The West African manatee is the least studied large mammal in Africa and faces serious threats from hunting, dams, and other human impacts throughout its range. Conservation of the species is greatly hindered by the lack of basic knowledge about their distribution and habitat needs. They are often referred to as the "forgotten" sirenian. The range of the species (21 countries on the African Atlantic coast from Mauritania to Angola, and the interior countries of Mali, Niger and Chad) is larger than the width of the United States, yet there have been only a handful of previous studies in a few countries, many of which were short term surveys with no follow up or local capacity building.
The species is highly susceptible to incidental capture in fishing nets and is hunted almost everywhere it occurs, despite existing protection laws in all range countries. There are no accurate estimates of population abundance, and the impact of hunting and habitat destruction are poorly documented, but the trade in manatee bushmeat is well known in Africa. The species is believed to be in decline throughout much of its range, but without baseline information, it is impossible to know how to conserve these manatees, and conservation is also unlikely without capacity building.
In the past, studies of this species have been severely limited for a variety of reasons including a lack of long-term, committed researchers and funding, as well as the difficulty of accessing the extremely remote regions where West African manatees live, the species’ elusiveness and murky water habitat throughout their range have severely limited studies.
Given these challenges, the African manatee is only likely to be conserved through a network of grassroots, localized efforts by African researchers dedicated to long-term conservation and education efforts in their countries.