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Lifeline for Africa’s freshwater species


Gland, Switzerland (IUCN) – Africa is being given a unique opportunity to conserve its tremendous diversity of freshwater species – a critical resource for many of Africa’s poorest people. African countries can now decide to use their water resources sustainably, and avoid paying millions of dollars, as is the case in Europe, to rectify poorly planned wetland development.

Decision makers across Africa are now able to benefit from an online interactive map, released by IUCN for each of the 7,079 river and lake sub-catchments across mainland Africa that reveals information on the distribution, conservation and ecological needs of 4,989 freshwater species, of which 21% are already threatened. This tool and the accompanying IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™ report ‘The Diversity of Life in African Freshwaters: Underwater, Under Threat’ provide vital information to help plan development in ways that minimize or avoid impacts to freshwater species.

The importance of Africa’s freshwater species goes largely unrecognized. A quarter of the world’s inland fisheries are located on the African continent, and in some countries freshwater animals account for 75% of the protein intake of people,” says William Darwall, Manager of the project and of the IUCN Species Programme Freshwater Biodiversity Unit. Freshwater species often succumb to collateral damage as development proceeds but in many cases this can be avoided through careful planning based on solid information.”

Several environmental management projects are already using information from this study to monitor the impacts of a hydro-electric dam on the Gambia River; promote a trans-boundary wetland conservation area in the Rusizi Delta; monitor water quality in the Okavango Delta; and integrate freshwater species in management of the Moulouya River catchment in Morocco.

“This is a real milestone in the history of African freshwater biodiversity – nothing as good, or like it, is out there at this point in time,” says Paul Skelton, Managing Director, South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity. “The information on freshwater fishes has already proved its worth in a number of conservation planning projects in South Africa, including work on the legal protection of threatened species and the establishment of a national framework of freshwater protected areas.”

According to the report the number of threatened freshwater species in Africa will increase dramatically if development of water resources is not planned sustainably. Major threats include loss or degradation of habitat to agriculture, and impacts of new infrastructure such as dams for irrigation and hydropower.

The high dependence upon freshwater ecosystems in Africa is demonstrated in the Inner Niger Delta in Mali (photo: Markala dam - by Leo Zwarts) which supports up to 200,000 fishermen reliant on an annual catch of around 80,000 tonnes. Now that data on fresh water biodiversity are available for the whole of Africa, governments have the responsibility to use them in their impact assessments, and make decisions that no longer threaten freshwater biodiversity and the people that depend on these species.” Ibrahima Thiam, Director of Wetlands International Africa. 


Notes to editors

“The Diversity of Life in African Freshwaters: Underwater, Under Threat” report is available for downloading here

Full details of the project can be found here

The online mapping tool for species in Africa’s river catchments can be found here 

If you have any problems downloading the images please contact or


For more information or to set up interviews, please contact:

Hastings Chikoko, Head – Constituency Support and Communications, IUCN Regional office for eastern and southern Africa, t. +27 (0) 12 3428304/5; m. +27 (0) 76 6821587,

Félicité Mangang, Chargée de communication, Bureau regional pour l’Afrique centrale et occidentale, t: +226 5036 4979 – 5036 4895,

Sonsoles San Román, IUCN Mediterranean Communication Officer t: +34 952 028430,

Lynne Labanne, Communications and Marketing Officer, IUCN Species Programme, t +41 22 999 0153,;

Fatima Sow, Communications & Media Coordinator, Wetlands International Africa. t + 221 33 869 16 81

About the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™

The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™ (or the IUCN Red List) is the world’s most comprehensive information source on the global conservation status of plant and animal species. It is based on an objective system for assessing the risk of extinction of a species should no conservation action be taken.

Species are assigned to one of eight categories of threat based on whether they meet criteria linked to population trend, population size and structure and geographic range. Species listed as Critically Endangered, Endangered or Vulnerable are collectively described as ‘Threatened’.

The IUCN Red List is not just a register of names and associated threat categories. It is a rich compendium of information on the threats to the species, their ecological requirements, where they live, and information on conservation actions that can be used to reduce or prevent extinctions.

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