Northern Africa falls within the arid belt extending from the Atlantic to central Asia. Aridity and the geographical location of its six countries determine its biodiversity. The occurrence of long shores with vast coastlines, oases in the Sahara and the different landforms create considerable habitat and species diversity.

Figure 4: Protected areas (IUCN Categories 1-VI): Northern Africa The sub-region is vulnerable to desertification and drought. However, due to particular climatic conditions, it is rich in biodiversity, with many species being endemic. The total number of known endemic species of flora is 1 129, of mammals 22, of birds 1, of reptiles 20, and of amphibians 4. At the country level, the highest numbers of endemic biota are mostly found in Morocco, with recorded higher plant species ranging from 1 875 in Libya to 3 675 species in Morocco. Mammals range from 76 species in Libya to 267 species in Sudan. The number of bird species varies from 80 in Libya to 938 in Sudan. Reptiles and amphibians are still underinvestigated in most of the countries, but the numbers of known reptile and amphibian species in Egypt are 83 and 6, respectively.

The major part of the biodiversity of Northern Africa is drawn from the pool of species broadly represented in the Mediterranean basin. There are locations of endemism in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia accounting for about a fifth of the plant species in the sub-region (Table 3). Since Northern Africa has been the location of successive civilizations over a period of up to eight millennia, the landscape and its biodiversity are highly transformed in the areas of human settlement.

Hundreds of plant species are used in traditional medicine and represent a wealth of genetic resources rarely found elsewhere (IUCN undated – b). Pharmacopoeial plants include Hyoscyamus muticus, Urginea maritima, Colchicum autumnale, Senna alexandrina, Plantago afra, Juniperus communis, Anacyclus pyrethrum, and Citrullus colocynthis. Endemic plants, some of which are endangered, include Argania spinosa, Arbutus pavari, Cedrus atlantica, Euphorbia echinus, Euphorbia resinifera, Senecio antieuphorbium, Thymus algeriensis, and Thymus broussonettii (Batanouny 1999). To date, they have not been studied in detail or valued. About 70 per cent of wild plants are known to be useful in more than one context, of which 35 per cent are under-utilized.

Table 3: The biodiversity features of Northern Africa
  Biodiversity opportunity Threat Response
  Area Mammals Birds Plants % of land % of land
Country km² Endemic Total Endemic Total Endemic Total transformed protected

Algeria 2 381 740 2 92 1 192 250 3 164 1 5

Egypt 1 001 450 7 98 0 153 70 2 076 4 5

Libya 1 759 540 5 76 0 91 134 1 825 0 0

Morocco 446 550 4 105 0 210 625 3 675 20 1

Sudan 2 505 810 11 267 1 680 50 3 137 17 4

Tunisia 163 610 1 78 0 173   2 196 9 0

All countries 8 258 700 30   2   1 129   7 3

Source: Methodology and sources as for Table 1


The major underlying threats to biodiversity include population growth, agricultural and urban expansion to ecologically important areas, poverty, unsustainable use of biota, and macro-scale stresses such as drought. Emerging factors threatening biodiversity include IAS and the use of GM species, which may result in an increasing homogenization of the biota (Hegazy and others 1999). Chapter 9: Genetically Modified Crops and Chapter 10: Invasive Alien Species consider some of these challenges. The depletion of underground water level in many countries has led to the deterioration and loss of unique water springs and wetlands with their associated biota.

Figure 5: Protected areas (IUCN Categories I-IV): percentage of total area in Northern Africa Human settlement patterns and activities are located close to available water resources and compete with biodiversity. In such a dry landscape, perennial rivers, oases and ephemeral moist areas, such as wadis, are inevitably the focus of people and biodiversity. Northern Africa straddles the migratory bird flyways between Europe and SSA and is an important stopping-off point for an estimated billion migratory raptors, passerines and Palaearctic waterbirds.

The Nile is a key biodiversity corridor across the arid Sahara and Sahel belt, but is highly impacted by human actions in its lower reaches. The functioning of this system (specifically the periodic flooding and discharge to the sea, which brought large amounts of sediment and nutrients to the river banks and delta) was substantially altered by completion of the Aswan Dam in 1934 and the subsequent construction of the Aswan High Dam in 1965. As a result of the intensive water use in Egypt, there is virtually no discharge into the Mediterranean Sea, and only small pockets of relatively undisturbed coastal marshland remain in the delta. New irrigation schemes may further diminish water supplies in the lower Nile system and impose additional threats to the biodiversity. Similarly other development projects, including those related to hydropower, will increase demands on the existing water resources and this, in turn, will exert additional pressures on the basin’s ecosystems and biodiversity.

In the coming decade, the abuse of agrochemicals and uncontrolled fishing and hunting are expected to put more pressure on the fragile ecosystems and the threatened endemic species, particularly in hotspots. Protection of critical sites is imperative. The growing need for transborder conservation is also an emerging issue in some areas, such as the borders between Egypt and Sudan, and between Morocco and Algeria.


There are ongoing schemes to establish protected areas and biosphere reserves throughout the sub-region. The total area of official protected areas remains less than 5 per cent of the land area, which is below the CBD standard of 10 per cent. Nevertheless, some countries aim to increase their protected areas to more than 15 per cent within the next three decades. Currently, Northern Africa has over 90 protected areas and 12 biosphere reserves. Many other sites are proposed for protection (Hegazy and others 2001).