West African Manatee

West African Manatee Photo
A manatee surfaces for air in N’dogo, Gabon.
Lucy Keith
West African Manatee Photo
A manatee calf is rescued alive from a hunter's net in Iguela, then measured and released.

Manatees, sometimes nicknamed “sea cows,” are gentle marine mammals that typically swim very slowly and eat large amounts of aquatic plants. The West African manatee is the most endangered and least known of the three manatee species (West Indian and Amazonian are the other two). Living in rivers, estuaries, and lagoon systems along Africa’s Atlantic coast, the West African manatee ranges from Mauritania to Angola. 

These plump animals weigh nearly 1,000 pounds and grow to about 10 feet long. They live for an estimated 30 years, with females bearing one calf (twins are rare) every three to five years. West African manatees have a loose-knit social structure, and sometimes travel in family groups of four to six. More often, they swim solo.

Fast Facts

Scientific NameTrichechus senegalensis
  • Manatees consume huge quantities of aquatic vegetation, which helps spread plant seeds and control plant overgrowth within their ecosystems.
  • These voracious foragers eat mostly at night.
  • Manatees usually lumber along at about three to five miles per hour, but they are capable of swimming up to 20 miles per hour in short bursts.


Crocodiles and sharks occasionally kill manatees, but it is humans who pose the most harm to the species. Poaching, accidentally capture in fishing nets, and habitat loss (such as the damming of rivers, cutting of mangroves for firewood, and destruction of wetlands for agricultural and other development) are the West African manatee’s greatest threats. The manatee is fully protected in all of the nations where it occurs, but in remote areas, officials may struggle to enforce these protections. People sometimes poach the animal for food, cash, as well as for its oil for use in traditional medicinal products.

WCS Responds

By the mid-1980s in the Côte d'Ivoire (the Ivory Coast), hunting had reduced manatee numbers to just 750 animals, divided between five or six small, isolated populations. WCS began surveying these groups in 1986, and launched public outreach efforts to save the surviving manatees. We have helped educate potential hunters as well as advise the government in developing a conservation plan, enforcing hunting bans, and forming nature clubs amongst coastal communities devoted to manatees.

WCS also surveys manatee populations in Cameroon, Nigeria, and other countries within the manatee’s range. In Gabon, WCS is supporting a multi-year, collaborative project to assess the manatee’s status and better understand its needs through field research, interviews, and market surveys. We are also training local biologists in manatee research and conservation techniques. Protecting Gabon’s beaches and aquatic environments helps save habitat for these coastal giants, along with leatherback sea turtles, endangered humpback dolphins, and humpback whales.

From the Newsroom

Marine Mammals on the MenuJanuary 24, 2012

A newly released study finds that people are increasingly consuming marine mammals—including some very rare species, like the Fraser’s dolphin—in more than 100 countries around the world.

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