With its largely arid climate and recent history of civil conflict, Somaliland may not seem the most promising destination for wildlife enthusiasts. But while it is true it lacks the densely grazed savanna reserves characteristic of East Africa or the lush forests that swathe the Congo Basin, and that many large mammal species have been hunted close to extinction over the past century or so, Somaliland still supports a surprising amount of medium-sized mammals and other wildlife. It is also a highly rated destination for birders, thanks to the presence of several Somali endemics (that is, species found nowhere else in the world), and several near-endemics and other birds with limited distribution. Many of its more interesting mammals can be seen quite easily while driving through the scrubby badlands that separate its main urban settlements, but there are also a handful of more specialized wildlife destinations, the most alluring being the remote and scenic Daallo Forest Reserve on the escarpment between Erigavo and Maydh.
LAY OF THE LAND
Somaliland lies on the so-called Horn of Africa, the most easterly part of the continent, comprising Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti as well as the rest of Somalia. It is, with the notable exception of the moist Ethiopian Highlands, a predominantly low-lying and dry region, bounded by the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden to the northeast, and the more open waters of the Indian Ocean to the southeast.
Geologically, the region is characterized mostly by relatively modern sedimentary rocks, dating from the Pleistocene to Oligocene eras (ie: the past 30 million years), but older Eocene limestone formations and quartzite basement outcrops are exposed along the main east-to-west escarpment running inland of the coast, while the Djibouti border area comprises volcanic rocks associated with the formation of the Rift Valley.
The Horn of Africa lies at the juncture of three tectonic plates. The Arabian Plate, which essentially comprises the Arabian Peninsula, is separated from mainland Africa by the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, geologically recent creations that effectively form a northern extension of the Great Rift Valley.
The Nubian Plate, which includes about 90% of the African mainland and lies to the north and west of the Rift Valley, which runs through central Ethiopia via the sweltering Afar Depression, to the coastline between Djibouti and Berbera. The bulk of Somaliland, however, is part of the Somali Plate, which comprises Africa south and east of the Rift Valley, an area that includes Hargeisa, the eastern Ethiopian Highlands around Harar, and the coastal belt of present-day Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique.
The gradual rifting of these three plates has been going on for around 20 million years, so the area is quite geologically stable in the short to medium term, but eventually – many millions of years from now – the Rift Valley as we know it will flood with seawater and those parts of present-day Somaliland that aren’t submerged in the process will become part of a small new continent, reminiscent perhaps of Madagascar today.
Simplistically, Somaliland can be divided into three topographic regions: the narrow and low-lying coastal belt, the vast medium-altitude plateaux that run towards the Ethiopian border, and the high escarpment that divides them. The hottest part of the country, with temperatures regularly topping 40°C in summer, is the coastal belt, or Guban (literally ‘scorched’) which lies at altitudes of 300m or below, and is widest in the west, near the Djibouti border, graduating towards the east to be less than 10km wide near the unofficial border with Puntland. Generally it is sparsely vegetated, characterized in the east by loose sandy soils which form dunes up to 50m tall in some areas, and elsewhere by a patchy cover of low scrubland and grass that sometimes form meadows suitable for grazing in the rainy season.
Sometimes referred to as the Golis Range, the mountainous escarpment that runs the entire length of the country from west to east incorporates the 2,450m Mount Shimbiris, the highest peak in all of Somalia, as well as several other peaks that rise above the 2,000m contour. Receiving a relatively high rainfall supplemented in areas by water-bearing sea mists, the escarpment supports a reasonably lush flora, including patches of juniper forest and striking succulents such as the candelabra and dragon’s blood tree, as well as Boswellia frereana, whose resin is cultivated for export as frankincense. The escarpment incorporates three of Somaliland’s best- known wildlife destinations, namely Daallo Forest, Ga’an Libah and Mount Wagar, but its dramatic contours are most accessible to visitors on the spectacular pass that divides Berbera from Sheikh.
Inland of the escarpment, the inclined Ogo Plateau comprises several vast plains that broadly decrease in altitude as they extend deeper into the interior. The likes of Sheikh, Hargeisa and Borama are set at above 1,000m, while the southeast border drops to below 300m before extending into the Somali-occupied part of Ethiopia, an immense arid plain known as the Haud. The climate also becomes drier further from the escarpment, where flat open plains support a sparse cover of acacia scrubs or seasonal grasslands. Vegetation and wildlife here depend greatly on soil types, which tend to be gypseous (dominated by a soft crystalline form of calcium sulphate dihydrate) in the Nogal Valley south and east of Burao, but more clayish on the plains southwest of Hargeisa. No permanent rivers traverse this plateau: there are a few seasonal watercourses (known locally as a wadi), among them the Togdheer (through Burao) and Wajaale (on the Ethiopian border west of Hargeisa), but a more important source of perennial water is the many scattered natural wells formed by limestone sinkholes, the presence of which is often indicated by a line of tall Acacia tortilis (umbrella thorn) trees.
Somaliland supports a relatively limited selection of large mammals, certainly when compared to the likes of Ethiopia or Kenya, and many safari icons – most notably perhaps elephant and rhino – became extinct during the course of the 20th century. Nevertheless, the national checklist includes several relatively localized species, many of which are seen quite easily on the open plains. What follows here is a country-specific supplement to any of the continental field guides recommended, containing an overview of those mammals that are reasonably likely to be seen in Somaliland, with details of their local status and brief descriptions for identification purposes.
PREDATORS The largest predator most likely to be seen in Somaliland is the blotch-coated stoop-backed spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta), which frequently scavenges on the outskirts of towns and is also sometimes encountered on the plains. From Ovid’s Metamorphoses to Disney’s The Lion King, popular culture has tended to portray this supposedly craven creature – which the ancients believed could change sex at will, a myth that stemmed from the false scrotum and penis covering the female’s vagina – in an unfavorable light. In reality it is a fascinating animal which lives in loosely structured matriarchal clans of five to 25 animals who go through an elaborate dog-like greeting ritual whenever they meet. Also present but less common are the handsome striped hyena (Hyaena hyaena), whose coat is marked with dark vertical streaks and topped by a dark mane; and the insectivorous aardwolf (Proteles cristatus), which is closer in size to a jackal than to other hyenas.
Africa’s three large feline species – lion, leopard and cheetah – were all quite common in Somaliland in the 19th century. Indeed, the area was once famed by hunters for its lion, the male of which, like its Ethiopian counterparts, sported an impressive black mane. Today, the lion (Panthera leo) and cheetah (Acynonix jubatus) are both very scarce in Somaliland, possibly even extinct. The leopard (Panthera pardus) remains quite numerous but very secretive, though spoor are sometimes seen in Daallo Forest and other well-wooded areas along the escarpment, where its favoured habitats of forest and rocky areas are well represented. Of the smaller cats, the most common is probably the spotted and streamlined serval (Felis serval), which might be seen on any rocky habitat or in open grassland. The lynx-like caracal (Felis caracal) and tabby-like African wild cat (Felis silvestris), the latter the wild progenitor of the domestic cat, are also present but very thinly distributed.
Far more common is the golden jackal (Canis aureus), a small and cryptically coloured wild dog often seen trotting singly or in pairs at dusk or dawn on the open plains of Somaliland. The less common black-backed jackal (C. mesomelas) is similar looking but with a prominent black saddle flecked by a varying amount of white or gold. The eerie call of the jackal is a characteristic sound of the African night. Less common still is the bat-eared fox (Otocyon megalotis), an insectivorous long-eared dog with a uniform silver-grey coat, huge ears and black eye-mask.
The uncommon Ruppell’s fox (Vulpes Ruepelli), a bushy-tailed red and grey close relative of its European namesake, is confined to the coastal plain north of Berbera. The most conspicuous small predators are the mongooses of the family Herpestidae, small and for the most part diurnal carnivores, characterized by a slender build, narrow muzzle, long tail, small eyes and ears, non-retractable claws used for digging, and uniformly coloured, grizzled coats. Of six species recorded, the most likely to be seen is the banded mongoose (Mungos mungo), a sociable, dark-brown creature, often found in groups of ten to 20, with 12 or so faint black stripes running across its back. The rarer white-tailed mongoose (Ichneumia albicauda), the largest species in the region, is a solitary nocturnal hunter whose slightly bushy white tail is diagnostic, though dark-tailed individuals do exist.
PRIMATES Primates are poorly represented in Somaliland, with even the vervet monkey, near-ubiquitous elsewhere in Africa, and the Sahel-associated patas monkey, being totally absent as far as we can ascertain. Possibly this is why the Hamadryas baboon (Papio hamadryas), Somaliland’s only diurnal primate, is also the country’s most common – or at least most visible – medium-to-large mammal species. Endemic to the Horn of Africa east of the Rift Valley, this ultra-sociable creature is also known as the sacred baboon – it played an important role in the religion of ancient Egyptians – and it is most notable visually for the grizzled grey coat and striking mane of the male, which is often twice as bulky as that of an adult female. Visitors to Somaliland are bound to see large troops of these agile terrestrial monkeys strolling or running along the plains, and their far-carrying bark is often heard in the hills and mountains of the escarpment area. The only other primate present in Somaliland is the bug-eyed Somali bushbaby (Galago gallarum), a vocal but seldom-seen nocturnal species that resembles a lemur more than a monkey.
ANTELOPE Several antelope species are present, some associated with the open plains and others with more wooded habitats, although many have become locally extinct since the 19th century, among them Swayne’s hartebeest (now effectively endemic to Ethiopia) and the handsome rapier-horned Beisa oryx. Several of the surviving species belong to the gazelle family, a group of rather similar-looking- small-to-medium grazers associated with grasslands and other open habitats. Most gazelles have smallish horns, and a light chestnut-brown back with white underparts separated by a dark side stripe. Of all the antelope present here, however, the one of greatest interest to wildlife enthusiasts is the near-endemic Beira, a unique inhabitant of rocky slopes whose range is almost entirely confined to Somaliland.
The most conspicuous species is Speke’s gazelle (Gazella spekei), which is regarded to be endemic to Somalia, although one record does exist for the Ogaden Plains in Ethiopia. The smallest of the gazelles is IUCN listed as ‘Endangered’, but is nevertheless quite common on the open plains between Burao and Erigavo, where small herds might be sighted several times daily. A remarkable, and indeed unique, feature of Speke’s gazelle is the bridge of its nose. Its scrumpled-up appearance is down to a series of up to five folds of skin, which it inflates to become a large amplifying sac when it emits its loud honking alarm call.
Soemmerring’s gazelle (Gazella soemmeringi), is a relatively large and long- legged species with no side stripe and a distinctive black face with white cheek stripes and relatively small, backward-facing horns. Also present is the much paler and smaller Somali race of Dorcas gazelle (Gazella dorcas pelzelni), a Saharan species whose range extends to the Horn of Africa. Both are largely confined to the western coastal belt.
An atypical and unmistakable relative of the gazelles, the Gerenuk (Litocranius walleri) is a relatively large red-brown antelope, with a unique habit of feeding from acacia trees standing on its hind legs at full stretch, aided by its extraordinarily long neck. So striking is this neck that it is referred to not only in the name gerenuk, which derives from a Somali phrase meaning ‘suckled from the giraffe’ but also in the Swahili swala twiga, meaning ‘gazelle giraffe’. The gerenuk is the most commonly seen medium-to-large antelope in the bush country around Hargeisa and is likely to be seen en route to Las Geel, Berbera or Borama.
Quite similar in appearance, the dibatag or Clarke’s gazelle (Ammodorcas clarkei), IUCN listed as ‘Vulnerable’, is a localized antelope whose range has always been confined to a specific type of vegetation in Somalia and the Ogaden region of southeast Ethiopia. Its main range lies outside Somaliland but it is thinly distributed in the red sands east of Burao. The combination of a white eye-ring extending down the nose, elongated neck, and long black tail raised in flight (the name dibatag is Somali for ‘erect tail’) should be diagnostic.
The Tragelaphus antelopes, distinguished by their spiralled horns and striking markings, are represented in Somaliland by the greater kudu (T. strepsiceros) and lesser kudu (T. imberbis). Arguably the most magnificent of African antelope, the greater kudu is second in stature only to the extralimital eland, standing up to 1.55m high at the shoulder, weighing up to 320kg, with a grey-brown coat and up to ten vertical white stripes on each side, but notable most of all for the statuesque male’s double-spiralled horns, which can grow to be 1.4m long. The lesser kudu is not only smaller (shoulder height: 1m) but also has two white throat patches, a greater number of vertical stripes (at least 11), and less impressive horns. Both were once very widespread in Somaliland, occurring in any lightly wooded territory, but these days they are more or less confined to forests such as Wagar, Daallo and Ga’an Libah in the escarpment region.
Dik-diks are small, brown antelopes with tan legs and distinctive extended snouts. All dik-dik species are browsers that live independently of water and they are generally seen singly or in pairs in dry acacia scrub. Four species are recognized, two of which are found in Somaliland (with a third being present across the border in southern Somalia). Salt’s dik-dik (Madoqua saltiana), a Horn of Africa endemic that is widespread in Somaliland, is frequently seen on the roadside around Hargeisa, often under the shade of a shrub. The less common and slightly larger Guenther’s dik-dik (Madoqua guentheri) is mostly sighted east of Burao. Though very similar, with a grizzled grey upper coat, the two can be distinguished by the colour of their bellies: fawn in the case of Salt’s dik-dik and white in the case of Guenther’s.
The klipspringer (Oreotragus oreotragus) is a quirky small-to-medium antelope associated with rocky slopes and mountains, such as the Somaliland escarpment. Adaptations to this habitat include the unique capacity to walk on its hoof tips, coarse but hollow fur providing good insulation at high altitude, and binocular vision (more normally associated with carnivores) to better gauge jumping distances. Usually seen in pairs, which bond for life, it has a uniform grizzled grey-brown coat, short forward-curving horns and an arched back. Certain anatomical features suggest it represents an ancient lineage that evolved from the earliest African antelope stock in the Ethiopian Highlands some ten to 15 million years ago.
OTHER MAMMALS Several of the iconic large mammal species associated with other parts of east Africa, among them giraffe, Burchell’s zebra and hippopotamus, have never occurred in Somaliland, mainly due to the limited supply of perennial water. Other species that were formerly resident, or regular seasonal visitors, are now extinct within Somaliland, or can be presumed to be so. This sorry list includes elephant, buffalo, black rhinoceros, Grevy’s zebra and several varieties of large antelope.
The only species of swine found in Somaliland, the desert warthog (Phacochoerus aethiopicus) is a Horn of Africa endemic whose main range spans the northwest of Somalia/Somaliland and the dry plains of far eastern Ethiopia. To the casual visitor, this localized dry-country resident is probably all but indistinguishable from the more widespread common warthog associated with most other parts of sub-Saharan Africa. However, significant differences in dentition make it far more effective at masticating every last drop of nutrition from its food, and it has a shorter skull and more rounded forehead. Small family parties are frequently seen throughout most accessible parts of Somaliland, feeding by the road, or trotting off in a row with their tails held stiffly erect. A contender for the oddest of all African mammals, the aardvark (Orycteropus afer), is the only living species of the ancient order Tubulidentata. An exclusive insectivore that bears a superficial resemblance to the South American anteaters, the aardvark, as its Dutch-derived name (literally ‘earth pig’) indicates, also bears some similarity to the domestic pig in shape, size (up to 80kg) and its naked pinkish skin. It has a heavy almost kangaroo-like tail, long upright ears, and muscular long- nailed feet with which it burrows into termite mounds, snaffling up as many as 50,000 termites in one night by protruding and retracting its long sticky tongue into its elongated snout. The aardvark is a widespread inhabitant of arid savanna habitats, and can be quite common in areas with plentiful termite hills, but it is also very shy and forages late in the night, so sightings are rare.
Among the small mammals most likely to be seen in Somaliland are the Ethiopian rock hyrax (Procavia capensis habessinica) and yellow-spotted bush hyrax (Heterohyrax brucei). These superficially rodent-like creatures somewhat resemble an overgrown guinea pig, but are in fact dwarfish relicts of a near-ungulate order that dominated the African herbivore niche about 35 million years ago, when some species were as large as horses. A bizarre truism, much beloved of safari guides, is that the hyraxes’ closest living relatives are elephants – a factoid that loses some of its ‘golly gosh’ value when you realize that the elephant/hyrax split dates back 40–50 million years. Common in rocky habitats (look out for them around Las Geel), it’s difficult to tell the two species apart, though the yellow-spotted hyrax is significantly smaller than any rock hyrax and it has distinctive white eyebrows.
More than half the mammal species recorded in Somaliland are bats or rodents, most of which are rather nondescript and of little interest to non-specialist safari-goers. One regularly seen exception is the unstriped ground squirrel (Xerus rutilus), an endearing terrestrial dry country creature with a grey-brown coat, a prominent white eye-ring, a silvery black tail, and a habit of standing on its hind legs holding food in its forepaws. Another is the springhare (Pedetes capensis), a quirky nocturnal dry-country specialist that bounces along the plains like a miniature kangaroo. Finally, Speke’s Pectinator (Pectinator spekei) is a peculiar endemic of the Horn of Africa that looks like an overgrown mouse with a rather squirrel-like tail that it flicks incessantly. It lives in vocal family groups in dry rocky habitats, and might well be seen at Las Geel or anywhere along the escarpment.
REPTILES AND AMPHIBIANS
The predominantly hot and arid climate of Somaliland is arguably better suited to reptiles – cold-blooded creatures dependent on external heat sources to maintain their body temperature – than to perhaps any other vertebrate class. No figures are available for Somaliland specifically, but around 225 species have been recorded in Somalia as a whole, about 15% of which are endemic to the country. As might be expected, however, the country supports a rather low diversity of frogs and other amphibians, since the life cycle of most amphibian species is dependent on standing water. The total number of amphibian species recorded in Somalia stands at a mere 30, including three endemics, but it seems reasonable to assume that several of these are restricted to the two major perennial river systems that run through southern Somalia, and would be absent from Somaliland.
SNAKES A wide variety of snakes is found in Somaliland, although – fortunately, most would agree – they are typically very shy and unlikely to be seen unless actively sought. The largest snake present is the African rock python (Python sebae), which regularly grows to longer than 5m (longer than any other African reptile bar the extralimital Nile crocodile) and usually has gold-on-black mottled scaling. It is a non-venomous snake which strangles its prey, wrapping its muscular body around the victim until it cannot breathe, then swallowing it whole and dozing off for a couple of months while it digests. It feeds mainly on small antelope, large rodents, and the like, and is harmless to adult humans, but could conceivably kill a small child.
Most smaller snakes are non-venomous and harmless to any other living creature much larger than a rat. Several cobra species are present, however, and most have characteristic hoods that they raise when about to strike, although they are very seldom seen. Of the venomous snakes, the Somali puff adder (Bitis arietans somalica) is often considered to be the most dangerous, not because it is especially venomous or aggressive, but because it readily strikes when threatened and its notoriously sluggish disposition means it is more likely to be disturbed than other snakes. Growing to about 1m long, the puff adder is a thickset and beautifully marked rodent-eater commonly associated with dry, rocky habitats, and the best way to avoid it is to look carefully where you place your feet (and, when scrambling, your hands) in such places.
LIZARDS All African lizards are harmless to humans, with the arguable exception of the giant monitors, which could in theory inflict a nasty bite if cornered. As far as we can ascertain, the Nile monitor, Africa’s longest lizard, is absent from Somaliland, but the heavier rock monitor (Varanus albigularis), which grows up to 2m long, is present. It is occasionally seen in the vicinity of termite mounds, and will feed on anything from bird eggs to smaller reptiles and mammals, but will also eat carrion opportunistically.
Visitors to tropical Africa will soon become familiar with the house geckos, endearing bug-eyed, translucent white lizards that often inhabit houses and hotel rooms, where they make themselves useful by scampering up the walls and upside-down on the ceiling in pursuit of pesky insects attracted to the lights. Also very distinctive are the agamas, which can be distinguished from other common lizards by their relatively large size, habit of basking on rocks (you may well see them at Las Geel), and almost plastic-looking scaling – depending on the species, a combination of blue, purple, orange or red, with the flattened head generally a different colour from the torso. A species to look out for in Somaliland is the shield- tailed Agama (Xenagama taylori), a remarkable ground-dwelling lizard that can survive at temperatures of up to 50ºC.
TORTOISES, TERRAPINS AND TURTLES These peculiar reptiles are unique in being protected by a prototypal suit of armour formed by their heavy exoskeleton. Most common is the leopard tortoise (Stigmochelys pardalis), named after its gold-and- black mottled shell, and known to live for more than 50 years in captivity. The form present in Somaliland is the giant leopard tortoise (often designated as the race S. p. somalica), which can weigh over 50kg and is particularly common seasonally along the roads running west from Hargeisa to Borama and Tog Wajaale, where it is regarded as a harbinger of rain. It is uncertain what, if any, species of terrapin – essentially the freshwater turtle equivalent – is resident in this dry country, but several species of endangered marine turtles have been recorded off shore.
Somaliland doesn’t compare to Africa’s finest birding destinations in terms of avian diversity, due largely to its relative aridity and unvaried habitats. Nevertheless, most of the 720 bird species recorded in Somalia occur within Somaliland’s confines, and because it remains relatively poorly known in ornithological terms, new species are frequently recorded by visiting birders. Somaliland is also of great interest for the presence of at least nine of the 12 birds regarded to be endemic to Somalia, along with a large number of near-endemics and other dry-country species with a limited distribution elsewhere. It is also worth noting that half of these Somali endemics would practically be Somaliland endemics were the country’s sovereignty to be recognized.
Visiting birders are pointed to two fine books: the recently published Helm Field Guide to the Birds of the Horn of Africa and the out-of-print (but readily available online) Birds of Somalia. In addition, an annotated overview of some key species follows, with Somali endemics indicated by a single asterisk (*) and Horn of Africa endemics and near-endemics (whose range might extend into Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea, the far east of Sudan and/or northern Kenya) by a double asterisk (**).
** Somali ostrich (Struthio molybdophanes) Distinguished from the more widespread (and extralimital) common ostrich by its blue legs and by being a browser rather than a grazer.
Socotra cormorant (Phalacrocorax nigrogularis) IUCN listed as ‘Vulnerable’, this large, dark cormorant, endemic to the Persian Gulf and Arabian Peninsula, is occasionally seen at Maydh and other sites along the Somaliland coast.
* Archer’s buzzard (Buteo [augur] archeri) The Somali counterpart to the widespread augur buzzard, of which it is sometimes regarded as a sub-species or colour form, is a striking variable black, white and chestnut raptor whose range is confined to escarpment cliffs in Somaliland and Puntland. It is most likely to be seen in the vicinity of Daallo Forest.
Barbary falcon (Falco pelegrinoides) Northern Somaliland is probably the sole stronghold in sub-Saharan Africa for this dashing falcon, which reputedly breeds on the cliff s around Daallo (alongside the quite similar and more common peregrine falcon).
** Archer’s francolin (Scleroptila lorti) Recently ‘split’ from Orange River francolin, this smallish fowl is resident and likely to be seen in the Daallo Forest.
** Heuglin’s bustard (Neotis heuglinii) This large dry-country bustard, the male of which has a distinctive black head and bib, is widespread in Somaliland.
Arabian bustard (Ardeotis arabs) Another localized dry-country bustard, this looks rather like a smaller version of the gigantic kori bustard (which also occurs in Somaliland) but is restricted to the far northwest between Borama and Zeila.
** Buff -crested bustard (Lophotis gindiana) This medium-sized bustard is probably the commonest member of the family in Somaliland, and the only one with an all-black belly.
** Little brown bustard (Eupodotis humilis) This small, pale bustard is common throughout Somaliland.
** Somali courser (Cursorius somaliensis) Rather plover-like in appearance, this pale courser is a common and widespread ground-nester.
Spotted sandgrouse (Pterocles senegallus) Distinguished by its chestnut face, pale feathering and long tail, this Sahelian species reaches the southern extent of its range in northern Somalia.
* Somali rock pigeon (Columba oliviae) This distinctive pigeon, which looks like a large grey dove with a chestnut nape, is very localized on rocky hills and escarpments along the northern coast of Somaliland and Puntland.
Arabian scops owl (Otus pamelae) The only putative African records for this species are from Daallo and Wagar, where it is most likely to be resident if present at all, which remains to be confirmed.
Little owl (Athene noctua) Quite often seen perching openly by day, this very pale Eurasian owl reaches the southern extent of its range in Somalia.
Forbes-Watson’s swift (Apus berliozi) Cliff and cave-dwelling swift whose range is centred on the Somali and Yemeni coasts of the Gulf of Aden.
** Somali bee-eater (Merops revoilii) This small and unusually drab bee-eater is the most common of several species present in Somaliland.
** Black-billed wood-hoopoe (Phoeniculus somaliensis) This striking and noisy bird doesn’t appear to be as common in Somaliland as the smaller but similar Abyssinian scimitar-bill, from which it can be distinguished at all ages by the white bars in the wing and tail.
Lilac-breasted roller (Coracias caudatus lorti) The lilac on the Horn of Africa race of this widespread safari favorite is restricted to the throat, and it is occasionally split as a distinct species (blue-breasted roller).
** Hemprich’s hornbill (Tockus hemprichii) Large, striking, cliff -associated hornbill whose range centres on Ethiopia but extends along the Somaliland escarpment to the likes of Daallo, where it is quite common.
Yellow-breasted barbet (Trachyphonus margaritatus) Restricted to a narrow band along the Sahel, this striking, vocal and often quite confiding bird lacks the red cheeks of the similar red-and-yellow barbet.
* Somali lark (Mirafra somalica) The Horn of Africa is a rich centre of speciation among the larks, a family of mostly quite nondescript ground-dwelling birds, and several species are confined to the region. This Somali endemic, quite common in central Somaliland, is relatively large, very rufous, and has an unusually long bill.
** Collared lark (Mirafra collaris) An unusually distinctive lark with a bold black collar, this localized species reputedly hadn’t been reliably recorded since the late 1980s prior to being observed on a 2010 expedition led by Nik Borrow. Its range is centred on the red sand country southeast of Burao.
* Ash’s lark (Mirafra ashi) One of three Somali endemics whose known range lies entirely outside Somaliland (it is restricted to one area of grassy plains and dunes near Mogadishu).
* Obbia lark (Spizocorys obbiensis) Another Somali endemic that’s unknown from Somaliland.
* Archer’s lark (Heteromirafra archeri) Controversial species restricted to the clay plains around Tog Wajaale on the Ethiopian border near Hargeisa.
** Somali short-toed lark (Calandrella somalica) This small and nondescript lark has a distribution centred on Somaliland, though a discrete population occurs in southern Ethiopia.
** Blanford’s lark (Calandrella blanfordi) Confined to the eastern Horn of Africa and western Arabia, this common sparrow-like bird is the local equivalent of the widespread red-capped lark, and shares with it a distinct reddish cap. The C. b. daaroodensis is more or less endemic to Somaliland.
Greater hoopoe-lark (Alaemon alaudipes) The far northwest of Somaliland is one of the best places to seek out this striking bird, which has a long, slightly curved bill and is patchily distributed through north Africa and Arabia.
* Lesser hoopoe-lark (Alaemon hamertoni) This Somali endemic is quite common all over Somaliland, which forms its core range.
** Chestnut-headed sparrow-lark (Emeropterix signatus) This regional endemic is one of three species of sparrow-lark – chunky and gregarious ground birds with boldly patterned males – recorded in Somaliland, and the only one with a white crown and chestnut on the back of the head.
** Dwarf raven (Corvus edithae) Recent, controversial split from larger C. ruficollis, range more or less confined to Somalia and the eastern half of Ethiopia.
** White-rumped babbler (Turdoides leucopygia) Common and conspicuous resident of wooded areas, noisy and easily distinguished from other babblers by its white rump.
** Somali bulbul (Pycnonotus somaliensis) Recent split from common bulbul, this cheerful garden bird has a very limited range within Djibouti, eastern Ethiopia and western Somaliland, where it is common in and around Hargeisa.
** Dodson’s bulbul (Pycnonotus dodsoni) Another recent split from the common bulbul, this replaces the Somali bulbul in eastern Somaliland.
** Somali wheatear (Oenanthe phillipsi) A striking black, grey and white bird that tends to perch in the open. One of the most consistently conspicuous species in Somaliland.
** Abyssinian black wheatear (Oenanthe lugubris vauriei) The isolated Somali race of this pale-caped black wheatear has a white (as opposed to black) belly and is endemic to the Somaliland escarpment, where it is often seen along the road pass from Daallo to Maydh. Some taxonomists regard it to be a full species.
** Sombre rock chat (Cercomela dubia) Until recently, the only non-Ethiopian record for this nondescript and poorly known rock-dwelling bird came from the Wagar Forest in 1910. Exactly a century later, this old record was confirmed when an immature was photographed by Nik Borrow on the pass between Berbera and Sheikh.
* Somali thrush (Turdus ludoviciae) Recently split from the much paler olive thrush, this Somaliland endemic appears almost all black at a distance (indeed it is sometimes known as the Somali blackbird), but with a bright orange bill and eye-ring. It is common in the Daallo Forest but unlikely to be seen elsewhere.
Clamorous reed warbler (Acrocephalus stentoreus) The mangroves around Zeila form the most southerly African extent of this globally widespread species’ range.
** Ethiopian boubou (Laniarius aethiopicus) Recently split from the widespread tropical boubou, this is a forest-associated black-and-white bird with a pinkish wash to the belly and a very distinctive duet that often alerts one to its presence. Its range in Somaliland is confined to the vicinity of Sheikh and Wagar.
* Somali boubou (Laniarius erlangeri) Another Somali endemic whose range lies entirely outside Somaliland, this is another recent split and similar to the Ethiopian boubou, though an all-black morph is common. The egendary Bulo Burti bush-shrike, described as a new species L. liberatus based on a live specimen captured and released in southern Somalia in 1991, is now assumed to be a yellow-washed morph of Somali boubou.
** Red-naped bush-shrike (Laniarius rufi ceps) This is an odd and rather colourful boubou with a distinctive red cap and frog-like call. The nominate race is endemic to central Somaliland with a limited distribution centred on Mount Wagar, although recent reports suggest it is also common northeast of Burao.
** Rosy-patched bush-shrike (Rhodophoneus cruentus) One of the more characteristic and beautiful birds of bush country in Somaliland, this is also distinguished by its far-carrying whistling duets. The race R. c hilgerti, endemic to Somalia and eastern Ethiopia, has a distinctive black bib lacking in the nominate race.
** Somali starling (Onychognathus blythii) Associated with wooded and rocky ridges in Ethiopia and Somalia, this chestnut-winged starling with a long, tapering tail and (in the case of the female) grey head is common around Erigavo and Daallo.
** Golden-breasted starling (Cosmopsarus regius) This stunning and unmistakeable long-tailed bird is quite common in the bush country around Burao.
** Shining sunbird (Cinnyrus hebessinica) Brilliantly coloured sunbird common along the escarpment of Somaliland.
** Ruppell’s weaver (Ploceus galbula) Restricted to the Horn of Africa and Yemen, this is a common and sociable resident of savanna and light woodland.
** Brown-rumped seedeater (serin) (Serinus tristriatis) Endemic to the Horn of Africa and common in Addis Ababa and other highland towns, where it seems to occupy a house sparrow-like niche.
* Somali golden-winged grosbeak (Rhynchostruthus louisae) Listed as ‘Vulnerable’ by the IUCN with the global population estimated as a few thousand, this unmistakeable seedeater has a black head and bright yellow wings, and is endemic to the escarpment region of Somaliland, where it is most likely to be seen around Daallo.
* Warsangli linnet (Carduelis johannis) IUCN listed as ‘Endangered’, with the global population estimated at below 1,000, this distinctive seedeater is more or less endemic to the escarpment around Daallo Forest, where it can be located most easily in the rainy season.
Although Somaliland supports a rather small volume of large terrestrial animals, the offshore waters of the Gulf of Aden, and its protective fringe of coral reefs and islands, support a prodigious wealth of marine life. These areas remain undeveloped for tourism at the time of writing, but it is hoped that things will change following the recent creation of two new offshore marine parks with a combined area of 80km2, together with the opening of a dive shop in Berbera. A brief overview of some of the marine wildlife associated with the Somali coast can be found below.
MARINE MAMMALS Ten species of cetacean (whales and dolphins) have been recorded along the Somali coast. These remarkable mammals have a similar body temperature to humans, and are as dependent on atmospheric oxygen as any terrestrial creature, yet they lead a totally aquatic existence, often in water so cold it would induce fatal hypothermia in most other mammals. Some species can spend up to an hour below water without surfacing, thanks to their large lungs, capacity to replenish 90% of their air supply in one breath, and the ability to store oxygen in their muscles, while a dense subcutaneous layer of insulating blubber protects them from the cold. Unfortunately, the commercial value of this blubber has also led to their persecution by the lucrative whaling industry, and most larger species of cetacean are now listed as ‘Vulnerable’ or ‘Endangered’ by the IUCN.
Cetaceans are divided into two distinct groups, based on their feeding anatomy. Baleen whales, named for the comb-like baleen plates that sieve plankton and tiny invertebrates from the water as they swim, are probably occasional visitors to Somali waters. However, odontocetic cetaceans – that is, dolphins, porpoises and toothed whales whose dental structure resembles that of terrestrial carnivores – are far better represented. The species most likely to be seen is the bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops aduncus), the world’s most abundant and widespread cetacean, named for the elongated upper and lower jaws that create its characteristic smiling expression. It typically lives in pods of between three and 12 individuals, is known for its friendly character and curiosity about humans, and is often seen playing in the surf or swimming in the wake of a boat. Other species recorded include the spinner dolphin (Stenella longirostrisis) and common dolphin (Delphinus delphis), both of which frequently move in schools of several hundred, and five species of sperm and beaked whales.
The Somali coast is one of the last few strongholds for the dugong (Dugong dugon), a bulky (up to 1,000kg) marine mammal that feeds mainly on sea grass and is placed alongside the manatee of the Atlantic Ocean in the family Sirinia, whose closest terrestrial relatives are elephants and hyraxes. The name Sirinia, a reference to the sirens of Greek legend, has been given to this family of marine animals because they are considered the most likely source of the mermaid myth. Dugongs have suffered a drastic population decrease in the past few decades, probably because so many are trapped in fishing nets. IUCN listed as ‘Vulnerable’, the dugong is now threatened with extinction except in the seas around northern Australia and the Arabian Gulf.
TURTLES The Somali coastline is globally important to the survival of marine turtles – representatives of conservative reptilian lineage that first appeared in the fossil record more than 100 million years ago and evolved into distinctive modern genera some 60 million years back. Marine turtles remained common to abundant throughout their natural range until the late 19th century, when the combination of hunting (for food, skin, and ‘tortoiseshell’, the latter once an important item of trade off the Somali coast), accidental trapping, habitat destruction and pollution resulted in a serious decline in numbers. Indeed, of the seven recognized species, all but one is listed on the IUCN Red Data List, with eventual extinction being a distinct possibility for three ‘Critically Endangered’ species. At least four marine turtles are resident or regular visitors to the Somali coast, namely green turtle (Chelonia mydas), hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata), loggerhead (Caretta caretta) and olive ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea), and several breeding sites were uncovered in a marine survey of the coast east of Berbera in 1999.
The life cycle of marine turtles is unusual. Their full life span remains a matter of speculation, but most species reach sexual maturity in their 20s or later, and many individuals probably live for longer than a century. During breeding season male and female turtles converge off shore to mate. Once the eggs are ready, usually on a moonlit night, the female crawls onto the beach to dig a 50cm-deep hole, lays up to 120 eggs and covers them with sand, leaving them to hatch about two months later. Oddly, water temperature affects the sex of the hatchlings – a balance between male and female is to be expected at 28°C, but males will predominate in cooler waters, and females in warmer water.
FISH It is unknown how many fish species occur off the Somali coast, but a short survey in 1999 identified 135 reef-associated species in the vicinity of Berbera alone, and the likely figure exceeds 1,000. For visitors, the most interesting marine fish fall into three broad categories. Most prolific are a kaleidoscopic miscellany of colorful reef fish, several dozen of which might be encountered on a single snorkelling or diving session. Less numerous, but arguably more exciting, are cartilaginous marine giants such as sharks and rays (article giants of the ocean), several species of which occur along the Somali coast. Finally, there are the game fish – marlins, sailfish, barracuda and such – that attract dedicated fishermen.
The coral reefs off the shore of Somaliland are spectacular multi-hued natural aquaria which form the focal point of most diving and snorkelling excursions. When exploring these reefs, one visual sweep of your surrounds might reveal a selection of a dozen or more species, whose memorable names reflect an extraordinary range of shapes and colours. There are the closely related devil’s firefish and red lionfish, whose gaudy pattern and poisonous spines give them the appearance of psychedelic marine porcupines. Other memorable genera and species include the brilliantly colourful sweet-lips, angelfishes, butterfly fishes and wrasses, the predatory honeycomb eel and scalloped hammerhead, and the elongated needlefish and outsized rock cods. Snorkellers and divers may also encounter several of the region’s species of stingray, most of which have a ‘wingspan’ of around 75cm to 1.5m and tend to swim close to the sandy ocean floor.
OTHER MARINE CREATURES The oceanic waters off Somaliland support a diversity of invertebrate species more remarkable even than its fish. For instance, coral, contrary to its rocklike appearance, is an organic entity comprising the limestone exoskeleton of colonial polyps that are related to sea anemones and feed mainly on photosynthetic algae, which thrive at a depth of up to 15m in warm aerated water along the continental shelf. One single reef might be composed of more than 50 different coral species, and as you examine the reefs closely, you see it is studded with sea anemones – spiky predatory polyps that often possess a nasty sting. There are also thousands of sea molluscs, crustaceans and other creatures with shells or exoskeletons, among them crabs and crayfish, and rock-loving invertebrates such as mussels, oysters, barnacles and periwinkles, which are often associated with intertidal rock pools.