The African manatee is a large aquatic mammal that inhabits much of the western region of Africa. Its body is widest at the middle, and its tail resembles a paddle. The manatee is gray in color with small, colorless hairs that cover its body. However, algae and other tiny organisms often grow on an African manatee's body, so its body sometimes appears brown or greenish in color. Calves are darker in color when they are very young.
African manatees are found in West African regions from Senegal to Angola. They live in oceans, rivers, lakes, coastal estuaries, reservoirs, lagoons, and bays on the coast. African manatees can also occur in shallow coastal flats and calm mangrove creeks filled with seagrass. They rarely inhabit waters with a temperature below 18°C (64°F).
African manatees are nocturnal. They tend to travel silently, eat, and be active towards the end of the day and during the nighttime. During the daytime, manatees usually doze in shallow (1 to 2 meters deep) water. In countries such as Sierra Leone, African manatees migrate upstream when flooding occurs in June and July. This flooding can lower the availability of food for the manatees as well as lower the salinity of waterways. African manatees live in groups of 1 to 6 individuals. They are also very social, spending a majority of their day bonding by touch, verbal communication, and smell. This creates a deep bond between them. When it is time to migrate due to a weather change, they will travel in larger groups to find warmer water and food. African manatees are typically extremely slow and move between 4.8 km and 8 km (3 and 5 mi) per hour, although when scared by predators they can travel at speeds of about 32 km (20 mi) per hour.
African manatees are omnivores (herbivores, piscivores). They feed on aquatic vegetation, clams, mollusks, and fish found in nets. Manatees that inhabit rivers mostly eat the overhanging plants growing on the river banks. Those living in estuaries consume solely mangrove trees.
African manatees are polygynous breeders and multiple males will usually mate with one female. The breeding season can occur year-round. When the opportunity to mate with a female is at stake, males will fight with each other by pushing and shoving. Females give birth to one calf at a time after about a 13-month pregnancy. Calves are born fully-developed (precocial) and can swim on their own at birth. Some female African manatees become reproductively mature at 3 years of age, and they give birth every 3 to 5 years. Males take a longer time to mature - about 9 to 10 years.
The African manatee is a vulnerable species because of its meat, oil, bones, and skin, which can bring great wealth to poachers. In some countries, such as Nigeria and Cameroon, African manatees are sold to zoos, aquariums, online as pets, and they are sometimes shipped internationally. Other serious threats to this species include urban and agricultural development, increased damming, and increased use of hydroelectric power in the rivers of countries like Côte d'Ivoire and Ghana. The building of dams has led to the genetic isolation of some populations. At several hydroelectric dams, manatees have been caught and killed in the turbines and intake valves. Even natural occurrences, such as droughts and tidal changes, can often strand these animals in unsuitable habitats. Some are killed accidentally by fishing trawls and in nets that are intended for catching sharks. Starvation is another cause of mortality. Many of the African manatees that venture up the Niger River starve to death. At certain times each year, the Niger River dries up due to the hot temperatures and lack of rain. Many manatees migrate there during the rainy season and when the water dries up they are unable to get to other bodies of water. Some behaviors of African manatees provoke humans to hunt them. When manatees become tangled in fishing nets, they often damage them and in addition, they can destroy rice crops by drifting into fields during the rainy season.
According to the IUCN Red List, the total population size of the African manatee is fewer than 10,000 individuals. There are estimated populations of this species in the following areas: 750-800 individuals in Côte d'Ivoire and 125 individuals in Benin. Currently, the African manatee is classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List.