Past, present and future perspectives


The richness and diversity of species in Northern Africa constitutes a wealth of biological resources (Hegazy 2000a, 2000b). Plant biodiversity in the region has supported the grazing herds of camels, sheep and goats led by nomadic pastoralists for millennia, and agricultural advances have promoted the use of many high yielding cultivars adapted to the arid environment that predominates in the sub-region. Some species offer opportunities for biotechnological modification to improve agricultural, medicinal and industrial applications. About 70 per cent of wild plants in the region are known to be of potential value, over 10 per cent have the potential for commercial exploitation, and 35 per cent of useful plants are either under-utilized or can be used for more than one purpose. These under-utilized and multipurpose species have potential value as sources of food, forage for livestock, medicine and pharmaceuticals and for agro-forestry (Ucko & Dimbleby 1969, WWF & IUCN 1994, UNESCO/UCO 1998).


Threats to Northern Africa's natural habitats include rapid population growth with a consequent demand for space and resources, agricultural and urban expansion, poverty and unsustainable use of biota. Depletion of groundwater resources is also a problem in many countries and has led to the deterioration and loss of unique wetland habitats with their associated biota. Natural, macro-scale stresses such as drought also have the potential to change ecosystem dynamics and species composition over time.

Click to enlarge

Coral reef life in Egypt's Red Sea

Rafel Al Ma'ary / Still Pictures

Some specific threats have been recorded in the sub-region. For example, the Imatong Mountains have been threatened by the civil war in Sudan, bush fires, fuelwood collection and by conversion of land to agricultural plantations. There are also threats to individual species from overharvesting, as evidenced by the deforestation of the Acacia senegal tree in Sudan. The Acacia senegal is the source of gum arabic, and Sudan is the world's main producer. In the 1970s, the Sudanese government set up a company to control prices and exports of the gum. However, flawed pricing policies led to low producer prices and farmers cut down their trees for sale as firewood. In an attempt to slow the rate of deforestation, the government responded by allowing the price to rise by 300 per cent over the next two years. Producers, realizing that they could now make large economic gains rapidly, increased their production to such an extent that 80 per cent of the remaining trees were overtapped and died (Larson & Bromley 1991). Other threats to species in Northern Africa include pollution from industrial emissions and agricultural chemicals, and pressure from hunting. The cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) is endangered in Northern Africa because of hunting and of reductions in populations of its prey caused by recurrent drought.

Marine habitats are also threatened-by over-fishing, intensive tourism and invasion by alien species. Species common to the Red Sea have recently been found in the Mediterranean, where it is feared that their introduction (probably through discharges of ballast water by ships) could disturb the ecological balance. Exotic algae species such as Caulerpa taxifolia have also been found in the Mediterranean and Red seas where they have formed toxic algal blooms.

A further, emerging threat to biodiversity is the introduction of genetically modified species, which may result in lowered genetic diversity through hybridization, competition, or predation (Hegazy, Diekman & Ayad 1999).

As a result of the pressures outlined above, a total of 139 species of mammals, birds, reptiles, invertebrates and plants are currently threatened with extinction in Northern African, and each country in the sub-region has witnessed the extinction of at least one animal species (IUCN 2000a). This situation is summarized in Table 2b.2.

The numbers of extinctions and of threatened species are set to rise over the next 30 years. Up to 5 per cent of plant species will disappear from Algeria and Morocco, 16 per cent of mammals are expected to disappear from Libya, and 13 per cent of mammals from Tunisia. About 12 per cent of bird species in Egypt and Libya and 8 per cent in Morocco and Tunisia are threatened with extinction. It is also expected that Egypt will lose 2 per cent of its reptile species (WCMC 1992, WWF & IUCN 1994, World Bank 1996).

Table 2b.2 threatened species in Northern Africa, 2000
Country Mammals Birds Reptiles Amphibians Fishes Inverts Plants Total
Algeria 13 6 2 0 0 11 2 34
Egypt 12 7 6 0 0 1 2 28
Libya 9 1 3 0 0 0 1 14
Morocco 16 9 2 0 0 7 2 36
Sudan 24 6 2 0 0 1 17 50
Tunisia 11 5 3 0 0 5 0 24
Source: IUCN 2000a