest tropical rainforest region, which lies in the Congo Basin, stretching across 10 countries in Central and West Africa and providing for about 80 million people.

The rainforests here are teeming with some 10,000 species of flora – and only 10 percent of endemic plant species have yet been identified. However, many of the continent’s native rainforests are under threat from the expansion of agriculture and logging, the building of infrastructure, and the effects of climate change.

Expanding out from rainforests alone, forests and woodlands cover at least 650 million hectares of Africa, comprising almost 22 percent of its land area. Another 350 million hectares (13 percent of the continent’s land mass) consists of wooded savannah, thickets and shrubland. The diversity of Africa’s forests ranges from the dry Miombo woodlands of Zambia to the tropical seasonal Upper Guinean forests to the high montane forests of Nyungwe in Rwanda.

The Nyungwe forest in Rwanda is perhaps best known for being home to 13 species of primates. Brian Harries, Flickr
The Nyungwe forest in Rwanda is perhaps best known for being home to 13 species of primates. Brian Harries, Flickr

The Great Lakes

Lake Malawi, as seen from the Envisat satellite. Great Lakes are one of eight core African landscapes. Richard Petry, Flickr
Lake Malawi, as seen from the Envisat satellite. Richard Petry, Flickr

The Great Lakes of Africa are a mosaic of seven major lakes in and around the Great Rift Valley, which runs for 6,000 kilometers from the Levant in Western Asia across East Africa to Mozambique. The most prominent of these seven lakes is Lake Victoria, the largest freshwater lake in Africa by surface area and the source of the Nile River. The continent’s three biggest lakes – Victoria, Tanganyika and Malawi – hold around 27 percent of the world’s freshwater between them. The other lakes are: Albert, Edward, Kivu and Malawi.

The Great Lakes provide fisheries, hydroelectric power, water transport and tourism across seven countries in East and Southeastern Africa: Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Malawi, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda. Population growth in these countries, though, are placing the lakes and their surroundings under strain, with increasing water pollution, deforestation and land degradation due to urbanization, agriculture and logging.

Fishermen in Uganda's Lake Albert. Pacman321, Flickr
Fishermen in Uganda’s Lake Albert. Pacman321, Flickr
Herdsmen at a watering hole near Lake Turkana in Northern Kenya. Robin Hutton, Flickr
Herdsmen at a watering hole near Lake Turkana in Northern Kenya. Robin Hutton, Flickr

The Swahili Coast

The old town of Lamu, located on its namesake island off of the Kenyan coast, is preserved as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for being one of the most traditional Swahili settlements. sam.romilly, Flickr
The old town of Lamu, located on its namesake island off of the Kenyan coast, is preserved as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for being one of the most traditional Swahili settlements. sam.romilly, Flickr

Few regions in Africa boast as much cultural and biological diversity as the Swahili coast, which stretches for about 1,600 kilometers along the Indian Ocean on the east coast of Africa from Somalia to Mozambique. This coastline features a wide variety of ecosystems, ranging from coral reefs to savannah woodlands to coastal and mangrove forests, all vibrant with wildlife.

But equally vital to the region’s diversity is its roughly 20 million inhabitants, whose history has been shaped by the monsoon trade winds that, for centuries, saw merchants, mariners and explorers come here from as far afield as China, India and the Arabian Peninsula. The rich trading history between native Africans and Arab, Persian, Turkish, European and other Asian merchants gave rise to the Swahili language spoken across this region today.

In Zanzibar, an archipelago in Tanzania that still bases much of its economy in the modern spice trade. Andrea Moroni, Flickr
In Zanzibar, an archipelago in Tanzania that still bases much of its economy in the modern spice trade. Andrea Moroni, Flickr

Southern Africa

Osteospermum, a flowering species within the sunflower family found in Southern Africa, one of the eight most prominent African landscapes. James Gaither, Flickr
Osteospermum, a flowering species within the sunflower family found in Southern Africa. James Gaither, Flickr

Stretching from the Congo Basin to the southernmost tip of Africa where the Atlantic and Indian oceans meet, 10 countries make up this geographically diverse region: Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Swaziland, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Southern Africa is noticeably less forested than the regions neighboring to the north, instead featuring four main types of vegetation: woodlands (consisting of savannah woodlands in the north and drier woodlands to the south), arid and semiarid grasslands, the scrub and grasslands of the Namib and Kalahari deserts (known as the veld), and the Mediterranean-type vegetation along the coast.

Much of the region sits on the Kaapvaal Craton, an ancient layer of bedrock that contains some of the planet’s oldest Archaen rocks dating as far back as 3.6 billion years. This ancient bedrock provides a rich supply of precious minerals, including half of the world’s supply of diamonds, platinum and vanadium, as well as one-third of all gold and one-fifth of cobalt. The mining sector employs 500,000 workers in South Africa alone.

Penguins on a beach near Cape Town, South Africa. Francois de Halleux, Flickr
Penguins on a beach near Cape Town, South Africa. Francois de Halleux, Flickr
Petrified wood in the Namibian desert. ER Bauer, Flickr
Petrified wood in the Namibian desert. ER Bauer, Flickr

The Ethiopian Highlands

Ruins in Gondar, Ethiopia, once the city of the country's emperors. Göran Höglund, Flickr
Ruins in Gondar, Ethiopia, once the city of the country’s emperors. Göran Höglund, Flickr

The craggy highlands in the Horn of Africa also known as the “Roof of Africa” cover most of Ethiopia as well as parts of Eritrea and Somalia and contain some of the continent’s highest peaks. With highly fertile soil, the region is densely populated – Ethiopia is the second-most populous country in Africa – and dominated by large-scale agriculture, which has caused deforestation, soil erosion and drought.

The Highlands feature landscapes carved with striking cliffs and sharp peaks etched by deep gorges, rivers and waterfalls dotted with historical sites including at least four UNESCO World Heritage sites: Gonder, Aksum, Lalibela and the Simien Mountains. The region is also home to some of the world’s most spectacular wildlife, much of which are endangered, including the Ethiopian wolf, walia ibex and mountain nyala.

The region’s highly mountainous terrain was also a factor in Ethiopia’s continued independence while European powers colonized virtually all of Africa, as it only spent a decade under Italian rule from 1936 to 1947.

In the Simien Mountains, distinguished by its shadowed valleys and soaring pinnacles. Donald Macauley, Flickr
In the Simien Mountains, distinguished by its shadowed valleys and soaring pinnacles. Donald Macauley, Flickr

The Savannah

In the savannahs of the Serengeti Plain, Tanzania. Noel Feans, Flickr
In the savannahs of the Serengeti Plain, Tanzania. Noel Feans, Flickr

Covering 13 million square kilometers – almost half of the African continent – the savannah is a tropical grassland that experiences warm temperatures all year round with seasonal rainfalls (between 90 to 150 centimeters annually). The African savannah boasts a cornucopia of diverse wildlife including a third of the world’s felines, 100 species of wild bovid and 794 bird species.

Conflicts between humans and wildlife are not uncommon as both compete for food and space through agriculture, overgrazing and excessive burning – and the African savannah is under severe threat due to rising land degradation and deforestation as Africa grows economically and in population.

The Sahara

Lines in the sand. Stuart Rankin, Flickr
Lines in the sand. Stuart Rankin, Flickr

Spanning most of North Africa at 9.2 million square kilometers – about the size of the U.S. – the Sahara Desert is the third-largest desert on Earth after Antarctica and the Arctic. Receiving less than 10 centimeters of rain annually, the Sahara is one of the world’s most extreme and inhospitable environments.

Much of the landscape is covered by sand sheets and dunes that constantly shift with the wind, which can reach speeds of up to 100 kilometers per hour and create dust storms so immense that they can be seen from space. Little flora and fauna can survive in such conditions, but the Sahara nevertheless hosts about 70 animal and 500 plant species – many of which have adapted through deep and complex root systems and rapid reproductive cycles.

The colossal and growing desert makes up 25 percent of the continent and stretches across 11 countries: Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Western Sahara, Sudan and Tunisia. However, due to its lack of natural resources, it has a population of just 2.5 million, many of whom are nomadic pastoralists, while nearly all of its sedentary inhabitants live in oases that allow for limited agriculture.

Night in the Moroccan Sahara. Gustaw Jot, Flickr
Night in the Moroccan Sahara. Gustaw Jot, Flickr
A desert camel. Antonio Marín Segovia, Flickr
A desert camel. Antonio Marín Segovia, Flickr

The Sahel

The rural commune of Sanga in Mali. Marian Bijlenga, Flickr
The rural commune of Sanga in Mali. Marian Bijlenga, Flickr

A transitional zone between the Sahara Desert to the north and the savannah to the south, the Sahel is a vast 5,400-kilometer semi-arid region that runs eastward across the width of Africa from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea. Made up of mainly grassland and desert, the Sahel – meaning “shore” in Arabic – spans roughly 3 million square kilometers and over a dozen countries including Burkina Faso, Chad, Eritrea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal and Sudan.

The region faces a wide range of environmental, economic and demographic challenges, as it is one of the poorest parts of the world, home to more than 50 million people, and characterized by a dry and highly unstable climate, making it prone to drought. These issues are exacerbated by deforestation and intensive agriculture, which are rapidly turning its fertile land into desert, and growing scarcity is manifesting itself in the form of ethno-religious and political tensions between the predominantly Arab north and Indigenous south.

Despite these numerous challenges, the Sahel and its myriad diverse peoples are making concerted efforts to restore their region’s ecosystems thorough initiatives such as the Great Green Wall.

Women at Cure-Salee, an annual gathering of nomadic groups in the Nigerian Sahel. Alfred Weidinger, Flickr
Women at Cure-Salee, an annual gathering of nomadic groups in the Nigerian Sahel. Alfred Weidinger, Flickr

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