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Principal Vegetation Zones

From one corner of the West African sub-region to the other, different types of
vegetation are encountered. The vegetation map below shows the general
distribution pattern of vegetation in the sub-region.

The general characteristics of the vegetation show that the distribution pattern
correlates closely with rainfall distribution. The pattern consists of a southern band of
forest near the coast and broad bands of savanna which get progressively drier
going northwards until finally the Sahara desert is reached. Second, the boundaries
of these bands of vegetation run approximately parallel with the equator.
These bands of vegetation are by no means homogenous, but have many variants in
each type. For example, in the forest there are areas of swamp forest where the
ground is waterlogged. Similarly, in the savanna are fringing forests of tall trees
along the banks of rivers (riverine forests), and there is the tendency for low-lying
areas of savanna, which are sometimes flooded, to have a different type of
vegetation from the highland areas.
Minor vegetation types
Apart from the major vegetation types mentioned above, the West African vegetation
shows a number of minor types. These include:

coastal vegetation found as a narrow strip along the coast. Even with the
coastal vegetation, there are different types the strand vegetation of the
sea-shore, the mangrove vegetation of the lagoons and the algal vegetation
found between tide marks.

montane vegetation found on higher mountains such as on the Cameroon


Zonation of the West African Savanna

An examination of the many vegetation maps produced to show the broad
distribution of vegetation types in West Africa, indicates that there is general
agreement concerning the existence of broad zones of vegetation running
approximately parallel with the equator. The forest vegetation consists of the
rainforest predominantly in the south, the semi-deciduous forest which is much
inland and lies between the forest and savanna. The savanna is followed by a much
drier vegetation types of semi-desert and desert. Each of these vegetation groups
may have variations in formation and composition. The savanna vegetation is
subdivided into three, from south to north, the guinea savanna, sudan savanna and
sahel savanna types. In fact, the boundaries of these vegetation zones are not
abrupt but grade imperceptibly into each other. For example, the upper boundaries
of the guinea savanna grades gradually to enter the lower borders of the sudan
savanna and that in turn grades into the sahel which also grades into the desert
Besides the three main types of savanna vegetation can be recognized a fourth, the
derived savanna which is a region of formerly high forest but which the original tall
trees have now been destroyed and replaced by the invasion of guinea savanna
species. The boundary between the derived savanna and the forest is never a clear
continuum. It has either the appearance of forest containing clearings of savanna or
else savanna with clumps of forest trees, as one passes northwards from the true
forest to savanna
The rainforest
The vegetation structure of the tropical rain forest consists of five layers (storey, tiers
or strata), the three highest of which are trees. The general appearance indicates
that the first or uppermost storey (sometimes also called the A stratum) is a
discontinuous layer of tall trees called emergents - so called because they seem to
rise above the general level of the forest. The emergents are between 40-50m high
or sometime higher.
The second storey or B stratum consists of tall trees of about 18-30m high and forms
a continuous canopy. The crowns of these trees are generally deeper than wide and
so differ from those of the emergents. The trees of this layer have long, slender
trunks and rounded crowns; the trunks frequently three times as long as the depth of
the crown.
The trees of the third storey or C stratum form a layer, about 4.5-18m in height, and
vary considerably in shape, although some have crowns which tend to taper
upwards in a conical fashion squeezing, as it were, between the crowns of the taller
trees. This is believed to be an adaptation of these trees to take maximum
advantage of the little light that penetrates through the upper canopies. Owing to
competition for sunlight, the third layer is discontinuous, becoming dense only where
there are breaks in the canopy. Such breaks could arise from disturbances caused
by fire, landslides and windthrows.
The fourth storey of vegetation is a layer of shrubs, small trees (saplings) including
immature canopy species, short palms and tree ferns. Also, because of competition

for sunlight, the shrub layer is often sparse, although shrubs grow quickly in any gap
in the forest. The fifth or ground layer consists of small herbaceous plants, low
shrubs including tree seedlings. A layer of dead leaves and twigs may cover the
forest floor itself. One feature of special note is the almost entire absence of grasses.
One or two species of broad-leaved grasses may occur and, of course, in wet places
there could be clumps of bamboo; but apart from these there is almost nothing in the
way of grass except where a clearing in the forest occurs. There is a common
perception that tropical rainforests are a tangled mass of dense vegetation. This
could only be true in areas of the forest where there is a gap and openings to allow
plentiful light. Generally, the low light beneath the canopy of an undisturbed
rainforest would not support dense growth of vegetation and the understory is quite
There are also numerous climbing plants, particularly woody climbers, or lianes.
Some of these are thin as wire or rope, whilst others have a diameter of up to 30cm
or more. Many lianas reach up to the canopy and grow from tree to tree, attaining
lengths of several metres. There are also epiphytes, plants which grow attached to
the branches of other trees.
Guinea savanna
The Guinea savanna is a relatively more moist with a considerable cover of broadleaved trees. Rainfall is between 900 and 1500mm per annum, nearly all falling
within 7-8 months of the year. The broad-leaved trees here are between 12-15m
high and form in some places an almost closed canopy of branches. They lose their
leaves for only a short period in the year. Fire is a factor of the greatest importance
in this savanna type as its effects are greatest here than any other savanna type.
Thus some of the commonest trees such as Afzelia africana (Papao), Vitellaria
paradoxa (shea butter tree), Parkia clappertoniana (dawadawa tree), Adansonia
digitata (baobab tree) and Lophira lanceolata are fire-resistant and have thick barks.
The grasses of the guinea zone are tall (1.53m high), tussocky and fire-resistant.
They include species of the genera Andropogon and Pennisetum (elephant grass).
Sudan savanna
Found north of the guinea savanna, is the sudan savanna which has reduced tree
cover and fewer broad-leaved trees. It covers a greater part of such countries as
Burkina Faso, and Mali and lies in the region which has approximate annual rainfall
of 600-900mm but nevertheless endures a severe and prolonged dry season of
approximately seven months from October to April.
Despite its lower rainfall, the sudan zone is much more heavily populated than the
guinea zone. Consequently, it is much more intensively cultivated for such crops as
millet, guinea corn and yams. It also supports large numbers of cattle and other
domestic animals.
The grasses of the sudan zone are not so tall as in the guinea zone. They are often
of a feathery appearance and do not grow until the approach of the rains. Fire is less
important in this zone.

Sahel savanna
Further north still is the sahel savanna which has an annual rainfall of roughly 250600mm. The dry season here is even more intense than that found in the sudan
vegetation zone.
It possesses small thorny trees with narrow leaves, the broad-leaved trees being
more or less absent.
The grasses found here are sparse and less than 1m tall, consequently burning
where it occurs, is not fierce and is therefore of much less ecological importance.
Where local and especially favourable soil factors are present, the vegetation may
be completely changed.
What Factors Account for the Zonation of West African Vegetation?
In West Africa, variation in temperature is minimal throughout the year. Diurnal
temperature range (daily maximum minus daily minimum) is greater than the annual
range (maximum of the year minimum of the year). There are therefore no
seasonal effects and therefore no vegetational zonation solely due to temperature
variation can be contemplated.
The zones of vegetation in West Africa, however, can be approximately correlated
positively with the pattern of rainfall distribution. Thus, the higher rainfall is generally
found near the coast where the forest occurs, though there are some low rainfall
areas near the coast, such as the Accra plains of Ghana, where the rainfall is only
about 760mm per annum and the vegetation is savanna. As a rule, the rainfall
progressively decreases through the savanna areas and finally is very low when the
desert is reached.
Exceptions to the above
There are exceptions to this generalization, in that:
There are areas where the vegetation cannot be correlated exactly with
rainfall. Thus Kaduna in the savanna belt of Nigeria has a higher rainfall
(1270mm/year) than Ibadan in the forest much further south (1120mm/year);

There are other vegetation types owing their existence to altitudinal

differences rather than rainfall differences. A drop in temperature occurs as
altitude increases, and this is at least partly responsible for the zones

Another exception is the coastal vegetation, where it is undoubtedly the saline

conditions and other coastal factors, which are responsible for the type of
vegetation found there.