African Music

They don't call Africa the Motherland for nothing. The continent has a musical history that stretches back further than any other, a history as vast and varied as its range of rhythms, melodies and overlapping sources and influences. Here, music – traditional and contemporary – is as vital to communication and storytelling as the written word. It is the lifeblood of communities, the solace of the nomad, the entertainment of choice.

African Music: The Regions

There is no pan-African music. Africa is simply way too big for that. But there are distinct musical trends too important to ignore.

Music of North Africa

Africa's music may have a multiplicity of styles, but even within Africa's regions there is great variety, and that's particularly the case in North Africa.

In Algeria it’s all about the oft-controversial trad-rock genre rai (think Khaled, Messaoud Bellemou, the late grand dame Cheikha Rimitti) and the street-style pop known as chaabi (Arabic for ‘popular’). Many of Algeria’s Paris-based musicians are performing at home again: check out rocker Rachid Taha and folk chanteuse Souad Massi. In Egypt the stern presence of late diva Oum Kalthoum, the Arab world’s greatest 20th-century singer, is everywhere; scratch the surface for a thrumming industry that includes pop stars Amr Diab and Samira Said, along with the ‘Voice of Egypt’ Mohammed Mounir and composer and pianist Omar Khairat.

There is also chaabi in Egypt and Morocco, along with the Arabic techno pop called al-jil and a wealth of other influences. The Berber shepherdess blues of Cherifa, the Maghreb’s very own Aretha, have made her a singer-sheika (or popular artist) to be reckoned with. The pentatonic healing music of the Gnaoua – chants, side drums, metal castanets, the throbbing guimbri-lute (long-necked lute) – hijacks Essaouira each June during the huge Gnaoua and World Music Festival; celebrity faces spotted in the thronging 20,000-strong crowd have included Mick Jagger and Robert Plant.

Music of East Africa

East Africa may be one of the continent's economic and political powerhouses, but East African music is often overlooked, lacking the name-brand recognition and irresistible rhythms of West or Central Africa.

In the east, bongo flava (that’s Swahili rap and hip-hop) is thriving; as is taarab, the Arab- and Indian-influenced music of Zanzibar and the Tanzanian-Kenyan coastal strip. Hip-hop hybrids are creating musical revivals in countries such as Tanzania and Kenya; Rwanda is nodding along to female hip-hop acts such as Knowless and Allioni.

Ethiopian jazz is enjoying an international renaissance thanks to the likes of Mulatu ‘Daddy from Addy’ Astatke and pianist and rising star Samuel Yirga.

Music of West Africa

Across West Africa the haunting vocals of the griots and jalis, the region’s oral historians–cum-minstrels, are ubiquitous. In Mali the jelimuso (female griot) Babani Koné rules, though jalis in the country’s north are currently out of work because of Islamic extremism; in Mauritania griot Veirouz Mint Seymali is poised to fill the formidable shoes of her late mother, the iconic Dimi Mint Abba.

Mali’s Arabic-flavoured wassoulou rhythms have their most famous champion in songbird Oumou Sangaré, just as the 21-string kora, one of the traditional instruments of griot and jali, is closely linked to Toumani Diabaté. Others are making their mark: Guinea’s electric kora master Ba Cissoko is pushing the envelope. I Speak Fula, the 2009 album by ngoni-player Bassekou Kouyaté, was nominated for a Grammy.

The mighty Youssou N’Dour kick-started Senegal’s pervasive mbalax rhythms when he mixed traditional percussion with plugged-in salsa, reggae and funk – though today it’s Wolof-language rap groups that really appeal to the kids (there’s a natural rap vibe to the country’s ancient rhythmic poetry, tasso). Elsewhere, militant artists such as Côte d’Ivoire reggae star Tiken Jah Fakoly, former Sudanese child soldier–turned-rapper Emmanuel Jal, and Somalia’s ‘Dusty Foot Philosopher’, rapper and poet K’Naan, are telling it like it is.

With the passing of Ali Farka Touré in 2006, his son Vieux Farka Touré is – along with redoubtable Bambara blues guitarist Boubacar Traore – continuing the Malian guitar blues legacy. Guitar heroes abound throughout Africa, the Congo’s Diblo Dibala, Malagasy originator Jaojoby and South African axeman Louis Mhlanga among them.

There’s nomad desert blues in exile to be had, from Tuareg guitar bands such as Tinariwen, Tamikrest, Terakaft and Etran Finatawa to the so-called ‘Jimi Hendrix of Niger’ (well, each country’s got to have one) Omara ‘Bombino’ Moctar. In the Côte d’Ivoire, Abidjan remains a hugely influential centre for music production (if you can make it here, you’ll probably make it in Paris), while the percussive, melodious and totally vacuous coupé-décale dance music sound fills stadiums. Seek out the likes of reggae legend Alpha Blondy and fusionist Dobet Gnahoré – the latter in charisma and vocal power not unlike Beninese diva Angélique Kidjo.

Over in Cameroon they’re whooping it up to the guitar-based bikutsi and the brass-heavy sound of makossa while the polyphonic voices of that country’s pygmies have struck a chord with the Western world. Down in Congo and Gabon, all you''ll hear are the sounds of rumba and soukous, though most comes from the DRC in Central Africa.

Music of Southern Africa

Down in Zimbabwe they’re listening to the tuku (swinging, rootsy, self-styled) music of Oliver Mutukudzi or, in secret, the chimurenga (struggle) music as created by their self-exiled Lion, Thomas Mapfumo. Mozambique sways to the sound of marrabenta – Ghorwane is a roots-based urban dance band and a national institution – and the marimba style known as timbila.

In South Africa, where the ever-popular kwaito rules supreme (think slowed-down, rapped-over house music), the country’s giant recording industry continues to rival that of Europe and America, embracing everything from the Zulu iscathimiya call-and-response singing as popularised by Ladysmith Black Mambazo, to jazz, funk, gospel, reggae, soul, pop, rap, Afrofuturism and all points in between.

Once-exiled artists such as Hugh Masekela and Abdullah Ibrahim have returned to South Africa to inspire a new generation of artists who include the likes of R&B soulstress Simphiwe Dana and Afro-fusion popsters Freshlyground.

Music of Central Africa

If you hear dance music while in Africa, chances are that it comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo. With echoes of the Cuban son style, Congoloese rumba, for which the region is best known, was born in the 1940s but came into its own in the decades that followed with the legendary Franco and his TPOK Jazz. Its offshoot, soukous, is the quintessentially Congolese sound, with mellifluous beats and rippling guitar riffs that you can shake your booty to. Papa Wemba (who died in 2016 and was performing to the last) was the finest exponent of the art. Koffi Olomide and the late Madilu System are also played across Africa.

For something a little different, Konono No1 have made its name by playing electric thumb pianos to great effect and popular international acclaim.

Feature: Cross Cultural Influences

Without African music there would be no blues, reggae or – some say – rock, let alone Brazilian samba, Puerto Rican salsa, Trinidadian soca or any of a wide array of genres with roots in Africa's timeless sounds. And it works both ways: colonialism saw European instruments such as saxophone, trumpet and guitars integrated into traditional patterns. Independence ushered in a golden era; a swath of dance bands in 1970s Mali and Guinea spawned West African superstars such as Salif Keita and Mory Kante. Electric guitars fuelled Congolese rumba and soukous and innumerable other African genres (including Swahili rumba). Ghana's guitar-based high-life (urban dance music) blended with American hip-hop to become hip-life; current faves include Tic Tac, Sarkodie and prank-rap duo FOKN Bois. Jazz, soul and even classical music helped form the Afrobeat of late Nigerian legend Fela Kuti (which carries on through his sons, Femi and Seun, and a host of others today).

Feature: Classic African Albums

  • Savane (Ali Farka Touré; 2006)
  • Zombie (Fela Kuti; 1976)
  • Specialist in All Styles (Orchestra Baobab; 2002)
  • In the Heart of the Moon (Ali Farke Touré and Toumani Diabaté; 2005)
  • Khaled (Khaled; 1992)
  • Best of Miriam Makeba and the Skylarks (Miriam Makeba; 1998)
  • The Black President (Fela Kuti; 1981)
  • Soro (Salif Keita; 1987)
  • Bouger Le Monde! (Staff Benda Bilili; 2009)
  • Father Creeper (Spoek Mathambo; 2012)
  • Dimanche á Bamako (Amadou and Mariam; 2004)
  • Worotan (Oumou Sangare; 1996)
  • Aman Iman: Water is Life (Tinariwen; 2007)
  • Home is Where the Music Is (Hugh Masekela; 1972)
  • Shaka Zulu (Ladysmith Black Mambazo; 1987)
  • The Very Best Of The Rumba Giant Of Zaire (Franco; 2000)
  • Ethiopiques (various artists)

Feature: Best New West African Albums

  • Emmar (Tinariwen; 2014)
  • Music in Exile (Songhoy Blues; 2015)
  • Tzenni (Noura Mint Seymali; 2014)
  • New Era (Kiss Daniel; 2016)
  • God Over Everything (Patoranking; 2016)
  • Taksera (Tamikrest; 2015)

Sidebar: Africa Hit Music TV

Africa Hit (www.africahit.com) claims to be Africa's number one entertainment website. Music is its staple and it has plenty of music videos but it also strays into football and other entertainment news.

Sidebar: Benda Bilili!

Benda Bilili!, by French film directors Florent de la Tullaye and Renaud Barret, is the inspirational 2010 feature film about Staff Benda Bilili, the group of paraplegic street musicians from Kinshasa, capital of the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo.

Sidebar: Music Resources

  • Afropop Worldwide (www.afropop.org)
  • African Music Encyclopedia (www.africanmusic.org)
  • AfricMusic (www.africmusic.com)
  • Sterns Music (www.sternsmusic.com)
  • African Hip Hop (www.africanhiphop.com)
  • Akwaaba Music (www.akwaabamusic.com)

Sidebar: Political Anthem

Sout el Horreya (I’m Not Turning Around; search www.youtube.com) by Amir Eid and Hany Adel became the anthem for anti-government protestors in Egypt’s Tahrir Sq and beyond in November 2011.

Sidebar: Songlines Magazine

Songlines (www.songlines.co.uk) is the world's premier world-music magazine and there's always some African in its pages. It also organises music-themed tours to the region.

Sidebar: Swahili Music Festival

Sauti za Busara (Sounds of Wisdom; www.busaramusic.org) Swahili Music Festival in Stonetown, Zanzibar, is one of East Africa’s finest annual events: a four-days-in-February extravaganza of music, theatre and dance before a horizon dotted with dhow boats.

Sidebar: KigaliUp! Festival

KigaliUp! (www.kigaliup.tumblr.com) is a two-day music festival that takes place during the second week of July in Kigali, Rwanda, and features a range of African styles from traditional music to hip-hop.

Sidebar: Blues: Feels Like Going Home

Martin Scorsese's Blues: Feels Like Going Home (2003) follows musician Corey Harris' travels through Mississippi and West Africa, exploring the roots of blues music. It includes performances by Salif Keita, Habib Kolté, Taj Mahal and Ali Farka Touré.

Sidebar: Fela

Penned by Cuban ethnologist Carlos Moore, Fela: This Bitch of A Life: The Authorised Biography of Africa’s Musical Genius (2010) is as it says. It was based on many hours of conversation with Kuti himself.

Sidebar: Life is Hard, Music is Good

Life is Hard, Music is Good (2012) is a feature-length documentary on the music and musicians of Mali. It mixes interviews with Toumani Diabate, Djelimady Tounkara and honorary Malian Damon Albarn with footage of life across this increasingly strife-torn country, albeit prior to the country's implosion in 2012 and 2013.

Sidebar: Live-Music Venues

Two live-music venues stand out above the rest: The first is New Afrika Shrine, Lagos, where Fela Kuti’s family keep his name alive and where his sons, Fela and Seun, sometimes turn up. In Accra, +233 attracts musicians from across Africa.

Sidebar: Tinariwen Troubles

When fundamentalist Islamist groups overran northern Mali in 2013, they banned most forms of popular music. Senior Tinariwen band member Ag Lamida was briefly imprisoned after returning to try to rescue his guitars. He was later released but most band members now live in exile in the US.

Sidebar: Malawi's Prison Grammy?

In 2016 Malawi's Zomba Prison Project Band was nominated for a Grammy Award in the Best World Music category. Although it didn't win, the band, from the Zomba maximum security prison, has taken Malawi by storm, prompting calls for presidential pardons for the participating musicians.

Environment

Africa is the oldest land mass in the world, but this tells only half the story. Atop a foundation where 97% of what's under your feet has been in place for over 300 million years sits an astonishing breadth of landscapes, from the world's biggest desert to some of the largest rivers, lakes and tracts of rainforests on the planet, and stirring mountains and iconic savannah. Inhabiting these epic landscapes is the richest and largest collection of wildlife anywhere in the world.

Land

Africa is the world's second-largest continent, after Asia, covering 30 million sq km and accounting for 23% of the total land area on earth. From the most northerly point, Cap Blanc (Ra's al Abyad) in Tunisia, to the most southerly point, Cape Agulhas in South Africa, is a distance of approximately 8000km. The distance between Cap Vert in Senegal, the westernmost point in mainland Africa, and Raas Xaafuun in Somalia, the continent's most easterly point, is 7400km. Such are the specs of this vast continent when taken as a whole. But zoom in a little closer and that's when the story really gets interesting.

Mountains & the Great Rift Valley

East and Southern Africa is where the continent really soars. It's here that you find the great mountain ranges of the Drakensberg in South Africa and Rwenzori (the fabled Mountains of the Moon) that straddle the borders of Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), as well as classic, stand-alone, dormant volcanoes such as Mt Kenya (5199m) and Mt Kilimanjaro (5895m), Africa's highest peak. And then there's Ethiopia, Africa's highest country, which lies on a plateau between 2000m and 3000m above sea level – in the space of a few hundred kilometres, the country rises to the Simien Mountains and Ras Dashen (4543m), then drops to 120m below sea level in the Danakil Depression.

North and West Africa also have plenty of topographical drama to call their own. In the far northwest of the continent, the Atlas Mountains of Morocco – formed by the collision of the African and Eurasian tectonic plates – run like a spine across the land, scaling the heights of Jebel Toubkal (4167m), North Africa's highest peak. In West Africa, Mt Cameroon (4095m) is the highest point, while other notable high-altitude landmarks include the Fouta Djalon plateau of Guinea and the massifs of the Aïr (Niger) and Hoggar (Algeria) in the Sahara.

The African earth deep beneath your feet is being slowly pulled apart by the action of hot currents, resulting in a gap, or rift. This action over thousands of years has formed what's known as the Great Rift Valley, which begins in Syria and winds over 5000km before it peters out in southern Mozambique. The valley is flanked in many places by sheer escarpments and towering cliffs, the most dramatic of which can be seen in Ethiopia, Kenya, and along DRC's border with Uganda and Rwanda. The valley's floor contains the legendary wildlife-watching habitats of the Serengeti and Masai Mara in Tanzania and Kenya, alkaline lakes such as Bogoria and Turkana, and some of Africa's largest freshwater lakes.

Deserts

Deserts and arid lands cover 60% of Africa. Much of this is the Sahara, the world's largest desert at over 9 million sq km, which is comparable in size to the continental USA. The Sahara occupies 11 countries, including more than half of Mauritania, Mali and Chad, 80% of Niger and Algeria and 95% of Libya. Contrary to popular misconception, sand covers just 20% of the Sahara's surface and just one-ninth of the Sahara rises as sand dunes. More typical of the Sahara are the vast gravel plains and plateaus such as the Tanezrouft of northeastern Mali and southwestern Algeria. The Sahara's other signature landform is the desert massif: barren mountain ranges of sandstone, basalt and granite such as the Hoggar (or Ahaggar) Mountains in Algeria, Aïr Mountains in Niger and Mali's Adrar des Iforas. By one estimate, the Sahara is home to 1400 plant species, 50 mammal species and 18 bird species.

Another little-known fact about the Sahara is that this is the youngest desert on earth. As recently as 8000 years ago, the Sahara was a fertile land, made up of savannah grasslands, forests and lakes watered by relatively regular rainfall, and home to abundant wildlife. Around 7000 years ago rains became less frequent and by 400 BC the Sahara was the desert we know today, albeit on a smaller scale.

If the Sahara is a relatively recent phenomenon, the Namib Desert in Namibia is one of the world's oldest – a staggering 55 million years old. It was created (and is sustained) by cold-air convection that sucks the moisture from the land and creates an arid landscape of rolling sand dunes with its own unique ecosystem. Even larger than the Namib, the Kalahari Desert spans Botswana, Namibia and South Africa and is around the size of France and Germany combined.

Forests

African forests include dry tropical forests in eastern and Southern Africa, humid tropical rainforests in western and central regions, montane forests and subtropical forests in northern Africa, as well as mangroves in the coastal zones.

Despite the myth of the African 'jungle', Africa actually has one of the lowest percentages of rainforest cover in the world – just one-fifth of Africa is covered by forests, with over 90% of what's left found in the Congo basin. Not surprisingly, the countries of West and Central Africa have the highest proportion of their territory covered by forest – Gabon (84.5%), Guinea-Bissau (73.7%), Congo (65.6%), DRC (58.9%) and Equatorial Guinea (58.2%). Mauritania (0.3%) and Niger (1%) have almost no forests left.

The rainforest of the Congo Basin and Madagascar supports the greatest and most specialised biodiversity on the continent: 80% to 90% of species found in these biomes are endemic. The Congo Basin is also one of the last havens for gorilla, chimpanzee and other endangered primates.

Beyond their biodiversity mantle, however, forests are essential to the livelihood of many communities, providing food, fuel, livelihood, medicine and spiritual well-being.

Savannah

The savannah is a quintessentially African landform, covering an estimated two-thirds of the African land mass. Savannah is usually located in a broad swath surrounding tropical rainforest and its sweeping plains are home to some of the richest concentrations of wildlife on earth, especially in East Africa. The term itself refers to a grasslands ecosystem. While trees may be (and usually are) present, such trees do not, under the strict definition of the term, form a closed canopy, while wet and dry seasons (the latter often with regenerating and/or devastating wildfires) are also typical of Africa's savannahs. The Serengeti is probably the continent's most famous savannah region.

Rivers

Africa's waterways are more than stunning natural phenomena. They also serve as the lifeblood for millions of Africans who rely on them for transport, fishing, irrigation and water supplies. The Nile (6650km) and Congo (4700km) Rivers dominate Africa's hydrology, but it's the Niger River (4100km), Africa's third-longest, that is the focus of most environmental concern.

The Niger's volume has fallen by 55% since the 1980s because of climate change, drought, pollution and population growth. Fish stocks have fallen, water hyacinth is a recurring problem and the growth of sand bars has made navigation increasingly difficult. Given that an estimated 110 million people live in the Niger's basin, problems for the Niger could cause a catastrophic ripple well beyond the river's shoreline. In 2008 the alarming signs of a river in distress prompted nine West African countries to agree on a US$8 billion, 20-year rescue plan to save the river. In the years since, progress has been slow with already-scarce resources diverted to fighting Islamist insurgencies.

Lakes & Wetlands

Africa has its share of famous lakes. Lake Victoria, which lies across parts of Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya, is Africa's largest freshwater lake (and the second largest by area in the world after North America's Lake Superior). Lake Tanganyika, with a depth of 1471m, is the world's second-deepest lake after Lake Baikal in Russia, while Lake Malawi, which borders Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania, is reportedly home to more fish species (over 1000) than any other lake on earth.

Less a lake than one of the world's largest inland deltas, the Okavango Delta is home to a stunning array of wildlife, with over 2000 plant and 450 bird species. The delta's 130,000-strong elephant population is believed to be close to capacity, with increasing conflict between elephants and farmers around the delta's boundaries.

Coastal Africa

Along the coast of East Africa and the Red Sea, warm currents provide perfect conditions for coral growth, resulting in spectacular underwater coral reefs. Off the west coast, the Benguela current, which shadows Angola, Namibia and South Africa, consists predominantly of nutrient-rich cold water. Whales, sharks and turtles are common all along the African coastline – South Africa and Madagascar in particular are whale-watching hotspots.

Coral reefs are the most biologically diverse marine ecosystems on earth, rivalled only by tropical rainforests on land. Corals grow over geologic time – that is, over millennia rather than the decades that mammals live – and have been in existence for about 200 million years. The delicately balanced marine environment of the coral reef relies on the interaction of hard and soft corals, sponges, fish, turtles, dolphins and other life forms.

Coral reefs also rely on mangroves, the salt-tolerant trees with submerged roots that form a nursery and breeding ground for birds and most of the marine life that migrates to the reef. Mangroves trap and produce nutrients for food and habitat, stabilise the shoreline, and filter pollutants from the land base.

Africa's Wildlife

Africa is home to more than 1100 mammal species and some 2400 bird species. Throughout the continent, wildlife brings drama and life to the beauty of the African landscape. Your first sight of elephants in the wild, chimpanzees high in the forest canopy, or a lion or cheetah on the hunt will rank among the most unforgettable experiences of your trip. Many national parks and reserves across Africa provide refuges for wildlife under threat from changing land use and wars – but even here poaching is a persistent problem and one that conservationists report is getting worse.

Elephants

The African elephant, the largest living land animal, is for many travellers the continent's most charismatic mammal. Elephants are plentiful in many areas of Africa but their survival is not assured.

In 1989 when the trade in ivory was banned under the Convention for International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), elephant population numbers began to climb again from dangerously low levels. However, illegal poaching continues to feed demand in Asia, particularly in China. In September 2012, the New York Times reported that Africa was, once again, 'in the midst of an epic elephant slaughter'. In 2011, a record-breaking 38.8 tons (equalling the tusks from more than 4000 dead elephants) was seized worldwide.

The WWF notes that most countries do not have adequate capacity to protect and manage their herds and, if conservation action is not forthcoming, elephants may become locally extinct in some parts of Africa within 50 years.

The worst fears of conservationists were confirmed when the results came in from the Great Elephant Census (www.greatelephantcensus.com). Published in 2016 and the most comprehensive survey of the continent's elephants ever undertaken, 352,271 African savanna elephants survive in 18 countries. These figures represent a 30% fall in Africa's elephant population over the preceding seven years; check out the website for detailed country-by-country data.

Every year since 2010, fuelled by a resurgence in demand for ivory products in Asia, poachers have killed an estimated 35,000 elephants across Africa. That’s around 7% of Africa’s elephant population every year. That’s 673 elephants being killed a week, 96 a day. That’s four elephants being killed for their tusks every hour.

Where to See Elephants

In East Africa, Tanzania has elephants in abundance, with Serengeti National Park, Ngorongoro Conservation Area and Ruaha National Park the picks among many. In Kenya, it just has to be Masai Mara National Reserve or Amboseli National Park. To the north, in Uganda, elephants are found in greatest numbers at the remote Kidepo Valley National Park in the country's northeast.

South Africa's Kruger National Park is perhaps Southern Africa's most famous elephant sanctuary, but Botswana is also an elephant-watcher's paradise, most notably in the Okavango Delta and Chobe National Park. In Namibia, the desert elephants of the Namib can be seen in Damaraland and along the Skeleton Coast, but Etosha National Park is also prolific. Elsewhere, Malawi's Liwonde National Park, Zambia's South Luangwa and Lower Zambezi National Parks, and Zimbabwe's Hwange National Park are also outstanding.

The national parks of West and Central Africa are home to the smaller forest (rather than savannah) elephants and are deliciously remote. In Gabon, elephants wander along the beach in Loango National Park, while elephants are also common in the Réserve de la Lopé and Ivindo National Park. Other prime elephant areas include Central African Republic's Dzanga-Sangha Reserve and Congo's Parc National D'Odzala and Parc National Nouabalé-Ndoki.

Elsewhere in West Africa, elephant sightings are mostly hard-won, with the best places being Ghana's Mole National Park, Burkina Faso's Ranch de Nazinga and Cameroon's Parc National de Waza.

Primates

They may not be part of the 'Big Five', but the chance to see Africa's primates in their natural environment is alone worth the trip. Our obvious kinship with these always engaging animals has spawned various forms of 'primate tourism', whereby troops of monkeys or apes are habituated to human presence so visitors can observe them in their natural habitat.

West and Central Africa's rainforests are particularly rich in primate species, although East Africa also has considerable populations. Gorillas and chimpanzees get most of the attention (and rightfully so), but you'll also come across colobus monkeys, mangabeys, drills, beautiful and strikingly marked guenons and forest baboons, among others.

Gorillas

The last refuges in West and Central Africa of the world's largest living primate have too often occupied war zones. In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the mountain gorilla's forest habitat has often come under the control of rebel armies; in the first half of 2007, seven gorillas were shot in DRC's Parc National des Virunga. Poaching, the Ebola and Marburg viruses and even the trade in bushmeat have all contributed to the vulnerability of gorillas. The most endangered subspecies is the Cross River gorilla living in the highland forests of Cameroon and Nigeria, numbering no more than 300.

It's not all bad news. In recent years the world’s population of critically endangered mountain gorillas has risen to a total of 880 (400 in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, and 480 in the Virunga Masiff), which is up from the estimate of 786 animals in 2010.

Across the other side of Africa, a staggering 125,000 western lowland gorillas were discovered in 2008 in the swamps of northern Congo, almost doubling previous projections; the WWF puts the current population at 100,000.

Where to See Gorillas

The best places to see mountain gorillas are Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Rwanda's Volcanoes National Park and – if the security situation allows – Parc National des Virunga in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Across the other side of Africa, the best places to see the western lowland gorillas are in Gabon's Loango National Park and two parks in the Republic of Congo: Parc National D'Odzala and Parc National Nouabalé-Ndoki.

Ivindo National Park in Gabon has western lowland gorillas but none had been habituated at the time of writing. There are also small populations of cross river gorillas in Cameroon, with some protected within the Takamanda National Park, close to the Nigerian border, but they're nearly impossible to see.

Chimpanzees & Other Primates

Chimpanzees are the animal world's closest living relative to humans, with whom they share 99% of their genetic make-up. You'll find these sometimes playful, sometimes cranky creatures throughout Africa and they're usually more accessible (and cheaper to see) than gorillas.

Where to see Chimps & other Primates

Tanzania is terrific for chimp tracking, especially Mahale Mountains and Gombe Stream National Parks near Lake Tanganyika. Every bit as good is Uganda's Kibale Forest National Park, home to Africa's highest density of primates; Queen Elizabeth National Park, Murchison Falls National Park and Toro-Semliki Wildlife Reserve are also good. In Rwanda, the Parc National de Nyungwe is the best place for chimpanzees, and you may also see colobus monkeys. Ethiopia's Simien Mountains National Park is home to a small population of gelada baboons.

In Central Africa and closely related to the chimpanzee, the notoriously peace-loving bonobo is highly endangered and survives only in the DRC; seeing one in the wild is almost impossible, but you can catch a glimpse at the Lola Ya Bonobo Sanctuary near Kinshasa.

Primates are West Africa's most easily observed mammals. The primate-rich national parks of Gabon, including Lopé National, are home to some of the world's largest mandrill troupes. Monte Alen National Park in Equatorial Guinea is also good for a range of primates; Sierra Leone's Tiwai Island Wildlife Sanctuary is excellent. Other highlights include the chimpanzees in Côte d'Ivoire's Parc National de Taï and Guinea-Bissau's Parque Nacional do Catanhez, the most westerly home of Africa's chimpanzees. For other primate species, Cameroon's Parc National de Campo-Ma'an and Ghana's Kakum National Park are excellent.

Primate Refuges

Small sanctuaries set up to provide a haven for primates rescued from poachers and traffickers play a critical role in primate conservation. They include the following:

  • Chifunshi Wildlife Orphanage, a chimpanzee sanctuary in Zambia
  • Lésio Louna Gorilla Reserve, for orphaned gorillas, in the Congo
  • Parc National Conkouati Douli, also in the Congo, where chimpanzees are being prepared for their reintroduction into the wild
  • Drill Ranch and Afi Mountain Drill Ranch in Nigeria, home to colonies of rescued drill monkeys and chimps
  • Limbe Wildlife Centre in Cameroon, home to a range of primates including chimps and gorillas
  • Sierra Leone's Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary
  • River Gambia National Park in The Gambia, location of the Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Trust.
  • Institut de Recherche Environnemental de Bossou, with chimp-tracking walks in the Guinean rainforest.

Cats

Some of Africa's most memorable wildlife-watching moments come from the great cats – lions, leopards and cheetahs – hunting prey, although these can be among the most elusive of Africa's megafauna. Spotting one of the smaller cat species, such as the caracal, serval, African wild cat or sand cat of the Sahara, is even more difficult.

Lions

The peak cat conservation body Panthera (www.panthera.org) estimates that fewer than 20,000 lions remain in Africa (there is a tiny population of Asian lions in the Gir Forest in Gujarat state in India). While that may seem like a lot, the IUCN classifies the lion as Vulnerable, not least because many lions live in small, fragmented and isolated populations that may not be sustainable beyond the short term.

Only six lion populations in Africa – Botswana's Okavango Delta and the broader ecosystem to which it belongs in Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe, along with the Serengeti/Masai Mara, and Tanzania's Ruaha National Park and Selous Game Reserve – are sufficiently protected to hold at least 1000 lions. That's the conservation gold standard that Panthera applies for guaranteeing the long-term survival of the species.

Southern Africa

Like lions elsewhere, lions in Southern Africa are facing threats from poisoning, either in retaliation for killing livestock or encroaching onto farming lands, bushmeat poaching and habitat loss.

The best places to see lions in Southern Africa are: Chobe National Park, Moremi Game Reserve, Etosha National Park, Kruger National Park, Central Kalahari Game Reserve, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Kafue National Park and Hwange National Park.

Namibia is home to the desert lion along the Skeleton Coast and hinterland; estimates stand at between 180 and 200. They were stars of the show in the recent National Geographic film Vanishing Kings: Lions of the Namib. The Desert Lion Conservation Foundation (www.desertlion.org) is the place to go for more information.

East Africa

In East Africa, Kenya Masai Mara National Reserve, Amboseli National Park and Tsavo West and East National Parks offer the best chances for sighting lions. In Tanzania, home to Africa's largest number of lions, it's Serengeti National Park, Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tarangire National Park, Ruaha National Park and Selous Game Reserve.

In Tanzania's Lake Manyara National Park and Kenya's Lake Nakuru National Park, watch for the famous arboreal (or tree-climbing) lions.

Uganda's Murchison Falls National Park and Toro-Semliki Wildlife Reserve are also possibilities.

West Africa

Scientists have for a long time known that lions in West Africa were in decline and that their populations were small. In 2014 they discovered that things were a lot worse than they thought.

Instead of the 21 lion populations across West Africa, just four remained, and three of these contained fewer than 50 lions. In total they found just 400 lions, including only 250 breeding adults. Lions now occupy barely 1% of their former territory range and three of the four remaining populations – in Senegal's Parc National de Niokolo-Koba (just 16 lions) and in two Nigerian Parks, Yankari and Kainji Lake – are considered to be too small to be sustainable in the medium to long term.

The only lion population in West Africa that appears to be viable in the short to medium term consists of more than 350 lions (nearly 90% of West Africa's total) and inhabits what is known as the W-Arli-Pendjari Complex. This transfrontier network of national parks straddles the borders of Niger, Burkina Faso and Benin and includes Benin's Parc National de la Pendjari. But even there, the lion's future looks precarious without a serious injection of funds over the coming years and decades.

Leopards

Leopards are present throughout sub-Saharan Africa and, unlike lions, are at home in most African landscapes, from the semidesert to tropical rainforest. In addition to places lions where are found, leopards can be spotted in East Africa in Kenya's Lake Nakuru and Tsavo West National Parks.

In Southern Africa, try Savuti in Botswana, Zambia's South Luangwa National Park and Kafue National Park, South Africa's Kruger National Park, Malawi's Nyika National Park and Namibia's Namib-Naukluft National Park. In West Africa, leopards are found in Niger's Parc Regional du W.

Leopards are listed as Vulnerable on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.

Cheetahs

The fastest land animal on earth (it can reach speeds of 75km/h in the first two seconds of its pursuit and at full speed may reach 115km/h), the cheetah in full flight is one of the most thrilling sights in the African wild. Cheetahs inhabit mostly open country, from the savannah to the desert, and they're most easily spotted in the major national parks of Kenya, Tanzania, Namibia, Botswana, South Africa and Zambia. A small number of cheetahs are also believed to survive in the Sahara.

At the end of 2016, a scientific study confirmed what many conservationists in the field had long feared – the cheetah is in trouble. The latest estimates suggest that just 7100 cheetahs remain in the wild, all of which live in Africa save for an isolated population of around 50 in the deserts and mountains of central Iran.

Between two-thirds and half of Africa's surviving cheetahs live in Southern Africa, which effectively remains the cheetah's last stronghold. Namibia has the world's largest population, but even there cheetahs live at low densities, and shrinking habitats and human encroachment on former wilderness areas have resulted in increasing conflict between cheetahs and farmers; more than three-quarters of Africa's wild cheetahs live outside protected areas.

Elsewhere in the region, in Zimbabwe, the cheetah population has crashed from 1200 to just 170 animals in just 16 years.

Other problems include the smuggling of cheetah cubs out of the continent for sale as pets – baby cheetahs sell for as much as US$10,000 on the black market – with more than 1200 trafficked off the continent over the past decade, 85% of whom died in transit.

Organisations such as the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF; www.cheetah.org) and AfriCat (www.africat.org) are at the forefront of efforts to mitigate this conflict and are worth contacting to find out more.

Hoofed Animals

Africa has the most diverse range of hoofed animals (also known as ungulates) on earth and, given their numbers, they're often the easiest of all large mammals to spot. Counted within their ranks are numerous signature African species such as the hippo, rhino, giraffe, wildebeest, zebra and numerous antelope species.

Rhinoceros

Rhinos rank among Africa's most endangered large mammals. These inoffensive vegetarians are armed with impressive horns that have made them the target of both white hunters and poachers – rhino numbers plummeted to the brink of extinction during the 20th century.

There are two species of rhino, black and white, both of which are predominantly found in savannah regions. White rhinos aren't white at all – the name comes from the Dutch word wijd, which means wide and refers to the white rhino's wide lip (the black rhino has a pointed lip).

The survival of the white rhino is an environmental-conservation success story, having been brought back from the brink of extinction in South Africa through captive breeding. As a result, it is now off the endangered list. Black rhinos are thought to now number between 5000 and 5500, with small but encouraging gains made in recent years. The West African black rhino was declared extinct in 2006, while just three Northern white rhinos live in captivity at Kenya's Ol Pejeta Conservancy and all attempts for them to breed have so far proved to be unsuccessful.

Current estimates for white rhinos stand at between 19,682 and 21,077.

Hippopotamus

Hippos, the third-heaviest land mammal on earth (after the elephant and white rhino), are found throughout sub-Saharan Africa, with the largest numbers in Tanzania, Zambia and Botswana. They're usually seen wallowing in shallow water in lakes, ponds and rivers, although the wave-surfing hippos in Gabon's Loango National Park are international celebrities. They're also one of the most dangerous animals in Africa, thanks to their aggression towards humans and propensity for attacking boats.

Zebras

Zebras (of which Burchell's zebra is the most widespread) and giraffes may be found in small populations elsewhere, but they are especially plentiful in the open and lightly wooded savannah of East Africa, where you'll see them in most of the major national parks and reserves.

Kenya (along with neighbouring Ethiopia) is home to the last surviving wild populations of Grevy’s zebra. In the 1970s, approximately 15,000 Grevy’s zebras were thought to survive in the wild. Just 2600 are estimated to remain and less than 1% of the Grevy zebra’s historical range lies within protected areas. Distinguished from other zebra species by having narrow stripes and bellies free from stripes, the Grevy’s zebra is found in the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Segera Retreat and the Samburu National Reserve.

Although some scientists argue that the Hartmann's Mountain zebra should be considered a separate species, it remains a subspecies of the Cape Mountain zebra, which is the world's smallest zebra species and is listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

Agile and shy in the arid, rocky mountain country it inhabits, the Hartmann's Mountain zebra has narrower stripes on the torso, no stripes on the underbelly, and wider black stripes on the back haunches when compared to better-known plains or common zebra. In addition to northwestern South Africa and southwestern Angola, the Hartmann's Mountain zebra is found in Namibia's rocky interior, including Kunene Province in the north, the Erongo Mountains, the Naukluft Mountains and Fish River Canyon.

Giraffes

One of the most worrying developments in recent years has been the downgrading of the giraffe by the IUCN from Least Concern in 2010 to Vulnerable in 2016. The world's tallest land mammal remains widespread across Southern and East Africa, but a precipitous 40% decline (from an estimated 151,702 to 163,452 individuals in 1985 to 97,562 in 2015) has brought the species' fate into sharp focus.

The main threats to the giraffe are illegal hunting, habitat loss, increasing human-wildlife conflict, civil conflict and encroaching human settlements.

Africa's most remarkable giraffes are perhaps those of Kouré in Niger, which are making a stirring comeback after coming close to extinction. Over the past few decades this herd has shrunk in size from more than 3000 giraffes down to barely 50 in 1996. The threat to their existence has come from the destruction of their habitat through desertification and deforestation, as well as disease, poaching, road accidents and farmers killing them to protect their crops. It also didn't help that from April to August 1996, soldiers shot around a dozen of them while trying to carry out a presidential order to capture giraffes for presentation as gifts to friendly foreign leaders.

In the late 1990s, the government of Niger and international conservation groups finally launched a campaign to save the last wild giraffes left in West Africa. Intensive conservation efforts have caused a gradual increase in the population – the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF; www.awf.org) estimated in 2014 that there were 403 giraffes in the herd.

Wildebeest

The annual migration of more than a million wildebeest, the largest single movement of herd animals on earth, is one of the grandest wildlife spectacles you could imagine. It all takes place in Kenya's Masai Mara National Reserve and Tanzania's Serengeti National Park from June to October.

Antelope

Antelope range from the tiny, knee-high dik-dik and duiker, through to the graceful gazelle, impala and springbok, to giants such as the buffalo, eland and kudu. Many of these will be seen on a typical East or Southern African safari.

West Africa also has its share of antelope species, including bushbucks, reedbucks, waterbucks, kobs, roans, elands, oribis and various gazelles and duikers. The Sahel-dwelling dama gazelle is the largest gazelle species in Africa, but is now close to extinction, and the red-fronted gazelle may still survive in Mali's remote far east. Buffalos in West Africa inhabit forest regions, and are smaller and redder than the East African version.

Birds

Even if you're not into birdwatching, Africa's abundant and incredibly varied birdlife could turn you into an avid birder. In most sub-Saharan countries, you're likely to see hundreds of different species without looking too hard, and a bit of preparation – there are some excellent field guides – before you set out can greatly enhance your visit. Birds reach their highest profusion in the Congo rainforests, but are easier to see in habitats such as rainforest, savannah and wetland. Several bird families, such as the ostrich, secretary bird, touracos, shoebill, hamerkop and mousebird are unique to Africa. Apart from endemic species, hundreds more species flood into the continent on migration during the northern winter.

Bird Spotting

Any of East Africa's major national parks are good for birdwatching. Kenya has recorded 1200 bird species and, in particular, Kakamega Forest Reserve, Lake Naivasha and the flamingos of Lake Nakuru National Park stand out. Tanzania, with over 1000 species, isn't far behind – Lake Manyara National Park is a good choice. Southern Ethiopia is also prime birding country, especially the Rift Valley Lakes and Bale Mountains National Park.

In Southern Africa, Malawi's Nyika National Park, Liwonde National Park and Vwaza Marsh Wildlife Reserve are prime birders' destinations. Madagascar, too, has plenty of interest, especially in Parc National Ranomafana and Réserve Spécial d'Analamazaotra, as does Namibia at Swakopmund, Caprivi Strip and Etosha National Park. Elsewhere, Botswana's Okavango Delta and Zimbabwe's Hwange National Park won't disappoint.

West Africa lies along one of the busiest bird migratory routes between Europe and Africa, and more than 1000 species have been recorded in the region. Tiny Gambia has a devoted following in the birding community. Good places include Abuko Nature Reserve, Tanji Bird Reserve and Kiang West National Park. Senegal also offers excellent birding, particularly in Parc National des Oiseaux du Djoudj and Parc National de la Langue de Barbarie; both are famous for vast pelican and flamingo flocks. Sierra Leone is also good; notably, Outamba-Kilimi National Park supports more than 250 species, including the spectacular great blue turaco.

Feature: Madagascar – A world Apart

In any discussion of African wildlife, Madagascar rates a separate mention for its unique treasure trove of endemic wildlife that has remained virtually unchanged since the island split from the mainland 165 million years ago. Most of Madagascar's wildlife exists nowhere else on earth, including 98% of its land mammals, 92% of its reptiles, and 41% of bird species. Most famous are its lemurs, a group of primates that have followed a separate evolutionary path. Lemurs have adapted to nearly every feeding niche, and range in size from tiny pygmy mouse lemurs (at 85g, the world's smallest primate) to the 2.5kg ring-tailed lemur. Perhaps the most curious, however, is the indri, which looks like a cross between a koala and a giant panda, and has a voice like a police siren. The best wildlife-watching in Madagascar is to be found at Réserve Spécial d'Analamazaotra, Parc National de l'Isalo and Parc National de Ranomafana.

Feature: Which Field Guide?

Africa’s incredible floral and faunal diversity has inspired a large number of field guides for visitors and wildlife enthusiasts. In the UK, an excellent source for wildlife and nature titles is Subbuteo Natural History Books Ltd (www.wildlifebooks.com), while in Australia, check out Andrew Isles Natural History Books (www.andrewisles.com); both accept international mail orders.

Field guides, apart from being damned interesting to read, can be invaluable tools for identifying animals while on safari. Our favourites:

  • A Field Guide to the Carnivores of the World (Luke Hunter; 2011) Wonderfully illustrated and filled with fascinating detail.
  • The Kingdon Field Guide to African Mammals (Jonathan Kingdon; 2nd ed, 2015) The latest edition of the classic field guide covering over 1150 species.
  • The Behavior Guide to African Mammals (Richard Despard Estes; 1991) Classic study of the behaviour of mammal species. Estes' follow-up The Safari Companion: A Guide to Watching African Mammals (1993) is an excellent, slightly more accessible alternative.
  • Birds of Southern Africa (Ian Sinclair et al; 4th ed, 2011) Easily the best field guide to the country’s birds.
  • Birds of Western Africa (Nik Borrow and Ron Demey; 2011) A must for birders heading to bird-rich West Africa.

Feature: Wildlife-watching – the Basics

  • Most animals are naturally wary of people, so to minimise their distress (or aggression) keep as quiet as possible, avoid sudden movements and wear subdued colours when in the field.
  • Avoid direct eye contact, particularly with primates, as this is seen as a challenge and may provoke aggressive behaviour.
  • Good binoculars are an invaluable aid to observing wildlife at a distance and are essential for birdwatching.
  • When on foot, stay downwind of animals wherever possible – they'll smell you long before they see or hear you.
  • Never get out of your vehicle unless it's safe to do so.
  • Always obey park regulations, including traffic speed limits; thousands of animals are needlessly killed on African roads every year.
  • Follow your guide's instructions at all times – it may mean the difference between life and death on a walking safari.
  • Never get between a mother and her young.
  • Exercise care when boating or swimming, and be particularly aware of the dangers posed by crocodiles and hippos.
  • Never feed wild animals – it encourages scavenging, may adversely affect their health and can cause animals to become aggressive towards each other and humans.
When to Go

Much of East Africa offers exceptional wildlife-viewing year-round, but, although visitor numbers can be high, wildlife is generally easier to spot during dry seasons, when waterholes become a focus for activity. Wildlife usually disperses during wet seasons and denser vegetation can make observation more difficult, but you may be rewarded with 'private' viewings and breeding activity.

Feature: The Best of the Okavango Delta on DVD

Dereck and Beverly Joubert, National Geographic ‘Explorers in Residence’, have spent almost 30 years visiting the Okavango Delta and documenting its wildlife, especially the big cats. The result is an extraordinary portfolio of DVDs that captures the spirit of the delta and the daily dramas of its wildlife. Jeremy Irons’ narration on many of the stories adds gravitas, if any were needed.

  • Game of Lions (2013) A group of male lions and the challenges they face as they grow to be adults.
  • The Last Lions (2011) Follows a lioness and her cubs as they struggle to survive around Duba Island in the heart of the delta (narrated by Jeremy Irons).
  • Living with Big Cats (2007) An intimate portrait of the filmmakers, the delta and the animals that take centre stage in their films.
  • Eye of the Leopard (2006) A remarkable chronicle of two years in the life of a leopard mother and her cub in the delta.
  • Ultimate Enemies (2003–06) Three-part series documenting the enduring rivalry of lions with buffaloes, hyenas and elephants.

Feature: Online Wildlife Resources

  • Panthera (www.panthera.org)
  • Wildlife Conservation Society (www.wcs.org)
  • African Conservation Foundation (www.africanconservation.org)
  • African Wildlife Foundation (www.awf.org)
  • African Parks (www.african-parks.org)
  • Save the Rhino (www.savetherhino.org)
  • Save the Elephants (www.savetheelephants.org)
  • Cheetah Conservation Fund (www.cheetah.org)
  • AfriCat (www.africat.org)

Feature: Elephant Spotting

  • Chobe National Park, Botswana
  • Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe
  • Serengeti National Park, Tanzania
  • Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya
  • Kruger National Park, South Africa
  • Etosha National Park, Namibia
  • Damaraland, Namibia
  • Addo Elephant National Park, South Africa
  • Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique

Feature: Rhino Spotting

  • Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania
  • Liwonde National Park, Malawi
  • Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary, Uganda
  • Etosha National Park, Namibia
  • Damaraland, Namibia
  • Khama Rhino Sanctuary, Botswana
  • Nairobi National Park, Kenya
  • Matobo National Park, Zimbabwe
  • Meru National Park, Kenya
  • Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Kenya
  • Lewa Conservancy, Kenya
  • North Luangwa National Park, Zambia

Feature: Gorilla Spotting

  • Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda
  • Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda
  • Loango National Park, Gabon
  • Parc National d'Odzala, Republic of Congo
  • Parc National Nouabalé-Ndoki, Congo
  • Monte Alen National Park, Equatorial Guinea

Sidebar: The 'Big Five'

Seeing the 'Big Five' has become a mantra for African wildlife-watchers, but few know it was coined by white hunters for the five species deemed most dangerous to hunt: elephant, lion, leopard, rhino and buffalo.

Sidebar: Secrets of the Savanna

Secrets of the Savanna, by Mark and Delia Owens, lays bare the difficulties of protecting Africa's elephants from poachers in Zambia's North Luangwa National Park.

Sidebar: Gorilla Protection

In 2008 Cameroon announced the creation of the new Takamanda National Park, close to the Nigerian border, to protect 115 Cross River gorillas, of which only 300 are thought to survive in the wild.

Sidebar: Expensive Gorillas

Watching gorillas in the wild doesn't come cheap. In Rwanda, gorilla permits cost US$1500 per person, while it costs around US$600 in Uganda. It's slightly cheaper in Gabon (US$487) and Republic of Congo (around US$267).

Sidebar: Primate Conservation

Primate conservation is about far more than gorillas and chimps – 37% of primate species in mainland Africa are considered endangered, with the figure at 43% in Madagascar.

Feature: Good Wildlife Reads

  • The Tree Where Man Was Born (1972), African Silences (1991) and Sand Rivers (1981), Peter Matthiessen
  • A Primate's Memoir: Love, Death and Baboons in East Africa (2002), Robert M Sapolsky
  • Secrets of the Savanna (2006) and Cry of the Kalahari (1985), Mark and Delia Owens
  • Lions in the Balance (2015), Craig Packer

Sidebar: The Okapi

Africa's rarest hoofed creature is the okapi. Just 20,000 of this zebra-giraffe hybrid survive. You can catch a rare glimpse in the breeding centre in DRC's Okapi Wildlife Reserve.

Sidebar: White Rhinos

White rhinos aren't white at all – the name comes from the Dutch word wijd, which means wide and refers to the white rhino's wide lip (the black rhino has a pointed lip).

Sidebar: Saviour of the Mountain Zebra

The vulnerable mountain zebra of southwestern Africa was saved by one farsighted farmer, who protected the last 11 surviving zebras on his farm; the species has since recovered to number several hundred individuals.

Sidebar: Tropical Migration

It is estimated that 500 million birds from Europe and Asia migrate to tropical Africa every year, a journey of up to 11,000km – fewer than half make it home, either dying en route or preferring to remain in Africa.

Sidebar: IUCN Redlist

The status of the world's species is determined by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which oversees the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species (www.iucnredlist.org). Each species is assessed according to a set of rigorous scientific criteria and classified as Least Concern, Near Threatened, Vulnerable, Endangered, Critically Endangered, Extinct in the Wild or Extinct.

Biodiversity

African wildlife accounts for almost a third of global biodiversity and its statistics alone tell the story – a quarter of the world's 4700 mammal species are found in Africa, as are a fifth of the world's bird species and more fish species than on any other continent. Discoveries in the 1990s in Madagascar alone increased the numbers of the world's known amphibian and reptile species by 25% and 18% respectively.

The continent is home to eight of the world's 34 biodiversity hotspots, as defined by Conservation International. To qualify, a region must contain at least 1500 species of vascular plants (more than 0.5% of world's total) and have lost at least 70% of its original habitat. Three of these touch on South Africa (where 34% of terrestrial ecosystems and 82% of river ecosystems are considered threatened), with others in West Africa, Madagascar, the Horn of Africa, the coastal forests of East Africa and the Great Rift Valley.

National Parks

Africa's protected areas range from world-class national parks in eastern and Southern Africa to barely discernible wildlife reserves in West Africa.

Southern African countries lead the way in protected area cover, with Zambia and Botswana the only two countries in Africa having put aside more than 30% of their territory for conservation (36% and 31%, respectively). In eastern Africa, Tanzania wins the stakes, with 27% of its surface area registered as protected, against just 12% and 10% in Kenya and Uganda. West Africa is a mixed bag, with countries like Guinea-Bissau, Benin and Senegal all scoring around 25%, while many of their neighbours hover around the 10% mark. All in all, 11.5% of sub-Saharan Africa is protected, but the proportion is much lower in North Africa (4%), which has very few national parks.

Africa has numerous examples of transfrontier national parks that stand out as shining examples of neighbourly cooperation. There are more than a dozen of these spread around the continent; among the ones you're most likely to encounter are the Park Régional du W, which spans Niger, Benin and Burkina Faso; the Masai Mara, which encompasses Kenya's Masai Mara National Reserve and Tanzania's Serengeti National Park; and the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park, which links South Africa's Kruger and Mozambique's Limpopo National Parks.

Feature: African Parks

When it comes to rebuilding some of Africa's most vulnerable national parks, nonprofit African Parks (www.african-parks.org) has done an outstanding job. Together with local governments, it takes over the long-term management of national parks and protected areas, focusing on saving wildlife, restoring landscapes and building sustainable futures for local communities.

In Southern Africa, African Parks is responsible for five parks: Bangweulu Wetlands and Liuwa Plain National Park in Zambia; and Liwonde National Park, Majete Wildlife Reserve and Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve in Malawi. In some of these areas its work has been nothing short of miraculous.

In Malawi, for example, it has successfully translocated 261 elephants, more than 800 zebras, two collared black rhinos and various antelope species from Liwonde to Nkhotakota, with a further 250 elephants to follow from Majete. See www.500elephants.org for more info on this extraordinary project.

Out in Zambia's remote west, African Parks has helped Liuwa Plain turn the corner by working closely with the local Barotse people (many of whom live within the park's boundaries) and restoring the local lion population.

As part of its brief, African Parks takes over parks, usually for a minimum-20-year period, maintains its own anti-poaching force, helps to build up the infrastructure for each of the parks under its control, and seeks to ensure future financial and environmental sustainability into the future. Its funding comes from a range of sources, including governments, philanthropists, conservation organisations and ordinary donors.

Beyond Southern Africa, African Parks also counts Rwanda's Akagera National Park within its portfolio, while its remaining four parks inhabit war zones or areas where government or any other control is minimal: Zakouma National Park (Chad), Garamba National Park (Democratic Republic of Congo), Odzala-Kokoua (Republic of Congo) and Chinka (Central African republic).

Environmental Challenges

Africa is the second-most populous continent after Asia, and population growth, although slowing, is still the highest in the world. This, along with poor natural resource management and the increasing effects of climate change, are putting tremendous pressure on the environment.

Climate change

Africa, like everywhere else in the world, is grappling with climate change. The irony for the continent is that it has historically contributed little to the greenhouse gas emissions responsible for global warming.

Impacts

Whatever part Africa played in climate change, the effects are likely to be significant. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Africa will likely experience temperature increases of 2°C to 4°C (more than the global average) over the coming century, which will in turn disrupt rainfall patterns. Although forecast models still produce mixed results, it is thought that northern and Southern Africa will become drier, while equatorial parts of the continent will turn wetter and East Africa more unpredictable.

The impact of this climatic upheaval will be broad-ranging, from disruption to agricultural yields and cropping systems to reduced water availability, changes in ecosystem boundaries and an increase in extreme weather events (such as cyclones, drought and flooding).

Mitigation & Adaptation

The impact of climate change need not be a doomsday scenario, however: while profound changes are unavoidable, policymakers have been working hard on developing climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies.

On the mitigation side, with Africa not being a great GHG emitter, efforts have focused on promoting a 'greener' growth on the continent, with emphasis on preventing deforestation (which globally accounts for 20% of greenhouse gas emissions) by paying for the carbon sink potential of forests, and renewable energy. Africa has substantial resources in wind, solar, geothermal and hydro power, yet only a fraction of that potential is being used. Development experts are particularly keen to use solar and micro-hydro power to provide 'off-grid' electricity to remote communities.

As for climate change adaptation, the answer lies in development. More than ever, experts agree that priority must be given to improving food security and drought resilience through better water resource management and agricultural practices: only 5% of Africa's arable land is irrigated, for example. Disaster preparedness is also becoming increasingly relevant.

Deforestation

African forests are under threat: thousands of hectares are being chopped not only for timber, but also for firewood and charcoal, and to be cleared for agriculture.

A recent report by international forest-policy group the Rights and Resources Initiative (www.rightsandresources.org) found that African forests are disappearing at a rate four times faster than forests anywhere else in the world. The reason, according to the study, is that less than 2% of the continent's forests are under the control of local communities – over half of the rainforests of the Congo basin are already under commercial-logging leases – compared to around a third in Latin America and Asia.

East and Central Africa have the most to lose and the signs there aren't good – Burundi is losing around 5% of its forest cover every year, with massive deforestation issues in Central African Republic, Cameroon, Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia. West Africa is faring little better. Over 90% of West Africa's original forest has been lost, while Nigeria and Ghana in particular are losing forest cover at an alarming rate.

Internationally, these figures raise concern over the effect such large-scale deforestation has on global warming. At a local level major side effects include soil erosion (with its devastating impact on agriculture), loss of biodiversity and an increase in the amount of wildlife hunted for bushmeat as new roads and accompanying settlements penetrate the forests.

Water

Africa has enormous water resources. The trouble is that they are unevenly distributed and often hard to access: the amount of groundwater stored in aquifers is thought to be 100 times the volume available in surface water. This spatial and temporal inequality is what causes scarcity. The continent also faces quality issues: pollution and increased salinity due to over-extraction of coastal aquifers are growing concerns.

African governments also have a poor track record in water resource management. Urban utilities lose 20% to 50% of the water they produce through leaks in their networks and few irrigation systems use modern, efficient drip-irrigation technology. In Egypt, for example, irrigated agriculture uses 90% of the country's water. And in Libya, prior to the fall of Colonel Qaddafi and the country's descent into civil conflict, vast amounts of non-renewable 'fossil' water (from deep aquifers) were being piped over hundreds of kilometres along the Great Manmande River to provide drinking water to cities along the coast.

Learning to share

One of the unique features of Africa's waterscape is its transboundary nature: 90% of the continent's surface water resources are shared; in some cases, more than 10 countries depend on the same river basin (for example, the Nile or the Niger River).

This has historically been a source of tension between riparian countries, particularly those along the Nile. A 2012 report from global agricultural research partnership CGIAR (formerly Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research) concluded that there was enough water in the Nile to go around – it just had to be better managed to ensure that small-holders as well as large-scale infrastructure projects such as dams and irrigation got access to the precious resource. This, the report argued, was key to poverty alleviation in the region.

Desertification

As forest cover diminishes, all too often the desert moves in. Desertification is one of the most serious forms of land degradation and it's one to which the countries of the West African Sahel and North Africa are particularly vulnerable. Desertification has reached critical levels in Niger, Chad, Mali and Mauritania, each of which some believe could be entirely consumed by the Sahara within a generation; up to 80% of Morocco is also considered to have a high risk of desertification. The Sahara's southward march is by no means a uniform process (and some scientists even doubt its existence), but the Sahel in particular remains critically vulnerable to short-term fluctuations in rainfall.

Desertification is also a problem for countries beyond the Sahelian danger zone: a high to moderate risk of desertification exists in numerous West African countries, as well as Botswana, Namibia, DRC, Central African Republic, Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan and Somalia.

The major causes of desertification are easy to identify – drought, deforestation, overgrazing and agricultural practices (such as cash crops, which require intensive farming) that have led to the over-exploitation of fragile soils on the desert margin – and are the result of both human activity and climatic variation. But one of the most significant causes in West Africa is the use of deliberately lit fires. Such fires are sometimes necessary for maintaining soil quality, regenerating savannah grasslands and ecosystems, enabling livestock production and as a form of pest control. But when the interval between fires is insufficient to allow the land to recover, the soil becomes exposed to wind and heavy rains and can be degraded beyond the point of recovery.

Community-Based Conservation

While the history of environmental protection in Africa is one that often saw Africans evicted from their land to make way for national parks, the future lies in community-based conservation. This local, as opposed to large-scale, approach is based on the tenet that in order for the African environment to be protected, ordinary Africans must have the primary stake in its preservation.

There are dozens of community-run initiatives across the continent, from conservation areas to lodges and tour companies; look them up during your travels and support their efforts.

Poaching

Rhino horn has long been a sought-after commodity in some Asian countries. It is a status symbol and is believed to be a healing agent. By one estimate, rhino horn can sell on the black market in China or Vietnam for US$60,000 per kilo and has been as high as US$100,000. Ivory prices regularly rise above US$2000 per kilo. Both products are now, literally, worth more than their weight in gold.

From the 1970s various factors (especially the value of ivory) led to an increase in elephant poaching in many parts of Africa. The real money was made not by poachers – often villagers who were paid a pittance for the valuable tusks – but by dealers. The number of elephants in Africa went from 1.3 million to 625,000 between 1979 and 1989, and in East Africa and some Southern African countries – notably Zambia – elephant populations were reduced by up to 90% in about 15 years. In other Southern African countries, where parks and reserves were well managed, in particular South Africa, Botswana and Namibia, elephant populations were relatively unaffected.

In 1989, in response to the illegal trade and diminishing numbers of elephants, a world body called the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) internationally banned the import and export of ivory. It also increased funding for anti-poaching measures. When the ban was established, world raw ivory prices plummeted by 90%, and the market for poaching and smuggling was radically reduced.

In 2009 everything changed and poachers again began killing elephants (and rhinos) in great numbers. Perhaps tellingly, a year earlier, in 2008, a number of Southern African countries were allowed to sell their ivory stockpiles to China and Japan, thereby reigniting demand that had shown no signs of growth in decades. Whatever the reason, the killing hasn't stopped since. Most worrying of all, a 2014 study found that Africa’s elephants had crossed a critical threshold: poachers now kill more African elephants each year than there are elephants being born.

Governments and park authorities are, of course, fighting back and innovative ways of tracking down poachers are being deployed. These include Shotspotter, a technology usually rolled out in crime-ridden cities in the USA. When a shot is fired, hidden microphones in the bush pick up the sound, triangulate it and feed location information to rangers and police who can respond in real time. But for the moment, the poachers seem to be winning.

Feature: Shrinking Lake Chad

Lake Chad once straddled the borders of Chad, Niger, Nigeria and Cameroon, and its waters are essential to the lives of 20 million people around its shores and in its hinterland. This was once the sixth-largest lake in the world and Africa's second-largest wetland, supporting a rich variety of wildlife. But falling rainfall, a growing population (and hence increased water consumption) and a notoriously shallow average depth of 4.11m have taken their toll: Lake Chad has shrunk by 95% over the past 35 years. Although satellite imagery from the European Space Agency suggests that things may be improving and a few recent years of greater rainfall have sparked a minor recovery, Lake Chad has retreated from Niger and Nigeria, and its extent in Chad and Cameroon is just one-tenth of the lake's original size.

Various proposals to replenish the lake by diverting neighbouring rivers have been put forward, but the cost and environmental impact of such a plan mean the project remains on the shelf for the time being.

Feature: Green Heroes

Along with the dozens of well-known conservation organisations, there are many Africans fighting in the environment's corner at the grassroots level.

The Goldman Environmental Prize (www.goldmanprize.org) is an annual award that honours these green heroes on each continent. The prize has been dubbed the 'green Nobel' and many of its recipients have become role models for a generation. Among the most famous African winners are Kenyan Green Belt Movement founder and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Maathai (1940–2011); Nigerian oil campaigner Ken Saro-Wiwa (1941–1995), who was hanged by a military court for his defence of the rights of the Ogoni people in the Niger Delta; and founder of the NGO Brainforest and activist Marc Ona-Essangui, from Gabon, whose advocacy led to a change in the country's environmental legislation.

Other winners may not be as well known but they are just as deserving, their work focusing on anything from poaching to conservation and sustainable development. The prize is awarded in April every year; profiles of all laureates can be found on the Goldman Foundation's website.

Feature: The Hunting Debate

Commercial or trophy hunting in Africa has, until recently, largely operated in the shadows of international attention. That all changed in 2015 when a Minnesota dentist, Walter Palmer, shot with a crossbow a much-loved male lion, Cecil, when it strayed outside Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe. The episode cast an uncomfortable spotlight on the industry and brought to the fore one of the most contentious issues in African conservation. Botswana was held up as a shining example of the way forward, thanks to its ban on commercial or trophy hunting in 2014; Kenya has a much more long-standing ban on trophy hunting. Tanzania, Namibia, Mozambique, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe all have active hunting industries.

While abhorrent to many conservationists, controlled hunting can, many conservation groups recognise, play an important role in preserving species. According to this argument, tourism revenues (whether national park fees or lodge revenues) have too often failed to reach local communities, reinforcing a perception that wildlife belongs to the government, with little benefit for ordinary people forced to live with wildlife that can kill their livestock or trample their crops. Hunting on private concessions, however, generally attracts massive fees (lion licences in Southern Africa can sell for US$20,000), of which, the theory goes, a significant proportion is fed back into local community projects, thereby giving wildlife a tangible economic value for local people.

Hunting, the argument continues, also makes productive use of land that is considered unsuitable for photographic tourism, either because of its remoteness or lack of tourism infrastructure. If controlled strictly – through the use of quotas and killing only a limited number of solitary male lions who are past their prime, for example – hunting can, according to its proponents, play a part in saving species from extinction.

Opponents of hunting argue that the whole debate is premised on the failure of governments and private operators to fairly redistribute their revenues from non-lethal forms of tourism – why, they ask, should we expect that hunting be any different? They also argue that the solution lies in a fairer distribution of tourism revenues and greater community involvement in conservation rather than in killing the very animals upon which tourism depends. And finally, some critics point to the double standards of arresting and imprisoning locals who hunt wildlife (whether for commercial or subsistence reasons), while permitting rich (and usually white) hunters to shoot animals during short visits to the continent.

In early 2014 Namibia’s Ministry of Environment and Tourism caused worldwide controversy when it auctioned off a hunting license for a black rhino, a critically endangered species, with a promise that the revenues raised would be channelled back into rhino conservation and anti-poaching measures. The winning bidder paid US$350,000 to hunt the animal, although the government claimed that critics of its policy caused an earlier bid of US$1 million to be withdrawn due to negative publicity, thereby costing US$650,000 that could have been used to protect black rhinos. The government also argued that the rhino in question, an older and aggressive bull male, was past breeding age and was considered a serious threat to other rhinos.

For more on hunting's pros and cons, and the fascinating case of Tanzania, read Craig Packer's excellent Lions in the Balance (2015).

The debate continues.

Feature: Kilimanjaro's Melting Ice Cap

Glittering white, like a mirage behind its veil of cloud, Mt Kilimanjaro's perfect white cap of ice is one of Africa's most iconic images. It has also become a cause célèbre in the debate over global warming. According to the UN, Kilimanjaro's glaciers have shrunk by 80% since the early 20th century and the mountain has lost over a third of its ice in the last 20 years alone. The causes are complex and not solely attributable to rising temperatures, with deforestation also to blame – the upper limit of the mountain's forests has descended significantly and overall forest cover has, thanks to fire, decreased by 15% since 1976. Whatever is to blame, some estimates suggest that Kilimanjaro's ice could disappear completely by 2025.

Feature: Greening Niger

Forests are considered to be an important buffer against desertification. Take, for example, the case of Niger, which has lost a third of its meagre forest cover since 1990.

Although just 1% of Niger is now forested, it’s not all bad news. Satellite images show that three of Niger’s southern provinces (especially around Tahoua) now have between 10 and 20 times more trees than they did in the 1970s.

According to UNEP, this is an environmental success story unprecedented in the Sahel. The secret to the success has been giving farmers the primary role in regenerating the land.

Faced with arid soil that made agriculture almost impossible, farmers constructed terraces and rock bunds to stem erosion, trap rainfall and enable the planting of trees. Trees planted by the farmers now serve as windbreaks against the desert and, for the first time in a generation, agriculture (millet, sorghum and vegetables) is almost possible year-round, thanks to improved water catchments and soil quality. This has made local populations more resistant to recurrent droughts.

Sidebar: Our Changing Environment

The UNEP's Africa: Atlas of Our Changing Environment (2008) is the dated but still definitive study of Africa's environment, with a detailed continental overview, country-by-country statistics and before-and-after satellite photos. It's available from www.earthprint.com.

Sidebar: Horn of Africa

Geologists believe that if the process that created the rift continues, the Horn of Africa may one day break away from the African mainland and become an island, just as Madagascar did in the distant past.

Sidebar: Desert Beauties

  • Namib Desert, Namibia
  • Kalahari Desert, Botswana
  • M'hamid, Morocco

Sidebar: Highs & Lows

The continent's highest point is the perpetually (for now) snow-capped Kilimanjaro (5895m) in Tanzania, and the lowest is Lake Assal (153m below sea level) in Djibouti.

Sidebar: Carbon Credits

Africa only accounts for 3% of carbon credits on the market while CO2 emissions per head in Africa are four times lower than the world average.

Sidebar: Saharan Dust

Forty million metric tonnes of Saharan sand reaches the Amazon annually, replenishing mineral nutrients depleted by tropical rains. Half of this dust comes from the Bodele Depression on the Niger–Chad border.

Sidebar: Coastal Frontage

Of the 49 African countries covered by Lonely Planet, 33 have coastal frontage. Madagascar (4828km) and Somalia (3330km) have the longest coastlines, while the DRC (37km) and Gambia (80km) have the shortest.

Sidebar: African Coral Reefs

Tanzania has the second-largest network of coral reefs in Africa (after Egypt), at 3580 sq km, and its waters are home to 150 different species of coral.

Sidebar: Protected Territories

Gabon has protected 16.2% of its territory (up from 4.7% in 1990), Equatorial Guinea 14.3% (up from 4.9% in the same period) and Congo 14.1% (up from 6.4%).

Sidebar: Hectares per Person

In 1950 there were, on average, 13.5 hectares of land for every person in Africa. By 2050 that figure will have shrunk to 1.5 hectares.

Sidebar: Expanding Sahara

Below-average rainfall from 1980 to 1984 (the latter one of the driest years on record) caused the Sahara to grow by 15%, increasing its coverage by 1.3 million sq km and temporarily pushing its boundary south by 240km. The River Niger even dried up in places.

Sidebar: Struggling to Adapt

In 2008 the then UN Secretary-General's Special Adviser on Conflict, Jan Egeland, described West Africa's Sahel region as the world's ground zero for vulnerable communities struggling to adapt to climate change.

Sidebar: New Plant Species

In 2005 British scientists surveyed over 2400 plant species in Cameroon's Kupe-Bakossi region, and found that one-tenth were completely new to science, making this Africa's top location for plant biodiversity.

Sidebar: Wild Africa

Perfect armchair-travel fodder, BBC Earth's Africa series (2013) is simply magnificent, with episodes 'Kalahari', 'Savannah', 'Congo', 'Cape', 'Sahara' and 'The Future'. Also excellent is the earlier Wild Africa series (2001), which consists of six documentaries entitled 'Jungle', 'Coasts', 'Mountains', 'Deserts', 'Savannahs' and 'Rivers & Lakes'. Both series are available on DVD.

Sidebar: African Climbs

  • Mt Kenya, Kenya
  • Mt Kilimanjaro, Tanzania
  • Mt Cameroon, Cameroon
  • Simien Mountains, Ethiopia
  • Drakensberg Mountains, South Africa

Feature: Diving Wonders

  • Dahab, Red Sea Coast, Egypt
  • Aliwal Shoal, South Africa
  • Ifaty, Madagascar
  • Zanzibar, Tanzania
  • Bazaruto Archipelago, Mozambique
  • Malindi Marine National Park, Kenya
  • Pemba, Tanzania
  • São Tomé & Príncipe
  • Lake Malawi, Malawi

Sidebar: River Trips

  • White-water rafting, Zambezi River, Zimbabwe
  • Cruising on the Nile, Egypt
  • Canoe excursions, Okavango Delta, Botswana
  • Travelling along the Congo River, DRC
  • Canoeing the Orange River, Botswana/Namibia
  • Rafting the Great Usutu River, Swaziland

The Culture

It is impossible to talk of Africa as a single entity, but within its diversity lie extraordinary cultural riches. How could it not be so with more than one billion Africans and well over 2000 different languages? Africans of all persuasions and from all corners of the continent have produced (and continue to produce) world-class literature and cinema, traditional crafts and cuisines that together provide so many insights into the ordinary lives of Africans.

Arts

Traditional African art and craft has stood at the centre of African life for centuries. It is a world of ceremonial masks, figures related to ancestral worship and fetishes (which protect against certain spirits) conceived in the spirit world and cast in wood and in bronze, in textiles and in basketry. Such art forms, along with traditional music, survive into the present, adding depth and richness to modern life alongside more contemporary media, such as literature, art and cinema.

Contemporary Arts

The art world has its eye on Africa. In March 2011 a painting by South African artist Irma Stern (1894–1966) sold for US$4.94 million at auction in London. Some contemporary African artists such as Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui, Kenyan ceramicist Magdalene Odunodo and Nigerian sculptor Ben Enwonwu are also securing six-figure sums at auction for their works.

In a bid to bring some of Africa's little-known artists to the world stage and to find the next Stern or Odunodo, the African Arts Trust (www.theafricanartstrust.org) was set up in 2011 to enable artists initially in Botswana, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe to buy materials, create works, travel and study.

In recent years recycled art has become popular, with artists from South Africa to West Africa producing sculptures and textiles created entirely from discarded objects such as tin cans and bottle tops.

Literature

Sub-Saharan Africa's rich, multilayered literary history is almost entirely oral. Folk tales, poems, proverbs, myths, historical tales and (most importantly) ethnic traditions are passed down through generations by word of mouth. Some societies have specific keepers of history and storytelling, such as the griots of West Africa, and in many cases stories are sung or tales are performed in a form of theatre. As a result, little of Africa's rich literary history was known to the outside world until relatively recently.

Twentieth- and 21st-century African literature has been greatly influenced by colonial education and Western trends. Some African authors have nonetheless made an effort to employ traditional structures and folk tales in their work; others write of the contemporary hardships faced by Africans and their fight to shake off the shackles of colonialism, using Western-influenced narrative methods (and penning their works in English, French or Portuguese).

Nigerian authors are prominent on the English-speaking African literature scene and some, like Amos Tutuola, adapt African folklore into their own works. Penned by Tutuola, The Palm-Wine Drunkard is a rather grisly tale of a man who enters the spirit world in order to find his palm-wine supplier! In a 1952 review in London's Observer newspaper, Dylan Thomas described the novel as 'brief, thronged, grisly and bewitching' and a 'nightmare of indescribable adventures'. The magical world of Ben Okri, most notably his Azaro trilogy and its spirit-child narrator, shows that such magical storytelling and the enduring power of traditional folklore are very much African specialities.

In March 2013 Chinua Achebe, hailed by Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer as the father of African Literature, died. His most famous novel, Things Fall Apart, is a deeply symbolic tale about a man's rise and fall at the time colonialism arrived in Africa.

South Africa has also produced many famous writers including Nobel Prize winners JM Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer, as well as André Brink, Alan Paton and Man Booker-prize–nominated Damon Galgut.

Feature: Top Ten African Novels
  • Things Fall Apart (Chinua Achebe; 1958)
  • The Famished Road (Ben Okri; 1991)
  • Disgrace (JM Coetzee; 1999)
  • Half of a Yellow Sun (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; 2006)
  • Measuring Time (Helon Habila; 2004)
  • The Memory of Love (Aminatta Forna; 2010)
  • Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote (Ahmadou Kourouma; 1998)
  • God's Bits of Wood (Ousmane Sembène; 1995)
  • Cry the Beloved Country (Alan Paton; 1948)
  • In the Eye of the Sun (Ahdaf Soueif; 1992)
Feature: Top 10 African Novels by Non-Africans
  • Heart of Darkness (Joseph Conrad; 1899)
  • The Heart of the Matter (Graham Greene; 1948)
  • A Bend in the River (VS Naipaul; 1979)
  • Desert (JMG Le Clézio; 1980)
  • A Good Man in Africa (William Boyd; 1981)
  • The Catastrophist (Ronan Bennett; 1997)
  • The Last King of Scotland (Giles Foden; 1998)
  • The Poisonwood Bible (Barbara Kingsolver; 1999)
  • Human Love (Andreï Makine; 2006)
  • Not Untrue and Not Unkind (Ed O'Loughlin; 2009)
Feature: Top Ten Works of Nonfiction About Africa
  • Out of Africa (Isak Dinesen; 1937)
  • Shadow of the Sun (Ryszard Kapuścinski; 2002)
  • We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families (Philip Gourevitch; 1998)
  • The Tree Where Man Was Born (Peter Matthiessen; 1972)
  • African Silences (Peter Matthiessen; 1991
  • Don't Let's Go To The Dogs Tonight (Alexandra Fuller; 2001)
  • When a Crocodile Eats the Sun (Peter Godwin; 2006)
  • Cry of the Kalahari (Mark and Delia Owens; 1984)
  • Journey Without Maps (Graham Greene; 1936)
  • In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz (Michela Wrong; 2001)

Traditional Decorative Arts & Crafts

The creation of many African arts and crafts is often the preserve of distinct castes of blacksmiths and weavers who rely almost exclusively on locally found or produced materials. Tourism has, however, greatly affected African art and craft, with considerable effort now going into producing objects for sale rather than traditional use. Some art forms, such as the Tingatinga paintings of Tanzania, evolved entirely out of demand from tourists. Although it causes a departure from art's role in traditional society, tourism can ensure artisans remain employed in their traditional professions, and many pieces retain their power precisely because they still carry meaning for Africa's peoples.

West Africa has arguably Africa's most extraordinary artistic tradition. The mask traditions of Côte d'Ivoire, Mali and the Congos are world famous, and Picasso, Matisse and others found inspiration in the radical approach to the human form. Nigeria and Benin have long been associated with fine bronze sculptures and carvings, and the Ashanti people of Ghana are renowned for fine textiles and gold sculptures.

In North Africa, ancient Arabic and Islamic traditions have produced some beautiful artworks (ceramics and carpets are particularly refined), as well as some phenomenal architecture; in the Sahara, Tuareg silver jewellery is unique and beautiful.

Throughout East and Southern Africa the Makonde people of Mozambique and the Shona of Zimbabwe produce excellent and widely copied sculptures.

Cinema

West Africa in particular has an acclaimed cinematic tradition – quite an achievement for one of the poorest regions of the planet. North African directors, too, are regulars on the international festival circuit, while South African film has a good reputation..

Senegalese director Ousmane Sembène (1923–2007) is often called the 'father of African film'; his 1966 movie La Noire de... was the first movie released by a sub-Saharan African director. His final film Moolaadé won awards at Cannes and the premier African film festival Fespaco. Predating Sembène is Egyptian film-maker Youssef Chahine, who made the musical melodrama Cairo Station in 1958.

Sarah Maldoror filmed Sambizanga in Congo in the early 1970s, although the movie is set in Angola. Chronicle of the Year of Embers won the coveted Palme d'Or at Cannes in 1975 for Algerian director Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina. Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako's Waiting for Happiness gained international attention in 2002.

The continent's most technically accomplished film-makers gather in South Africa – local talent Neill Blomkamp's sci-fi thriller District 10 was an international hit in 2009. Several major Hollywood productions have been shot at Cape Town Film Studios, including the Cape Town–set thriller Safe House (2012).

Africa's Film Festivals

Burkina Faso, as one of the world's poorest countries, may be an unlikely venue for a world-renowned festival of film, but the biennial nine-day Pan-African Film Festival, Fespaco (Festival Pan-Africain du Cinema; www.fespaco.bf), goes from strength to strength.

Fespaco began in 1969, when it was little more than a few African film-makers getting together to show their short films to interested audiences. Hundreds of films from Africa and the diaspora in the Americas and the Caribbean are now viewed every year, with 20 selected to compete for the prestigious Étalon D'Or de Yennenga – Fespaco's equivalent of the Oscar – as well as prizes in other categories (including TV).

Fespaco is held in Ouagadougou every odd year, in the second half of February or early March, and has become an essential pillar of Burkina Faso's cultural life. Since its early days, it has also helped stimulate film production throughout Africa and has become such a major African cultural event that it attracts celebrities from around the world.

East Africa is not known for its film-making, but it does host one of the continent's best film festivals: Zanzibar International Film Festival (ZIFF; www.ziff.or.tz), also known as the Festival of the Dhow Countries. The festival, which has been held annually on Zanzibar island since 1998, continues to be one of the region’s premier cultural events. It serves as a venue for artists from the Indian Ocean basin and beyond.

In December, Marrakesh hosts the more mainstream but always worthwhile Marrakesh International Film Festival (www.festivalmarrakech.info).

Daily Life

Africa's peoples have been moving from one part of the continent to the other since the great Bantu migrations of centuries past. But nothing in the modern era has changed African social structures quite like the movement from rural areas to the cities and the ravages of HIV/AIDS.

Urbanisation

At the beginning of the 20th century, around 5% of Africans lived in cities. Now, over a third of the continent's one billion population is urbanised with the figure set to rise to over half by 2030 according to a 2010 UN report. By some estimates, Africa's rate of urbanisation is the fastest in the world and the population of urban centres is growing at twice the rate of rural areas.

While generalisations can be dangerous, most often the daily lives of ordinary Africans revolve around family and other tightly knit social networks. These pillars of society tend to become a little shaky in urban areas, where traditional networks are often less important than economic and other factors.

The reasons for this epochal demographic shift are legion: growing populations due to improved health care, environmental degradation leading to shrinking grazing and agricultural land, and poor rural infrastructure are among the most important.

Unfortunately, urban population growth has far outpaced job creation; unemployment in many African cities is rife. One UN study found that in 38 African countries more than 50% of the urban population lives in slums. At the same time, many African cities have a growing and increasingly influential and sophisticated middle class.

Thanks to urbanisation, a whole generation of Africans is growing up with no connection to the countryside and its lores and traditions, and in many cases urbanisation has led to the breakdown of traditional social values such as respect for elders, and the loosening of family structures. Urbanisation has also caused critical labour shortages in rural areas, and has accelerated the spread of HIV.

In spite of these daunting challenges, rural life remains a pillar of African society, a place where the continent's historical memory survives. Family bonds are still much stronger than in many developed societies, with the concepts of community and shared responsibility deeply rooted. These values retain a strong hold over many Africans, even those who long ago left for the cities.

AIDS

According to the UN, there has been some very welcome news: between 2005 and 2013 the number of people dying from AIDS-related causes in sub-Saharan Africa had dropped from 18 million to 1.1 million. The number of new HIV infections had also dipped dramatically, by 25% over the previous decade to a total of 1.5 million in 2013. That's the good news. But the fact is that sub-Saharan Africa still has 24.7 million people living with HIV, or 71% of the global total.

Southern Africa has been the epicentre of the HIV/AIDS catastrophe. At the height of the crisis, more than a third of Botswanans were afflicted. And still 27.4% of Swaziland's adults have the disease, as do 5.9 million South Africans. This is staggeringly high, especially when compared to Senegal (0.5%) and even Kenya (6%).

There are many reasons why HIV/AIDS has taken such a hold in Africa. Collective denial of the problem, migration in search of work and to escape wars and famine, a general lack of adequate health care and prevention programs, and social and cultural factors – in particular the low status of women in many African societies – are all believed to have played a role in the rapid spread of the disease.

The personal, social and economic costs associated with the disease are devastating. HIV/AIDS predominantly hits the most productive members of society – young adults. This has a huge impact on family income, food production and local economies in general, and large parts of Africa face the loss of a significant proportion of entire generations. Employers, schools, factories and hospitals have to train other staff to replace those at the workplace who become too ill to work, setting economic and social development back by decades. The numbers of HIV/AIDS orphans (the UN estimates 11 million, with one in four Zambian children, or 380,000 children, said to be without both parents) is at once an enduring human tragedy and a massive societal problem.

Antiretroviral drug treatments, available in the West to increase the lifespan of AIDS sufferers and reduce the risk of HIV-infected women passing the infection on to their unborn babies, are still out of the reach of most Africans (according to the World Health Organization, Brazil has managed to halve AIDS deaths by making such drugs free). Although things are improving, only 39% of sub-Saharan African adults with HIV are receiving the necessary retroviral treatment.

For all its international prominence, HIV/AIDS is by no means Africa's only killer: WHO reports that malaria kills an African child every minute, with the Democratic Republic of Congo and Nigeria accounting for 40% of the worldwide total of deaths from the infection.

Religion

Most Africans are deeply religious, with religious values informing every aspect of their daily life. Generally speaking, a majority of the population in North Africa, West and Central Africa close to the Sahara, together with much of the East African coast, is Islamic; East and Southern Africa, and the rest of the continent, is predominantly Christian.

Accurate figures are hard to come by, but roughly 40% of Africans are Muslim and 40% Christian (including a burgeoning evangelical Christian movement), leaving around 20% who follow other religions or traditional African beliefs. These figures should be taken with a pinch of salt, however, as many Africans see no contradiction at all in combining their traditional beliefs with Islam or Christianity.

Hindus and Sikhs are found in places where immigrants arrived from Asia during the colonial era, particularly in East African countries such as Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. Jewish communities, some centuries old, are found mainly in North and Southern Africa.

Religion African Style

Africa's traditional religions are generally animist, believing that objects such as trees and caves or ritual objects such as gourds or drums are endowed with spiritual powers. Thus a certain natural object may be sacred because it represents, is home to, or simply is a spirit or deity. Several traditional religions accept the existence of a supreme being or creator, alongside spirits and deities.

Most African religions centre on ancestor veneration, the idea that the dead remain influential after passing from the physical into the spiritual world. Ancestors must therefore be honoured in order to ensure that they intervene positively with other spiritual beings on behalf of their relatives on earth.

The practice of traditional medicine is closely intertwined with traditional religion. Practitioners (often derogatorily referred to as 'witch doctors' by foreigners) use divining implements such as bones, prayers, chanting and dance to facilitate communication with the spirit world. Patients are cured with the use of herbal preparations or by exorcist-style interventions to drive out evil spirits that have inhabited the body. Not all magical practitioners are benign – some are suspected of being paid to place curses on people, causing bad luck, sickness or even death.

Although traditional religious practices can be a force for social good within a community, and herbalists are often very skilled in their craft, there's a flip side: some religious practitioners discourage their patients from seeking conventional medical help at hospitals or clinics, and someone who considers themselves cursed will very often give up the will to live entirely. In some parts of Southern and East Africa, killings occasionally take place, in which children or adults are abducted and murdered in order to gain body parts for use in magic rituals. Albinos in Tanzania and Burundi have come under particular threat in recent years.

Sport

Sport, especially football, is one of Africa's most popular forms of entertainment and important games featuring national or leading club sides can bring daily life to a grinding halt as everyone crowds around communal TV sets. In South Africa, and to a lesser extent Zimbabwe, rugby and cricket are also popular.

Soccer

Football (soccer) is the most popular of Africa's sports, and you'll never have to go far before you find someone kicking a ball (or a bundle of plastic bags tied together with string) around on a dusty patch of ground.

West African and North African countries are Africa's footballing powerhouses. Ever since Cameroon stormed to the quarter finals of the 1990 World Cup finals in Italy, West Africa has been touted as an emerging world power in the sport. Cameroon built on its success by winning the football gold medal at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. But apart from Senegal reaching the World Cup quarter finals in 2002, and Ghana's team winning the 2009 U-20 World Cup in Cairo, further success has proved elusive.

At the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, the host team was knocked out in the first round; of the other five African nations in the tournament only Ghana made it into the quarter finals.

The African Cup of Nations also stirs great passions across the continent. Almost two years of qualifying rounds culminate in the 16 best teams playing for the crown of African champions. North African sides (Tunisia in 2004, and Egypt in 2006, 2008 and 2010) have dominated the event in recent years, but in 2012 Zambia took the trophy. In January 2013 the tournament switched to being held every odd-numbered year so as not to clash with the World Cup.

West African nations have again dominated in recent years with winners being Nigeria (2013), Côte d'Ivoire (2015) and Cameroon (2017).

But the success or otherwise of national teams is only part of the story. West African footballers in particular have enjoyed phenomenal success in European leagues, in the process becoming the focal point for the aspirations of a generation of West African youngsters dreaming of becoming the next Yaya Touré or Didier Drogba.

And it's not just the kids: every weekend from September to May, Africans crowd around communal TV sets to follow the fortunes of teams in Spain, Italy, the UK and France, especially those games involving African players. There is a sense that the success of Africans in Europe is something in which they can all share with pride, and that reflects well on the continent as a whole.

Other Sports

Other popular sports in Africa include marathon running (at which Kenya and Ethiopia dominate the world) and boxing. Basketball is becoming increasingly popular with the arrival of American TV channels. In South Africa rugby is massively popular and has benefited from development programs across the colour divide. South African fans adore their beloved 'Boks', ranked a rather disappointing sixth in the world as of early 2017. Cricket is also widely played, particularly in Southern Africa and Zimbabwe.

Women in Africa

Women form the bedrock of African society, especially in rural areas where they bear the burden of child-rearing and most agricultural work. Their task is made more difficult by the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the absence of men who move to the cities as migrant industrial workers.

In some countries sexual equality is enshrined in law. African women made history in 2005 when a legal protocol came into force that specifically protects women's human rights in the 17 countries that ratified it. These countries have pledged to amend their laws to uphold a raft of women's rights, including the right to property after divorce, the right to abortions after rape or abuse, and the right to equal pay in the workplace, among many others.

The reality is, however, somewhat different, and in many places women are treated as second-class citizens. Families sometimes deny girls schooling, although education is valued highly by most Africans. More serious still are reports of female infanticide, forced marriages, female genital mutilation and honour killings.

Female Genital Mutilation in West Africa

Female genital mutilation (FGM), often euphemistically termed 'female circumcision' or 'genital alteration' but more accurately called female genital cutting (FGC), is widespread throughout West Africa. The term covers a wide range of procedures, but in West Africa, where the practice is widespread, the procedure usually involves removal of the entire clitoris (called infibulation).

Although outsiders often believe that FGM is associated with Islam, it actually pre-dates the religion (historical records of infibulation date back 6000 years) and has far more to do with longstanding cultural traditions than religious doctrine; in predominantly Muslim northern Mali, FGM prevalence rates are less than 10%. The procedure is usually performed by midwives on girls and young women. They sometimes use modern surgical instruments, but more often it's done with a razor blade or even a piece of glass. If the procedure is done in a traditional setting the girl will not be anaesthetised, although nowadays many families take their daughters to clinics to have the procedure performed by a trained doctor. Complications, especially in the traditional setting, include infection of the wound, leading to death, or scarring, which makes childbirth and urination difficult.

In West Africa, FGM is seen among traditionalists as important for maintaining traditional society. An unaltered woman would dishonour her family and lower its position in society, as well as ruining her own chances for marriage – a circumcised woman is thought to be a moral woman, and more likely a virgin. Many believe that if left, the clitoris can make a woman infertile, or damage and even kill her unborn children.

Some West African countries have enacted laws outlawing FGM, but poor enforcement means that, even where FGM is illegal, the practice continues as before. FGM is illegal in Guinea, for example, and punishable in some cases by life imprisonment with hard labour, yet an estimated 96% of women still undergo the procedure according to the World Health Organization. Laws against FGM are also on the books in Burkina Faso, which nonetheless has a 76% prevalence rate, in Côte d'Ivoire (38%) and in Senegal (26%). The practice is also extremely common in Mali (89%), Sierra Leone (88%), The Gambia (76%), Mauritania (69%), Liberia (66%), Guinea-Bissau (50%) and Nigeria (27%), none of which have laws outlawing FGM. FGM is a particularly common practice among the Fulani.

Beyond West Africa, Somalia (98%), Djibouti (93%), Egypt (91%), Eritrea (89%) and Ethiopia (74%) have particularly high rates of FGC, but progress is being made elsewhere – in Kenya, for example, rates of FGC fell from 41% in 1984 to just 11% in 2015.

NGO Tostan (www.tostan.org) operates throughout West Africa at the village level with a number of long-term projects promoting ending the practice as well as providing maternal health, education and other services.

Sidebar: Socio-Economic Data

For an exhaustive list of UN socio-economic data (ranging from literacy and life expectancy to income and infant mortality) for African countries, visit the website of the UN Development Programme (www.hdr.undp.org/en/countries).

Sidebar: Least Urbanised Countries

Africa's least urbanised countries are Burundi (12%), Uganda (16.1%) and Niger (17.8%), while Gabon (87.2%), Djibouti (77.1%) and Algeria (73%) are way above the African average when it comes to city dwellers.

Sidebar: FGM Resources

The Female Genital Cutting Education and Networking Project (www.fgmnetwork.org/index.php) is an excellent resource on female genital mutilation (FMG), including statistics for many West African countries. Check also the World Health Organization (www.who.int/reproductivehealth/topics/fgm/en/).

Sidebar: Mali Midwife

Monique and the Mango Rains: Two Years with a Midwife in Mali (2007), by Kris Holloway, gives a human face to statistics about difficulties faced by women in traditional, rural West Africa. It's a great but sobering read.

Sidebar: Newspaper Links

For links to a range of websites and local newspapers for most countries in Africa, as well as a handful of pan-African sites, head to World Newspapers (www.world-newspapers.com/africa).

Sidebar: BBC World Service

To find out how to listen to the BBC World Service in Africa, visit www.bbc.co.uk/worldserviceradio.

Sidebar: Female Literacy

Niger has the lowest female adult literacy rate (11%) in Africa, followed by Guinea (18.1%), Benin (27.3%) and Mali (29.2%). At the other end of the scale are South Africa (93.1%), Equatorial Guinea (93%), Botswana (88.9%), Lesotho (88.3%), Namibia (84.5%) and Gabon (81%).

Sidebar: Gogo Mama

Gogo Mama: A Journey into the Lives of Twelve African Women (2007), by Sally Sara, includes illuminating chapters on a Liberian former child soldier, a Zanzibari diva, and a HIV/AIDS-fighting grandmother in South Africa.

Sidebar: Moolade

Moolaadé, the powerful 2004 film by Senegalese director Ousmane Sembène, is one of the few mass-release artistic endeavours to tackle head-on the taboo issue of female genital mutilation.

Sidebar: African Cup of Nations: All-Time Winners

With Cameroon's victory in the 2017 African Cup of Nations, the West African country moved into second place on the all-time table, with five victories, behind Egypt (seven) and ahead of Ghana (four).

Sidebar: The Palm-Wine Drunkard

In a 1952 review in London's Observer newspaper, Dylan Thomas described Amos Tutuola's The Palm-Wine Drunkard as 'brief, thronged, grisly and bewitching' and a 'nightmare of indescribable adventures'.

Sidebar: Safari Chef Secrets

Ever wondered how to make a pizza oven out of a termite mound? Or prepare bacon and eggs on a shovel? Check out The African Kitchen (2004), by Josie Stow and Jan Baldwin, a sumptuous cookbook that reveals the secrets of a safari chef.

Sidebar: Tastes of a Continent

The Africa Cookbook: Tastes of a Continent (1998) by food historian Jessica Harris is a perfect companion for those interested in creating traditional African dishes in a non-African kitchen.

Sidebar: Cookbook Classics

  • The Africa Cookbook: Tastes of a Continent (Jessica Harris; 1998)
  • A Flavour of West Africa (Ali Brownlie Bojang; 1998)

Sidebar: A Food Memoir

First Catch Your Eland: A Taste of Africa (1977), by Laurens van der Post, is a fascinating, if dated, collection of memoirs and observations about food in Africa. Well worth trawling the secondhand bookshops for.

Sidebar: Rugby & Reconciliation

Invictus (2009), starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon and directed by Clint Eastwood, dramatises how Nelson Mandela used white-dominated rugby to unite the country after the end of apartheid and win the World Cup.

Sidebar: 'Nollywood'

Nigeria's 'Nollywood' film industry is the second most prolific in the world (after India), pumping out up to 200 movies for the home market every month. Nigerian director Chico Ejiro (widely known as 'Mr Prolific') is famous for having directed more than 80 films in just five years.

Sidebar: News Resources

  • AllAfrica (www.allafrica.com)
  • Reuters Africa (www.reuters.com/places/africa)
  • Afrol News (www.afrol.com)
  • BBC (www.bbc.com/news/world/africa)
  • IRINNews (www.irinnews.org/africa)
  • West Africa News (www.westafricanews.com)
  • Media Foundation for West Africa (www.mfwa.org)

Sidebar: Algeria & the Oscars

Algeria far outstrips any other African country for Oscar nominations in the category of Best Foreign-Language Film, with five nominations, including Z, which won the award in 1969.